COMMUNITY VETERINARY GROUP
1500 East Boston Post Road o Mamaroneck, NY 10543
Judith S. Johnessee, MS, DVM
Diplomate, American College of
Veterinary International Medicine
LITTER BOX PROBLEMS
One of the most commonly reported behavioral problems in cats is inappropriate urination or defecation -- that is, using some other surface for elimination rather than the one provided by the owner. This results in many animals being-presented for euthanasia as living with this problem can be extremely difficult for the owner. Fortunately, with a little detective work and some easy changes, many cases can be nipped in the bud. The following discussion presupposes that underlying medical problems have been ruled out, as has territorial marking with urine which usually occurs when a cat backs up and deposits urine on a vertical surface.
One of the first misconceptions to throw out is that this behavior is spiteful. Inappropriate urination may indeed be spiteful, a form of territorial marking by a cat which perceives a new person in the house as a threat, but these cases are quite rare. It is much more common for the cat to eliminate elsewhere because the box is not up to the cat's cleanliness standards. Cats have fifteen billion more olfactory receptors than humans. This is a degree of olfactory sensitivity that is almost impossible for us to comprehend, but the bottom line is that if you can smell your cat's box at all, then to your cat the box must reek -- about the same level of disgust you would have if you were asked to use a very full and very dirty Port-A-John. As one of the least desirable pet-associated chores is usually changing the box, this is one of the most common problems. Most owners simply scoop out the stool every day and only change the box weekly or semiweekly. Unfortunately, the urine which settles in the bottom is intolerably odorous to the poor cat forced to use the box.
If you use clay litter, put only about one-half to one inch of litter in the bottom and throw it out completely every day. If you use clumping litter, fill the box deep enough that urine does not reach the bottom of the box, and scoop it out twice a day. Keeping an airtight, lidded container next to the litter box into which you can dump the soiled litter may make the task easier so that the box stays cleaner. Avoid using scented litters as cats generally do not like the deodorants added and avoid using strongly scented cleaners when you clean the box and the walls and floor around the box. Your efforts to keep the area clean may be acting as a repellent if the odor is actually a deterrent to your cat.
There have actually been some studies done on which litter most cats prefer, but you must remember that trial and error may be necessary to see what works best for your cat. In general, plain unscented clay is a good choice, although the new clumping litters like Evergreen were preferred by many cats. A new clumping litter made out of wheat chaff called Swheat Scoop is an excellent product with good odor control and excellent clumping properties which can be obtained in pet stores or which can be ordered direct from the company(1-800-794-3287/ 1-800-258-7148). These litters do tend to track outside the box, so I found that setting the box on top of a large metal tray such as the one you would place inside a dog crate helps catch the extra litter dust. It is certainly easier than cleaning the rug! The larger particles in Yesterday's News and cedar and wood chips are generally distasteful to cats as is playbox sand. In some refractory cases potting soil or garden loam may work although extremely inconvenient to obtain. Used. kitty litter should be put into the garbage and never be put in a compost t)pile because of the risk of transmission of Toxoplasmosis.
Another common client error is putting a top on the box to control dust and odor. All this does is hold the odor in and make the box into a small, dark, dirty, smelly, and probably physically uncomfortable elimination area. The top may bend the tail at the base which is where many cats have arthritis and the top may be too low for many larger cats, You are much better off just keeping the box clean.
The box should be placed in a relatively private spot, away from major traffic areas and shielded from disturbance by small children and dogs. However, many cat owners place the box in the basement where it is not only out of sight and out of mind, but it also is inconvenient to keep clean. Additionally, as the cat gets older, stairs may become a problem, and if you have a geriatric cat which sleeps in your upstairs bedroom and drinks a lot of water because of marginal kidneys and has a little arthritis to boot, do not be surprised if going down two flights of stairs is enough of an obstacle that going in that closet or in that nice planter is a more realistic alternative. Can you imagine yourself going up and down two flights of steps every time you have to go when you are ninety years old and using a cane?
Hopefully, implementing these few suggestions will eliminate your cat's elimination problems. If not, animal behaviorists have made great strides dealing with this problem. Ask us for a referral to one. The more quickly this problem is addressed, the more successful the outcome.
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