It can be extremely frustrating when your cat stops using her litter box. Suddenly everything in your home can become a potential target of urine. Litter box aversion is the most common problem clients call me about and in many cases those clients are at the end of their ropes. Nothing sends a cat to the shelter faster than a litter box issue. Sadly, many of the cats relinquished to shelters, abandoned, or euthanized due to litter box problems could've been helped. Litter box problems cause owners to react emotionally and sometimes irrationally. The sight or smell of cat pee on a cherished sofa or an expensive carpet can easily short-circuit a person's patience.
Harmful Mistakes Owners Make
· Waiting too long to do something about it. I can't tell you how many times owners call me and request an immediate consultation because they're planning on taking the cat to the shelter within days. The problem has usually been going on for weeks, months, and maybe even years and then the owner reaches the breaking point. The longer a problem goes on, the harder it is to correct. Don't wait.
· Assuming the problem is behavioral. Many behavior problems have underlying medical causes. Many cats suffer in pain because an owner assumes the cause of the litter box aversion is due to a behavior problem when in fact, it might be due to lower urinary tract disease, renal failure, diabetes, or any number of medical issues. Whenever a cat displays a change in behavior you should have her checked out by the veterinarian.
· Punishment. This is so counter-productive it's heartbreaking. Rubbing your cat's nose in her mess, spanking, yelling, time-out, or any other form of punishment does nothing to help retrain her, and in fact, can make the situation worse. If your cat is peeing outside of the litter box she is doing it because she feels she has no other option. If you punish her for it you add to her stress, potentially creating an added fear of you in the process, and she may start retaining her urine (which is medically harmful) for as long as she can out of fear of being punished. Hitting a cat is also inhumane and harmful to the behavior modification process. Your hands should never be used as weapons. How can you ever expect your cat to trust you if she doesn't know whether the hand coming near her is going to pet her or hit her? Fear, intimidation, and pain are not appropriate behavior modification tools. Don't let your frustration over a behavior problem get the best of you because your relationship with your cat will suffer.
· Not finding the true cause. Animals don't repeat behaviors unless they serve a function. If kitty is eliminating outside of the litter box there's a valid reason for it. The reason is certainly not an acceptable one from the owner's point of view but the cat is trying to solve a problem in the best way she knows how. Let's look at a couple of examples: Perhaps she's eliminating outside of the box because it's too dirty. While you may think that scooping the box once every day or so is adequate, your cat may not feel it's clean enough. She may eliminate in other areas of the house because they're cleaner. Maybe she's peeing in the dining room because every time she tries to go into the litter box she gets ambushed by a companion cat. Perhaps the dining room offers her more escape potential because she can see her opponent approaching from a distance and has more places to run. You may have set up a litter box that's very private but in the cat's mind the privacy limits her ability to feel safe. Another example may be that the box is located in an unappealing location. Perhaps it's in a basement where she has to go up and down the stairs. There are numerous other reasons your cat may feel it's necessary to choose an alternate location to the litter box. If you just set up deterrents without getting to the source of the problem she'll just keep looking for other locations.
· Being inconsistent. Cats are creatures of habit and they take comfort in knowing that things in their environment aren't going to be changing on a daily basis. Whether it's your desire to switch to a different brand of litter, the fact that you love rearranging the furniture, or the irresistible urge to buy the cat food that's on sale this week, sudden change is upsetting to cats. I had a client once who couldn't decide where he wanted the litter box located in his house so he moved it every day as an experiment. The experiment ended in disaster because his cat couldn't possibly keep up with the daily disappearing act. Introduce changes in your cat's life in a gradual way. If you want to switch litter brands do it slowly by adding a little of the new litter into the current brand and then increasing the amount over the course of a few days. When introducing a second cat into the household do it gradually so both cats get a chance to adjust. Cats don't want to be taken by surprise.
For more help with correcting a cat's behavior problem, refer to the book Starting from Scratch.
Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, PCBC is a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC.