Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, DACVB
The popularity of cats as indoor pets is largely due to the invention of the litter box in the 1950’s. Domestic cats, descendants of a small wild cat native to northern Africa (Felis lybica), naturally eliminate in loose soil or sand and mark vertical targets like a tree trunk. When you to stop to think about it, it’s really not normal for cats to use litter boxes at all. Cats who choose to void in litter boxes are doing us a favor. They tend to select litter boxes because it’s the next best thing to sand or soil back in their not too ancient past.
It’s our job to make sure that the litter boxes are consistent with their preferences; in other words, your cat’s preference for box location, hygiene, filler type, and box type is what’s most important because they’re the ones that have to use it. Individual cats have individual preferences, but if they could they would tell us they’d like clean, uncovered boxes placed in quiet corners and filled with soft sand clumping litter.
Kittens and the Litter Box
Tiny kittens must be intimidated by the walls of an adult sized litter box. You could place something that can act as a step up into the big box or you could really think outside the box! Maybe your kitten’s first litter box is a big plastic container with low sides, an old casserole dish or an aluminum foil roasting pan. Gently place the kitten in the clean litter tray soon after each meal and nap, and dig into the top layer of the sand to give her the idea. Kittens usually learn litter box use very quickly. The best teacher is the mama cat. Some orphaned or feral kittens or kittens raised alone are slower to catch on, so be patient. Don’t hover or disturb your cat while she’s using the box. Praise her softly for using the box from a few feet away.
Choice of Litter Box and Filler
These days, there are high sided or low sided, small or jumbo, covered or uncovered, and even self-scooping boxes. There are boxes that the cat enters from the side with stairs, through a front entry, and even from the top. Boxes can be rectangular, round or triangular to fit into corners. Regardless of your preference the best box is the one your cat will use. Do keep in mind that a box can be too small but it can never be too big. Some cats are frightened by self-cleaning boxes even when there is a delayed trigger of the motor. You may like the idea of a covered box that keeps in odors, but your cat might not if you don’t also keep it scooped clean. Your cat might refuse to use a box that is scented with a commercial fragrance.
Litter filler comes in clumping sand; regular clay; recycled newspaper; corn, grain or wood based; crystals that absorb odor, and more. There is even a lightweight clumping sand that is appreciated by those of us who are tired of lugging heavy litter buckets or jugs. Given a choice most cats will prefer a soft sand or clay with no fragrance, but you might get lucky and both agree on your preference.
Litter box failure must not be viewed as acts of malice or revenge; these are human tendencies, cats are above that. Elimination is a normal form of territorial marking in cats and in most animals. Cats can mark with urine or stool. Territorial conflict with another housemate, the introduction of a new pet, moving to a new home, and a variety of social factors can trigger marking behaviors in susceptible cats.
Territorial conflict between housemates can occur at the litter box location. The bully cat may wait there in ambush; this inhibits the victim cat’s return to this litter location. As tension rises, so does house soiling risk. An important rule of thumb is to provide a minimum of one litter box plus one for every cat in your home. This means that even a single pet cat should have a choice of two litter boxes.
Place at least one box on every floor for easy access by an aging or sick cat, and an alternative for a cat who is being harassed by others near another litter location. Position boxes in quiet corners of your home and observe which boxes attract the most use. Cats can never have too many litter boxes, but they can have too few. Some cats simply prefer to urinate in one location and defecate in an entirely different location. If there is only one box, or two boxes in one location, the cat who prefers to use an alternate spot has a problem, and so do you.
Causes of Elimination Outside the Litter Box
The first thing to do if your cat fails to use the litter box is to make sure there is no obvious reason it chose not to. For instance, did the door close and block access to the only box in the house? Was your new puppy blocking passage to the box? As many as 13% of pet cats will urinate out of their boxes at some point in their lives. Cats fail to urinate in the litter box for a variety of reasons. Litter box hygiene can deter even the most devoted cat. Each cat has an individual level of tolerance to the accumulation of waste in any given litter box. One cat might continue to use a dirty box that is only cleaned once a week, while a housemate might refuse to enter a box that has been used just once.
If there is no obvious reason for litter box failure, your next decision should be to bring your pet to the veterinarian right away. Urinary tract infections, bladder crystals or blockages are often associated with failure to use the box, and so are constipation or diarrhea from many causes. Cats who are ill or have arthritis, for example, may not make it to the box at the other end of the house or 2 flights of stairs away. Any illness can be associated with a lapse in litter training. It is essential to consult your veterinarian the moment that inappropriate elimination is noted so that medical problems can be detected and treated.
Cats mark with urine from both a crouching or standing posture. Cats who mark with urine may use either or both positions. Urine deposited from a standing position is called spraying. Urine spraying is seen in both males and females, and in both neutered or sexually intact cats of either gender, but is more typical of male cats. Urine marking is a big part of sexual advertising in cats, but sexual hormones are not the only factors that instigate urine marking. Social stress, for instance, puts cats at risk to skip the litter box. Although neutering has an immediate and permanent effect on sex hormones in circulation, inappropriate urination can continue or even emerge long after neutering. Neutering may reduce urine marking, but help from a veterinary behaviorist may be required to resolve it completely. The longer inappropriate urination persists, the more challenging it may be to resolve so get help quickly.
Separation anxiety syndrome exists in cats, and the most common signs include inappropriate urination and defecation. Remember, your cat is not punishing you for leaving him behind when you go on vacation. He just misses you and is trying to cope by marking the territory he loves to share with you.
Defecation outside the litter box can be intentional, but it can also be unintentional. Long-haired cats, such as domestic longhaired cats and Persians, have long, soft hair on their tails, the back of their legs, and even their feet. Fecal balls can adhere to the hair and finally drop off at a distance from the box. Pet groomers or veterinary technicians can trim the long hair. Periodic grooming is a simple step to prevent accidental tracking of fecal balls outside the litter box.
A Final Word
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your cats use the box and everyone is happy, don’t change a thing. Avoid the temptation of trying a different litter filler. Replace an old box with a similar one, or introduce a new one before discarding the old one to make sure your cats will accept it. Change is stressful, and stressed cats might reject the change you impose in their world.
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz is a board certified veterinary behaviorist and founder of www.CivilizedPet.com. If you need help with a misbehaving pet, please visit www.petbehavior.org.
© Dr. Stefanie Schwartz for www.CivilizedPet.com 2019