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Posted on 06-17-2014

So, your cat isn’t using her litter box?

Read on for help….

First, all cat owners should know that up to 55% of cats that urinate outside the litter box have medical problems!!! 

These problems must be addressed before or during the steps you take to solve the resulting behavioral problems.  Your vet may advise more than one urinalysis, a urine culture, or other diagnostic tests to reveal complex medical issues, which may include:

Too Frequent Urination

  • Urinary calculi
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Renal problems

Urination or Defecation Outside of the Box

  • Feline Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD)
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
  • Feline Urological Symptoms (FUS)
  • Urinary calculi
  • Viral infections of the urinary tract
  • Funguria, or fungi in the urine
  • Idiopathic/interstitial cystitis
  • Urethral plugs, stones or strictures
  • Inherited/congenital disorders of the lower urinary tract
  • Neoplasia (cancer-like growths)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Mega-Colon
  • Colitis
  • Bacteruria
  • Loose or unusually smelly stool (conditions that may be caused by giardia, IBD, & numerous other medical conditions)
  • Polyps or other colon issues
  • Arthritis & joint problems
  • Occult abdominal pain, rectal pain, other pain associated with elimination
  • Polyuria (e.g., renal disease, diabetes)
  • Hyperthyroidism (a tumor of the thyroid that causes excess production of thyroid hormone)
  • Kidney or bladder stones
  • Abnormally sized/developed kidneys
  • Toe Amputation (a.k.a. “declawing”)

The most common medical issues that result in urination issues are urine crystals and occult bacterial pain and interstitial cystitis.  We see many cats with crystals in their urine.  Because crystals wax & wane (coming on often with stress) and don’t always show up on any ONE urine test; we recommend that, to rule out crystals definitively, you need to take your cat to a vet more than one time to have the urine checked.  Can’t say how many times a cat’s second (or subsequent) urinalysis was found to be PACKED with crystals, where just a week before—a test was found to be completely clear of them!

A Note on Stool…

Since constipation and hard stools are often a cause of elimination problems, examine your cat’s stool.  If you pick up a fresh stool with a tissue, and the tissue doesn’t cling to the stool, that’s an indication that the stool may be too hard.  The same is true of stool that emerges in balls or short segments rather than longer pieces.  If you want to try to improve the stool consistency, increase the moisture in your cat’s diet by adding some water to the canned you already feed your cat, making it a soupy mixture. 

Change the Cat’s Diet

If you currently feed your cat only dry food, consider adding wet food to her diet.  But you should consult with your vet before making any diet changes.  Vets can recommend other ways to soften stools or help cats become more regular.

Add Water

You can entice your cat to drink more water by providing filtered water fountains made especially for pets.  Placing water resources in an area separate from your cat’s food can also make water more appealing.  Instinctively, cats like to drink fresh water that isn’t contaminated with bacteria from “dead prey” (aka food!). 

No Punishment, No Reprimand

Hitting, kicking, or shouting at your cat may make her see you as a potential aggressor, causing the fight-or-flight response.  She may start attacking you because you are now associated with something negative. These practices are ineffective & inhumane.  Animals don't have the kind of brains that can connect the spot they soiled (often hours before!) with your anger & punishment, and what they are supposed to do instead.  Yelling at your cat is about as effective as yelling at a squirrel in your yard to not do something!

Also, punishment/reprimand may teach your cat a local, rather than generalized lesson, and she'll adopt what's called an "owner-absent" behavior. 

What Works:  Withdraw your attention or even your presence

Instead of scolding your cat when she displays bad behaviors, try leaving the room immediately. This technique has an excellent pedigree:  mother cat teaches her kittens what not to do precisely by withdrawing attention from them!  Over time, a cat will learn that when they misbehave, such as rough play or excessive meowing, much to their dismay you withdraw your attention from them and/or leave the room. 

Treat, Blockade & Reassociate the Soiled Areas

To stop your cat from eliminating where it has been, we need to make the soiled areas unattractive for soiling.  This involves a multi-step process for transforming those sites.

Summary of the Elements of an Effective CAT Plan

There are 3 ways to remedy cat behavior problems:  by changing their physical environment, by behavior modification techniques, and through pharmacology (medication).  The CAT plan is a refined, comprehensive holistic three-part treatment plan— two parts behavior techniques, and one part environmental change. It's as easy as "C.A.T.":

Cease the unwanted cat behavior— behavior modification and other techniques to eliminate the cause if a behavior or make the behavior or its location unattractive

Attract the cat to a Desirable behavior or location— behavior modification with a lot of positive reinforcement to make an alternative behavior more attractive

Transform the Territory— change the physical environment to make it more interesting/appealing 

**This simple technique for behavior modification will be the basis for all the feline behavior modification techniques in this blog series on feline behavior.

CAT Plan for inappropriate elimination

CEASE the unwanted behavior

STEP 1:  CLEAN THE SCENE

Nothing will undermine the CAT plan for unwanted elimination faster than residual stool or urine odors.   WHY?  When cats smell urine or feces, it’s a message to them:  THIS is a place to eliminate!  The more often they eliminate in the same place, the more ingrained the habit becomes & the more likely they’ll even develop a preference for the new location (and substrate). 

It doesn’t matter if YOU can’t smell anything; cats can smell at least 100 times better than a human can!  So- any place a cat has eliminated in the past, even if you don’t smell anything, should be cleaned with a good enzymatic cleaner (for reviews of enzymatic cleansers go to:  www.catwhispererproducts.com). 

In extreme cases, you may need to replace the soiled carpets or rugs and either replace or treat & seal the sub-flooring.

STEP 2:  IF THERE ARE MANY SOILED AREAS, YOU MAY WISH TO TEMPORARILY BLOCK YOUR CAT’S ACCESS TO SOME OF THEM UNTIL YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO CLEAN THEM.

The million-dollar technique is to reassociate ALL of the soiled areas with feline drives that conflict with soiling.  However, if there are many areas needing cleaned, you might opt to make some of the soiled areas inaccessible or unattractive by means of various barriers, including:  a plastic tarp over area, upside down plastic carpet runners with the pointy nubs side sticking up, aluminum foil, furniture, or even a waterproof mattress cover (to protect furniture).

STEP 3; REASSOCIATE THE SOILED AREA:  STAGE A HUNT

How often do you sleep in the kitchen?  Eat in the bathroom?  Sound strange to you?  But, that’s drive separation, and, just like us, cats associate certain activities with certain places and what should occur in them. 

Cats tend not to eliminate in the same areas where they carry out competing instinctual drives such as catching prey & eating.  Reassociating soiled areas with competing drives is an extremely successful technique.  If you do not reassociate the problem locations, they may very well remain a problem.

The single best way to activate the reassociation is to stage a hunt, complete with prey and even feasting, twice daily in the areas that were soiled.  This puts your cat’s hardwired survival instincts at the service of your goal—stopping the elimination in those areas.  The sooner you can start the reassociation after area cleaning (& drying!) the area, the better.

First, focus on the most heavily targeted areas.  Use barriers (or close doors) to temporarily close off other soiled areas.

NOW- for the hunt!  Get your wanded cat toy (interactive toy) and some favorite cat treats your cat is likely to eat right away.  With your cat, go to a recently soiled (now cleaned) area.  Go through a prey sequence (where you cat follows, stalks, pounces on the toy you’re playing with)—including offering the treats/food at the end - so they can effectively, “eat their prey”.  If your cat seems nervous about playing or eating in areas she’s soiled, that just goes to show you how strongly these behaviors compete.  To get her to play or eat in the soiled area, you might need to start the prey sequence in the general location, enticing her with the toy over to the soiled area to finish the sequence & eat.  It doesn’t matter if she eats the proffered treat, just leave it in the soiled spot and she may come back to it later.  If she doesn’t come back, move it just a few feet farther away from the soiled spot.   Spend 5-10 minutes doing the reassociation process at each soiled area, twice a day.

To get a head start on reassociating the soiled areas that you’re not able to get to right away, you can try leaving several pieces of kibble on paper plates and distribute the plates in or near the soiled areas.   Food in those locations, or the memory of food, will compete with the elimination drive & help to make it less likely that the cat will eliminate there.

This can take a few weeks, so be patient!

Now… to make the litterbox area more attractive for your feline…

ATTRACT & RETRAIN YOUR CAT BACK TO THE DESIRED ALTERNATIVE:  USING THE LITTER BOX

Make your litter box as attractive as possible:

  • Provide enough litter boxes.  During retraining, you need to set out at least one more litter box than the number of cats you have, and up to double the boxes compared to the number of cats. 
  • Put the boxes in suitable locations place the box in areas the cat can’t miss.  Boxes should be placed in such a way that when the cat walks into a room, there is no doubt the cat will immediately notice the box.  If you say to yourself, “I can’t put a box HERE, then for the best & fastest results, that is probably exactly where you should put one of the boxes, at least during the start of retraining.  Cats prefer to have a good vantage point while they eliminate.   If they are using the boxes for a couple of weeks, try slowly *inch by inch* moving the boxes to a more permanent location.  Remember, your cat may not like your choice of interior design, and you’ll have to put that box right on back to where it was, and try again - slower this time than the previous attempt/s. 
  • CLEAN- two scoops a day keeps the behaviorist away!  Insufficient cleanliness is one of the top reasons cats develop an aversion to the litter box and a habit for eliminating somewhere else.  Cats are revolted more than you are by dirty stinky nasty litter.  Just think about I - would you use a dirty toilet?!?

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