You’ve Got to Elim-i-nate the Negative: Thinking Outside Your Box to Get Cats into Theirs
We’re all mad here.
—Alice in Wonderland
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX IS AN ADMIRED TRAIT, OR AT LEAST so people claim. But the last thing we want to see is our cats getting creative with what Parisians, faced with very public human unzipping, call urine sauvage, or wild urine. (Lovers of the city of light will be happy to know that Paris now boasts, in response, a crack 88-member Brigade des Incivilités, or Bad Behavior Brigade.) I knew of a Siamese who urinated in anything with an opening: an empty laundry hamper, the kitchen sink, the recessed area of a stove top, the basket with the dog toys, the woodbox next to the fireplace—and finally, the owner’s purse. I’ve heard of cat owners finding unwelcome gifts from their cats inside shoes and coffee mugs. I once solved the curious case of a smelly toaster.
The feline instinct to dig into a substrate (which we humans hope will be the substrate in the litter box) and eliminate is so strong that kittens do it instinctively, without training. It’s been suggested the instinct comes from our cats’ wildcat ancestors, Felis silvestris, who have lived in the semideserts of North Africa for thousands of years. The sand-rich soil conditions there made it easy to bury feces and urine. Okay, you say, but why did they bother to do that? They probably did so both for reasons of hygiene and because reducing their scent around their resting and sleeping places made them less conspicuous to predators. Contrary to popular belief, though, cats do not always cover their feces; they rarely bother at all when their territory is large enough—witness feral cats—that their scats lay far from their sleeping and resting areas.
Some domestic cats should open housekeeping businesses: They will cover not only their own feces but any other feces they find in the box. It makes sense that this is a behavior that we would see in domestic cats, since cats that through the ages covered up were probably the ones more likely to be taken in by humans, who would have preferred having the more hygienic cats around and in their homes.
AN UNNECESSARY TRAGEDY
Unwanted elimination is a serious but preventable problem. Experts estimate that between 40 and 75 percent of all cats with behavioral problems have an elimination problem. It is the number one complaint of cat owners and the number one reason millions of cats are surrendered to shelters each year, and even killed. It’s crucial that owners get help for this unwanted behavior, because it is—believe it or not—not just one of the most distressing but one of the most easily solved.
Most of the circumstances that contribute to this problem are obvious enough that, with the advice in this chapter, you should be able to make the necessary changes to fix it yourself. I have helped thousands of cats over the years with their out-of-the-box issues. In the early days of my work as a behaviorist, I felt that in order to offer help I had to see the cat, the owner, where the litter boxes were kept, and the locations of the inappropriate urination or defecation. But over time I fine-tuned the forensic questions I asked my clients and perfected my behavior modification techniques to the point that I could almost always get cats using the box again without an on-site visit. Now I’ve refined my approach even further, so that in most cases you will need neither a house call nor a personal consultation with a behavioral expert. In this chapter, I will retrain you to make the changes needed for your cat’s happiness. Then we can just sit back and let the cats do what cats do.
CASE #1: And the Owner Called her Yum Yum
Let’s look at an example of a cat who, in the days of old, without the benefit of a particularly adoring owner, wouldn’t have had much of a chance of getting to stay in the hut.
The Problem: Defecation Outside the Litter Box for Four Years and Counting
Owner Stefan’s description of the problem (excerpted from a lengthy questionnaire):
I adopted Yum Yum as a kitten in 2004. In 2005 she started defecating outside the box, and then later on the living room carpet. Sometime after that, she developed an ongoing habit of running throughout the house dropping a bit of poop or two as she went. She also defecates on the fluffy bathroom rug, after which she turns the rug over. Oddly, she still urinates in the box just fine. The vet says there’s no medical reason for it.
I’ve tried spraying pheromones around the house in case the problem was stress related, but that didn’t help. I scoop her litter box at least three times a week.
When I met Yum Yum and Stefan at their Seattle apartment, I could see immediately that Stefan loved his cat and was doing his best to create an environment where she could thrive. A five-year-old gray-and-white Persian, she had every cat toy known to man and cat, numerous cat trees of every size situated all around the home, and cat perches in the window to maximize her bird-viewing pleasure. On Stefan’s big screen TV he’d even thoughtfully arranged for a viewing of a bird video made especially for cats. Stefan himself was very into shoes. His apartment floor looked like that of a shoe store during a big sale. Shoe boxes lined every wall of his apartment and stood, at odd angles, Stonehenge-like, in other seemingly random places throughout the home. As I later learned, he had placed them as barriers to the locations of Yum Yum’s fecal offerings because he thought they made it less likely she would return to do it again in the same spot—as cats are wont to do.
Yum Yum was extremely friendly. As soon as I stepped into Stefan’s foyer, she rubbed up against me, purring. She then ran straight over to one of her cat trees and batted at the pom-pom dangling down, glancing coyly back at me, or so I liked to imagine, as if she assumed I was there as a playdate the ever-attentive Stefan had arranged.
“I give Yum Yum everything a cat could want,” he began. “I don’t have any kids, so she’s it. This is a lifetime commitment, you know, so I could live with her pooping around the home for another fourteen-plus years.” He paused. “Of course, I’d rather not.”
Stefan added, “And what if I want to get married some day? Who’s going to live with me and my pooping cat?”
“You have a point,” I said. “Clients whose spouses dislike their pooping cats give me a chance to save more marriages than most marriage counselors.
“Okay. Let me ask you some questions,” I continued. “I always like to rule out any possible medical causes first. Have you ever taken Yum Yum to the vet to see if there is a physical explanation for her behavior?”
“Yes, before she was a year old, she sometimes had very dry, hard stools and wouldn’t go for days at a time. But the vet recommended I feed her wet food in addition to the dry food, so the stools are now normal-looking and happening every other day. He also prescribed a stool softener just in case.”
“Did he make any other kind of recommendations to resolve the problem?”
“When the change in diet and the stool softener didn’t help, he decided her defecation issue was behavioral. For a while he put her on an antidepressant, but it didn’t work and I don’t really like her to be on meds if it’s not necessary.”
I turned to the cat. “What do you think, Yum Yum?”
She shrugged. Well, I was in the box a long time ago once and I did the thing and I was like, ow, that really hurt, and I didn’t want to go there anymore, the hurting place, and then, like, I used the carpet over there, and that hurt, too, just like when I used the box, so I kept running around to different places, and finally it did stop hurting and so I just kept going outside the hurting-box, but I kept peeing in the box because that never hurt, you know, and—
“I think I understand at least a big part of the problem,” I told Stefan. “Yum Yum’s behavior,” I said, “had one sure cause and maybe a combination of two or three. So one other thing I need to know is, does she ever defecate right next to the box?”
He thought for a moment, picturing in his mind, I imagined, every location of his cat’s stool.
“She used to do that a lot, and I guess she still does a few times a week.”
“Okay, that might mean that the litter box has been too dirty. You’ve mentioned that you clean the litter box three times a week, but that’s just not often enough. And you should have at least two litter boxes. As for the other causes, let me explain.…”
The Diagnosis: Pain While Defecating and Habituation, and More
“First of all, it was premature to conclude that there wasn’t any medical reason for Yum Yum’s problems. The dry stool made defecating in the box uncomfortable and possibly even painful, and if you weren’t seeing any stool for several days at a time, that’s probably because she was constipated. Constipation is a normal consequence of having hard stools; the stools are so painful to expel that cats hold on to them. Even worse, the longer the cats hold the stool, the harder they can get! And constipation can cause elimination problems.”
Stefan looked a bit doubtful. “Even if she is no longer constipated?”
“Yes, because the pain she felt when she defecated in the box could have conditioned her to associate the box with that pain, which then caused her to develop a habit of defecating outside the box. Your description of her running around the house dropping feces sounds to me like a cat who was running away from pain—or from the box, because she thought the box itself was causing the pain she felt when she tried to defecate in it.”
So Yum Yum once had a health issue, the original cause, and that had probably turned into a behavioral habit. One not helped by the single, dirty litter box. Even if the health issue was now resolved, a habit, once established, often continues, despite the fact that the reason it developed in the first place no longer exists. However, given that Yum Yum was now having bowel movements only every other day, it sounded to me as though she might still be constipated or having problems with hard or dry stool. Generally, animals have at least one bowel movement a day. Outdoor cats may have as many as five, with an average of about three, though a diet of the newer, concentrated foods might reduce the number to less than one per day.1 I suggested that Stefan make another visit to the vet, who later confirmed my hunch and gave Stefan additional dietary advice, including how to increase the moisture content of Yum Yum’s stool, which helped to relieve her constipation.
After looking over the detailed questionnaire that Stefan had filled out, and talking to him for about an hour, I had everything I needed to know in order to prescribe the C.A.T. Plan for behavioral change that you’ll read about later in this chapter. I’ll spare you most of the other questions I asked Stefan in order to narrow down possible causes for the problem, but I address one of those questions in the next section.
Any stool that is not normal consistency, whether it’s hard stool, soft stool, or diarrhea, can be the original cause for defecation outside of the box. A cat with diarrhea may not even be able to make it to the litter box in time. Using the carpet instead, she discovers that it seems just fine, and—voilà!—a new habit or preference for the location and substrate is formed.
The pain of defecating through impacted or very full anal glands can cause cats to hold onto their stool longer. I’ve seen cats become terrified when it’s time to defecate. Their eyes dilate as part of a fear response, and their tails may lash with agitation. Some cats will even growl at their litter box. Cats also hold stool when tension between them expresses itself in territoriality over the litter boxes: A lower-ranking cat may stay away from the boxes and hold his stool. Holding stool can be both the result and cause of constipation and dry stools, and dry stools are of course also painful to eliminate.
If the anal glands are full or impacted, you will need to have a vet express them. In my experience, about 70 percent of all unwanted defecation is initially caused by cats having hard or dry stool, diarrhea, constipation, or anal gland issues. But even when the medical or other issues have been resolved, you may very well still have a cat with an habituated behavior—defecating in another place—and a negative association with defecating in the litter box, so you will need behavioral cures.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN INVITED TO A FECAL BALL?
The physical causes of misguided stooling are not limited to medical issues. A common problem with medium-to-long-haired cats like Yum Yum is that stool can get stuck on the long, soft hair on the backs of their legs, and under and around the tail. When such cats go too long between groomings or don’t manage to get in the right position during elimination, the fecal ball can get stuck and you may be witness to a furious feline flamenco, as the cat dashes helter-skelter, trying to get rid of its unwanted dance partner. Though this had not happened to Yum Yum, it’s not uncommon among long-haired cats like Persians and various domestic longhairs. I remember one client telling me about her orange-and-white tabby Persian tearing through the house like an orange creamsicle with a gargoyle latched onto it. Her husband had a different term for the mess he cleaned off the little guy as he squirmed in the sink. This “fecal ball” can be a horrific event for our fastidious feline friends (and their owners), and the afflicted cats may blame it all on the litter box where, so far as they can tell, the trouble began. Sometimes the bad association with the box will get a cat urinating around the home, too.
I recommend keeping the hair around the cat’s behind and back legs clipped short enough to prevent the problem. I also recommend having a professional groomer, your vet, or a veterinary technician do the job. Do not try grooming on your own without first being shown the correct way, or you risk cutting your cat’s skin, after which she may never allow you to clip or shave her again.
MADDENING MIDDENING, OR JUST A STOOL AWAY FROM HOME?
Sometimes a stool is not just a stool. Stools left around the walkways of the home or on a favored sofa or other elevated areas might be a form of marking done by your cat to delineate territory. This “middening,” which usually begins only when the cat enters into social maturity, is to simple defecation as spraying is to mere urination. Middening comes from a little-known English word that derives from the Old Norse term for a dunghill or manure pile.
If you type middening into a search engine, it will, maddeningly, try to correct your spelling. “Was it maddening you were looking for?” Just say no. The fact that the search engine thinks you can’t spell, and won’t give you much information on middening in any event, is an indication of how rare middening is, at least indoors (free-ranging outdoor cats midden as much as half the time, but in housecats it’s much rarer). But when it does happen, middening can be synonymous with maddening!
More dominant or confident cats may midden to send territorial messages. Middening is not only a strong visual signal, visible from a distance, but, because the anal sac secretions that lubricate feces are so foul smelling, it’s a very strong olfactory signal as well. Because cats who are middening are trying to send a message, they usually deposit their midden in very prominent locations so it’s not easily missed by other cats (aka the competition): in hallways or the frequently walked paths of household cats, near doorways leading outside or to favored rooms in the house, on elevated locations, and near other important pieces of real estate about which a cat may feel competitive. Cats may defecate (rather than mark) in these prominent listed locations as well, but it’s more common for them to defecate in less prominent locations like the corner of a dining room. Typically middening is done away from the core territory of the nesting area’s food and cat beds. However, a dominant cat who wants to deter other cats may even midden territorially in front of litter boxes or food bowls.
You’ll know your cat has tried to cover the stool if you find it buried in clothing or bed linens left on the floor, or if you see claw marks on the carpet near where he left the feces. Cats will not cover a stool if they’re leaving it for marking purposes. They want it to be seen! That said, there are some cats that don’t try to cover their defecation even when they are not intending it as a message. So when you find an uncovered stool by the front door, it can be difficult to know for sure what your cat’s intent was.
As far as Yum Yum was concerned, I had ruled out middening, in spite of the public displays she’d left around, because she was the only cat in the household and saw no other cat competition from her fourth-floor apartment, and she’d started defecating. Just outside of the box, and at one year of age, before she entered social maturity at around the age of two. In addition, her hard stool pointed to the likelihood of painful defecation. All of these factors made it very unlikely that her behavior was a form of territorial marking—as did the fact that she had tried to cover her stool with the bathroom rug.
Ultimately, it may be difficult to know for sure if your cat is middening or just defecating. Follow the C.A.T. Plan for Inappropriate Elimination, and if it doesn’t work, your cat could be middening. In that case, you’ll want to check the next chapter for additional techniques to address possible stressors in your cat’s life, including competition with other cats for important resources.
Now let’s look at a common scenario in the annals of unwanted urination, and then I’ll present the C.A.T. Plan for both defecation and urination issues.
CASE #2: The Basement Cat Habitat, and Other Human Mistakes
The Problem: Urinating in Multiple Areas Around the Home in a Multicat Household
Owner Franziska’s description of the problem (excerpted from a lengthy questionnaire):
Jelly Bean, Pasha, Nutella, and Helmut (all between two and three years old) get along perfectly about 95 percent of the time. They’ve been thoroughly checked out by the vet and have no medical issues.
Jelly Bean and Pasha started urinating outside the litter box when they were about two years old. At the advice of my vet, I have tried adding litter boxes and using different litters, but nothing has solved the problem. Please help! We are getting very close to leaving Jelly Bean and Pasha at a no-kill center. But this would be emotionally devastating!
I met Franziska at her home. “Oh, hi,” she said to me, “come on in—” and to one of the cats, “you get back in here!” Franziska herself was giving off serious stress pheromones—I could sense that immediately. One of the cats greeted me at the door and was all meows, flashing her sparkling green eyes at me.
“This is Jelly Bean,” Franziska said with a big sigh, “one of the urinators.”
“Since you have four cats, how do you know who the urinators are?” I asked, wanting to be sure that she had the right culprits.
“I isolated different cats to my master bedroom. Over time, it was easy to find out who the offenders were. I have also caught Pasha and Jelly Bean in the act many times.”
She went on. “Jelly Bean is the friendliest and sweetest cat otherwise, but she knows when she is being bad. If I walk into the room and she’s just urinated, she will slink off with a guilty look on her face.”
Cats don’t by nature think urination itself is a bad thing, but if you yell at them while they are doing it, they can learn that urinating around you is not a good idea. Cats lack the cognitive equipment for a true sense of shame, and you can’t feel guilty without a sense of shame. (I learned this not through my cat studies but by observation of an ex-husband.)
I asked to see where the cats had been eliminating, and, still agitated, Franziska began to walk me through the first level of her two-story home. There was not one cat toy, food bowl, or cat bed anywhere. The only sign that she owned cats was sleek, black Jelly Bean herself, weaving in and out of my legs as I walked.
“Wow,” said Franziska, watching her. “It’s been a long time since she did that trick. She used to do that every time I came home from work. Can I ever get her to like me again? I miss—” She let out a gasp and pointed to the couch.
“See!?” Jelly Bean and I both froze in our spots, our eyes wide. “A new urine spot on the couch!” At the sound of Franziska’s outraged yelp, Jelly Bean tore off and up the stairs. I could feel the empathetic urge to tear out with her.
CAT-PARENTING FAUX PAW: REPRIMANDING
People often admit to me that they’ve rubbed their cats’ noses in urine or smacked their cats. In so doing they’ve created in their cats a negative association with themselves, and possibly with the location of the punishment. What they haven’t done is stop the problem. A cat that avoids the owner when it’s time to eliminate may eliminate in hidden locations—which will eventually be discovered—or hold her urine, fearful of setting off more yelling or hitting. Holding urine is unhealthy for the urinary system and, ironically, can contribute to medical issues that cause unwanted urination.
“I’m sure you can get Jelly Bean to like you again,” I said. “Cats can be very forgiving, if you want to pretend they have the human idea of forgiveness. But you need to stop all that shouting immediately. Your reaction really scared Jelly Bean. As you’ve seen, it doesn’t work. But it does cause her to associate you with feelings of negativity and fear, which can damage the cat-human bond.”
Franziska assumed an authentically guilty look, but she recovered well enough. “I just cleaned this area yesterday and someone urinated here again,” she said. “I want to get a new couch but I’m afraid it will get ruined, too.”
“We should get the behavior under control before bringing in a new couch,” I agreed.
She pointed to the table in the breakfast nook, where she had displayed her English teacup collection on saucers neatly arranged around the table. “One day I invited my mother-in-law over to tea. We both went into the breakfast nook to sit down and I saw urine in her teacup! And Jelly Bean had tried to cover it up with a lace doily!”
I had to laugh. Franziska started laughing, too.
“What did you do?” I said.
“Why, I snatched it right out from under her nose! Said I’d seen a fly on it.”
Franziska then took me on a sort of Magical Mystery Tour to show me all the other places Jelly Bean and Pasha had been urinating. There were many places, but the cats seemed to concentrate on the carpet in the corners of the bedrooms. Less frequently strafed were the bed and things left on the floor, like magazines, plastic bags, and paper. “The items are always tousled and scratched on, right down to claw marks in the carpet next to the urine.” She’d now mentioned for the second time the cover-up attempts, which, along with the locations and impersonal nature of the targets, were good clues that the cats were not marking with their urine but eliminating.
Next I asked Franziska where the litter boxes were.
“Right this way!” she said. “I gave the cats their own finished basement for their main habitat. All their litter boxes, toys, food, and water are down there,” she said with pride.
Here was another clue. I walked down the stairs to see it for myself. The light coming through the basement windows was dim. She had to turn on a light so we could see the five litter boxes lined up on one wall. A few feet away were the food and water bowls. Dispersed throughout the rest of the basement were cat trees and cat beds, toys, play mats, and even tunnels.
The other three cats were there, too: Nutella, Pasha, and Helmut. Helmut was perched on a cat tree, looming over the litter boxes. Nutella lounged on an ottoman located directly on the path from the basement door to the litter boxes.
“You wrote that you thought your cats got along about ninety-five percent of the time,” I said. “What about the rest of the time?”
“Someone will hiss or growl at someone else, or someone will go a little too far when chasing somebody, until somebody becomes upset. It happens quite a bit on the stairs into the basement, but they were fine up until six months ago.”
After some more questioning, I’d heard enough. If you’ve read Chapter 3, on cats’ territoriality, and Chapter 5, on creating a proper feline environment, you will have already spotted many of the issues.
THE DIAGNOSIS: COMPETITION FORRESOURCES, TERRITORIAL CONFLICT, UNATTRACTIVE ELIMINATION AREAS, AND MORE
Franziska’s cats were most likely suffering from any or all of the following problems, any one of which could have caused the inappropriate elimination all by itself.
• a cat habitat consisting of all the key resources—litter boxes, food, prey targets, and other toys—crowded into one room, which created competition among the cats
• the cats’ recent social maturity—they were all between two and three years old when I met them—and the resulting territorial behaviors
• too few pathways leading to key resources—only one set of stairs to the basement, and only a couple possible routes within the room, which were closely guarded by Nutella and Helmut, who were clearly deterring Jelly Bean and Pasha from using the basement litter boxes
• boxes too close to allow the cats to separate two drives—urination and defecation—that many cats instinctively want to keep separate
• boxes too close to the eating area, which cats like to keep separate from their elimination area
• inadequate lighting in the litter box area
• dirty litter boxes, since they were cleaned only once a day, in spite of the fact that the cats probably used some boxes more than others
Let’s look at a few of the main potential causes.
Only One Location? But I Want to PeeHere, I Want to Do the Other ThingThere
If litter boxes are all lined up next to each other in one location, they appear to the cats as one box. Each cat then perceives the resources as being limited, and will feel more territorial. Yowl! The seemingly unitary grouping of boxes may also conflict with the feline instinct to separate urination and defecation behaviors.
Sure, one box is okay for number two, but where am I going to go for number one? Hey, this Tibetan rug works like a charm!
Increased Aggression: Another Result of Excessive Competition for Resources and Difficulty Time-sharing
I knew the other cats weren’t happy with the overcrowded cat habitat. Dominant cats like Helmut and Nutella may deter cats like Pasha and Jelly Bean from resources in cat habitats because they do not enjoy sharing limited resources. A cat habitat can actually increase territorial behavior. Forcing the cats to share resources all in one location may have also caused the swatting and hissing that Franziska didn’t seem to think was a problem. If she was seeing tension 5 percent of the time, you can be sure there was social tension at other times that was just too subtle for the average cat owner to see. There’s often more to a sitting cat than meets the eye. Pasha and Jelly Bean may have tried to remedy the situation on their own by increasing their territorial resources, that is, by making themselves a litter box of their own upstairs, wherever it seemed safe and attractive at the moment (like that couch Franziska was so upset about).
A cat like Helmut may lie in wait for other cats and just stare to intimidate them away from an important resource. In Franziska’s household, there was only one entrance and exit to all the cats’ critical resources, and that was the stairway to the basement. And once downstairs, there were very few pathways to the litter boxes themselves—so few that they could effectively be guarded by Helmut and Nutella. Big mistake. Hallways, stairs, and narrow passageways are prime vantage points from which dominant cats can guard resources and bully other cats. Such problems are particularly likely to begin when cats enter social maturity, for this is the time when they start to look at their environment through a territory scope.
When cats are getting along, access to pathways may be on a first-come, first-served basis, having nothing to do with dominance! In fact, cats have been known to sit for a very long time, each waiting for the other to go first.
Cat 1: No, you.
Cat 2: No, I insist, you go first.
Cat 1: Only after you.
Toe Amputation—a Common Cause of Litterbox Aversion
Happily, Yum Yum and Franziska’s cats had all of their toes. But after a “declawing,” or amputation of the toes, cats suffer from ultra-sensitive paws—some for the rest of their lives. It should come as no surprise that the pain they experience may cause them to be turned off by many litter substrates and to begin searching the home for softer, smoother surfaces on which to eliminate—a practice that can then become habituated. The cat’s paws can be so sensitive that any type of litter substrate causes pain, so that the cat develops a negative association with the box itself, even after the pain subsides or disappears. Another problem is that in the immediate aftermath of a toe amputation procedure, people are typically instructed to provide paper pellet litter or shredded newspaper instead of sand litters so that the sand granules don’t get inside the cat’s toe incision (which can further traumatize or infect the paws). You might think this would prevent the pain problem described above. But paper-based litter gets soggy quickly, which cats do not like. So this, too, can become a possible cause of litter box aversion, and another reason that the cat may develop a habit of soiling in new locations and substrates around the home. I’ll talk more in Chapter 11 about the problem of amputation in cats.
MEDICAL ALERT: URINATION AND DEFECATION
Fifty-five percent of cats that urinate outside the litter box have medical problems.2 These problems must be addressed before or during the steps you take to solve the resulting behavioral problems. Not all medical causes can be found through a basic screening. Your vet may advise more than one urinalysis, a urine culture, or other diagnostic tests to reveal complex medical causes, which may include:
inherited/congenital disorders of the lower urinary tract
neoplasia (cancerlike growths)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
giardia or other intestinal parasites
loose or unusually smelly stool (conditions that may be caused by giardia, IBD, and numerous other medical conditions)
polyps or other colon issues
arthritis and joint problems
occult abdominal pain, rectal pain, other pain associated with defecation
polyuria (e.g., renal disease, diabetes)
hyperthyroidism (a tumor of the thyroid that causes excess production of thyroid hormone)
kidney or bladder stones or abnormally sized kidneys
The most common medical issues that result in urination issues are urine crystals and occult bacterial pain and interstitial cystitis. I see many cats with crystals in their urine. Because crystals wax and wane (often with stress) and don’t always show up in any one urine test, I recommend that, to rule out crystals, you take your cat to a vet more than once to have the urine checked. I can’t tell you how many times a cat’s second urinalysis was found to be packed with crystals, where just a week before, a test was completely clear of them.
C.A.T. Plan for Inappropriate Elimination
This C.A.T. Plan can be applied to problems with either defecation or urination—or both. I’ll explain it using the examples of Stefan and his cat Yum Yum, the defecator, and Franziska and her group of urinators and squabblers. In this plan, you must put in place the Cease, Attract, and Transform techniques simultaneously, so read the whole plan before beginning.
CEASE the Unwanted Cat Behavior
Since constipation and hard stools are often a cause of elimination problems, examine the 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 food 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.
You can entice a cat to drink more water by providing filtered water fountains made especially for cats. 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.” Your cat’s store-bought food is its dead prey; his survival instinct is one of the reasons he may enjoy drinking from your water glass or the sink more than from a water bowl next to his food bowl.
Treat, Blockade, and 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 multistep simultaneous process for transforming those sites.
STEP 1: CLEAN THE SCENE.
Nothing will undermine my C.A.T. Plan for unwanted elimination faster than residual urine or stool odor. 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 and the more likely that they’ll even develop a preference for the new substrate and location.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t smell anything. Cats can smell things our human noses can’t; less sensitive than dogs’ noses, cats’ noses are still at least one hundred times more sensitive than ours.4 So any place where a cat has eliminated in the past, regardless of whether you smell anything there, should be cleaned with a good cleaner. The more quickly you clean up the mess, the better the chance that your cat will not associate the area with urination or defecation. Also, the better the chance that a different cat will not find the soiled spot and decide to start eliminating there, too.
To remove all urine or stool odors, I recommend that you clean the soiled areas with an enzyme-based cleaner or an odor-bonding neutralizer. As of this writing there are a few that I particularly recommend for cleaning residual urine or stool odors.* For best results, don’t waste your time on just any pet store cleaner, nor on a homemade mixture. I have found time and time again that total removal of odor is a matter for serious chemistry. And definitely don’t use strong-smelling cleaners, such as bleach or ammonia, either. They could present a challenging new scent (not to mention that ammonia is a constituent of urine) and may compel your cat to return to urinate.
If there’s a chance that your cat is not simply urinating but urine marking, refer to Chapter 9 for additional instructions—and for additional insurance that you’re addressing the right problem.
URINATING VERSUS MARKING
The Great Cover-Up
The cover-up is a good way to identify mere urination. If you happen to see your cat pawing the urine site before or after, or you find a piece of laundry or paper pulled over the site, or you see rake marks in the carpet, he’s almost certainly just urinating outside of his box.
However, if your cat does not cover up, but leaves his urine for all to see, he could still be one of the cats who just don’t cover up their urine—and not a urine marker. Some cats simply do not have good covering habits, even in their litter box. But even a cat with good covering habits might feel that there was no good substrate to cover with, and therefore he won’t even try. Another possibility is that he might have gotten frightened by something and run off before he had a chance to finish covering. Such exceptions notwithstanding, in general, covering up versus not covering up can help you distinguish between marking and non-marking behaviors.
When a place has been soiled with urine over and over again, you may wish to try an effective carpet-infuser system to clean underneath the carpet. (Such systems use needlelike implements to inject enzyme cleaner deep into a carpet. In extreme cases, you may need to replace the soiled carpets or rugs and either replace or treat and 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 (as explained in Step 3). However, reassociation takes time—from applying the cleaning solution and waiting for it to dry to going through the reassociation steps. If there are a lot of soiled areas, you won’t be able to go through the reassociation process on all of the areas at the same time. Until you can get to them, you may want to temporarily make some of the soiled areas inaccessible or unattractive by means of various barriers. Few clients like barriers, but they are only temporary, and they will protect the area from the cat until reassociation can be done. Barriers and other minor deterrents for the cat include:
• a plastic tarp over the area
• upside-down plastic carpet runners with the pointy, uncomfortable side of the nubs facing up
• aluminum foil
• furniture or other large items
• scratching posts or pads (larger ones help block areas)
For barriers to protect furniture, consider:
• a large plastic drop cloth (from a paint supply store)—make sure it’s thick enough that a cat cannot easily chew on it
• a fitted waterproof mattress cover for the bed, and a plastic shower curtain liner on top of the sheets, blankets, pillows, and other bed coverings
• a sheet of heavy vinyl (from fabric stores)
TIP: STOPPING ELIMINATION IN THE BATHTUB OR SINK
For thirty days, fill the sink or tub with a couple of inches of water. For shower stalls, place at the base of the stall a cooking tray or plastic storable container with a water-soaked towel or an inch or two of water. (Obviously, if you have small children do not use this technique.) If there is a place nearby, or on the way to the sink or tub, where you won’t mind a litter box for the longer term, use it now to give your cat an alternative. You should also place a retraining litter in the boxes for at least thirty days.
Keep in mind that by themselves, barriers will probably not stop unwanted elimination. Cats often just find somewhere else to go, especially if the litter box situation hasn’t been made attractive. In fact, if you simply left the barriers in place and didn’t follow through with the reassociation process, you would actually prevent that place from being reassociated with activities other than urination or defecation. Putting up temporary barriers is a useful way only to buy some time until you can reassociate an area with activities that conflict with the unwanted behaviors.
CONVENTIONAL ADVICE ALERT
I do not recommend trying to deter cats from an area by using mint, which can make cats sick, or deodorant-scented soap, which can be toxic, even deadly. I also don’t recommend Scat-Mats or cacti (yes, I still see this recommended), both of which I consider to be inhumane.
STEP 3: REASSOCIATE THE SOILED AREA: STAGE A HUNT.
How often do you sleep in the kitchen? Or eat in the bathroom? Unless you’re an especially interesting person, I’m going to guess your answer is “never” or “very rarely.” Doing either one would just feel kind of weird, right? So you should understand the concept of drive separation, and the idea that cats form associations between places and the activities that are supposed to occur in those places.
Cats tend not to eliminate in the same areas where they carry out competing instinctual drives such as catching prey and eating. Not only is it unsanitary, but the strong smells of urine and stool could alert predators or competitors to their presence. Even a cat that lives alone in a Manhattan high-rise will typically, and instinctually, cover her stool and urine. If you help the cat to form competing associations in a location where it has formerly soiled, the habitual urge to eliminate will lose out to the other instinctual drives, and the place will no longer be attractive for elimination.
Reassociating soiled areas with competing drives is probably one of the least-known but most successful of the techniques I recommend. Because cats build associations (and very quickly!) and will remember what an area was used for, reassociation works best and delivers lasting results. If you do not reassociate the problem locations, however, they may very well remain a problem.
CONVENTIONAL ADVICE ALERT
You may hear advice to place new litter boxes at the location of the former soiling. I do not recommend this unless you don’t mind having a box in that location forever. Remember, we are trying to reassociate the soiled area with different, competing drives. If you put a litter box in the formerly soiled place, you are reinforcing your cat’s association: This place? Pee!
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 all elimination in those areas. The sooner you can start this after the soiling, the better—twenty-four to forty-eight hours being ideal (but never start it before you have done a complete cleaning of the area and allowed it to dry).
Complete instructions for performing a prey sequence with your cat can be found in Chapter 5. I’ll briefly summarize those instructions here, while focusing on a few new instructions that are specific to litter box issues.
Since you can play with and give treats to a cat only so many times in one day, and if there are simply too many soiled areas to try to reassociate at once, you should focus first on the most heavily targeted areas. Use temporary barriers to block off the other soiled areas (see Step 2) or shut the doors to the rooms where they are located, and then start the reassociation process with the blocked-off areas as soon as you can.
And now for the hunt: First, collect a wanded cat toy and some cat treats or food that you know your cat is likely to eat right away. With your cat, go to a recently soiled area (now cleaned). Then go through the complete prey sequence, including the offer of food at the end. It’s critical that you offer food in the same area where the soiling occurred. Doing so will help your cat reassociate the area where she eliminated with a different, conflicting behavior—hunting and eating. If your cat seems nervous about playing or eating in areas she’s soiled, that just goes to show you how strongly these behaviors can compete. (Or her fearfulness may be in response to having been punished in the soiled area, in which case the playtime will also be critical in rebuilding her confidence.) So in order to get her to play or eat in the soiled area, you may need to start the prey sequence in the general vicinity of the previously soiled area and gradually move her, and the food you leave, closer to the soiled area.
It doesn’t matter if your cat is not hungry before the hunt, or doesn’t eat the treats you offer afterward. If she doesn’t eat, leave the food in the soiled spot and she may come back to it later. If she doesn’t come back to it, move it a foot or so away from the soiled spot. Spend five to ten minutes or so doing the reassociation process at each soiled area, twice a day. While reducing the time you spend at each area is not the best course, a shorter time is better than nothing, and the food you leave in the soiled area will also help to form the desired association.
To get a headstart on reassociating the soiled areas that you’re not able to get to right away, you can try the following very simple technique: Leave several pieces of kibble on paper plates and distribute the plates in or near the soiled areas. Even without your performing a prey sequence, the food in those locations—or a memory of food—will compete with the elimination drive and make it less likely that the cat will eliminate there.
It can take a few weeks before you notice improvement, so be patient. If you have more than one soiler, play with only one soiler at a time so as not to create competition among your cats for the prey target. Many cats don’t like another cat to be nearby while they play.
By now you will have made huge strides in stopping the unwanted behavior. Meanwhile, by following the suggestions in the Attract section, you’ll be making the litter box a happy alternative for your cat. Remember, all parts of the plan—repelling the cat from the soiled areas as well as attracting the cat to the litter box—must happen simultaneously. Do not try to rely solely on transforming the litter box environment. Probably the biggest error I see in owners’ independent efforts to cure elimination issues is that of only adding litter boxes or trying different litters. You could deploy a dozen or more litter boxes all over the house and the cat might still perform the habituated behavior on the dining room carpet. The reason? If he has not formed any conflicting associations with the area, habit or preference may continue to make the carpet seem like a great place to eliminate.
ATTRACT and Retrain Your Cat Back to the Desired Alternative: Litter Boxes!
During the retraining process, you should make your cat’s litter box as attractive as possible. As Don Vito Corleone’s cat in The Godfather might put it, Make your cat an offer he can’t refuse. Here is a summary of adequate litter box resources, as well as actions specific to unwanted elimination. (For full information, see Chapter 5.)
You can tell that your cat doesn’t like the litter, or find it clean enough, if she perches on the edge of the box to do her business, scratches outside of it before or after, won’t put her paws in, does very little digging or covering, shakes her paws, tries to urinate or defecate just outside of or a few feet away from the box, or runs out quickly. A cat might also want to get in and out of the box fast, without doing any digging or covering, if she feels intimidated by another cat nearby, or has been pounced on while in or near the box.
Provide Enough Boxes
During retraining, you need to set out at least one more litter box than the number of cats you have, but sometimes I have my clients temporarily double that number so their cats simply can’t miss a box. No, that was not an extended typo. I said double. This is what Franziska did. It can be a big help.
Put the Boxes in Suitable Locations
In the beginning of a behavior plan to cure elimination issues, I like to have the boxes located in places that the cat can’t miss: not in high-traffic areas, but not in the far-off corners of your home either. Boxes should be placed in such a way that when the cat walks into a room, there is no doubt that he will immediately notice the box. If you say to yourself I can’t put a box here, then, for the absolute best and fastest results, that is probably where you should put one of the boxes, at least at the start of retraining. Clients email me every day to tell me that the more-exposed litter box has become the preferred box. Remember, cats prefer to have a good vantage point while they’re in a litter box, and they don’t like to go into areas where they might feel cornered.
After your cat has stopped eliminating out of the box for at least a week or two, continue using the appropriate number of boxes (equal to the number of cats or floors plus one) throughout your home. If you have put the boxes in a place where you really don’t want them to remain on a permanent basis, you can experiment with gradually moving them to new locations that you and your cat agree on. This is a process of trial and error, and you should move the box only an inch or so a day, so that the cat doesn’t catch on to the fact that you are making sudden changes. Cats don’t like sudden change.
If your cat begins to eliminate outside the box again, he is disagreeing with your interior decorating, so nudge the boxes back to his preferred locations. Too much movement may also signal to your cat that any location is fine. It’s a negotiation, a dance, a paws de deux, if you will. But in the end, your cat will get to decide the best place for the litter box.
By increasing the number of litter box locations, you increase not only the number and availability of such resources, but the number of pathways to them, so that not all of them can be presided over by a bullying, staring cat like Helmut. If a timid cat is running toward the litter box with his legs practically crossed with urgency and a cat, dog, or child is blocking the way, he should know that he’s got other boxes available to him, and other routes to those boxes. Giving the timid cat more boxes to choose from will increase his options—and with them your chances of having him eliminate where you want him to go. (See Chapter 5 for more information on setting up the ideal cat territory.)
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 by dirty, smelly litter. They don’t like to have their paws touch soiled litter, even if it’s their own, but especially not another cat’s. They don’t like to walk to a box and think, This one smells too much like what’shername. Would you like to eliminate in a filthy toilet?
During retraining, scoop at least twice a day to keep the box very clean (remember, an offer they can’t refuse). Once you’ve scooped the boxes twice daily for two weeks, you can, if you must, experiment with once-a-day scooping. But if you notice that some boxes get used more often than others, make a point of cleaning the former more than once a day. Keep in mind that in a multicat household, you’re also dealing with litter box competition. Cats rely strongly on their sense of smell. If a lower-ranking cat finds a high-ranking cat’s urine or feces in the box, the low-ranking cat may shrug, turn around, and go somewhere else.
I have six cats and five aren’t too picky, but unless I scoop twice daily, one of them will go outside the box. She really insists on a clean box!
If you are using covered boxes, uncover them.
WHEN THE OWNER’S AWAY …
Many cat owners forget that when they go away on a trip, they need to make sure that whoever watches their cats in their absence is told to clean the boxes as regularly as the owners do.
For a Fast Track to Success, Use Retraining Litter
Your cat may have been avoiding the box in part because she disliked her litter. But even if you have no reason to believe your cat disliked the litter, if you want the highest assurance of speedy success during retraining, I strongly recommend that as part of your C.A.T. Plan you use a special retraining litter or a litter attractant that can be sprinkled on regular litter. I see some on the market that work and some that don’t.
The retraining litter I like best, which is a staple in almost all of my litter box consultations, is a medium grain, unscented litter that has an organic attractant mixed in with the litter itself. The litter grain is large enough that it doesn’t easily stick to the paws, but small enough that it doesn’t cause discomfort. I’ve found this to be highly attractive to most cats. They will literally visit the box several times a day, which is very important for retraining and instilling new habits. If your local stores don’t carry any of the retraining litters that I recommend, try sprinkling a separately sold organic litter attractant into any unscented, medium-grain litter.
Spread the retraining litter two to three inches deep in all your cat’s new litter boxes and at least one of the old ones. You may soon notice your cat visiting the boxes more often and scratching around more, before or after elimination. If your cat scratches at the litter for more than four seconds, it’s safe to say he likes the litter. Many cats love retraining litter so much that they will sit in the box for half an hour. Use the retraining litter for at least thirty days. If your cat likes the new litter, be sure to add it to your cat’s old boxes, too.
Is your cat still not attracted to the new boxes after several days? First, honestly assess whether the box locations are optimal from the cat’s point of view rather than yours or your spouse’s. If not, here are some things to try. First, try moving some of the boxes. Second, use an empty litter box. Cats who like urinating on tile or other smooth surfaces may actually prefer the smoothness of an empty box. Third, you can place a substrate that you know your cat likes—such as a puppy training pad (whose soft absorbent texture mimics the softness of the bathroom rugs your cat may currently enjoy). Once your cat begins frequenting these boxes, you can begin gradually adding a little litter to the boxes each day.
Litter Substitution Once the unwanted elimination is solved, you may decide not to switch from the more expensive retraining litter to a maintenance litter. If you do switch, do so gradually, one box at a time, mixing increasing amounts of maintenance litter into the retraining litter, until, box by box, each one contains only the maintenance litter. I also recommend having more than one kind of litter available if you have a multicat household. Chances are, some of your cats might like one litter over another.
During retraining, praise and even reward your cat for using the litter box. But you know your cat better than anyone: If he would rather be left alone than receive any attention while in the box, then leave him be.
TRANSFORM the Territory
Cat owners often set up their cat’s environment to please themselves, or, with better intentions but not necessarily better results, in a way they mistakenly believe will please their cats. (See Franziska and the cat habitat she created for her cats.) In most cases, the litter boxes and other parts of the environment are set up in such a way as to cause unwanted elimination. Interestingly, we can help decrease tension over the litter boxes by decreasing tension over unrelated resources within the same environment. That means providing plenty of toys, perching places, boxes, tunnels, diversions of all kinds, and spreading them out instead of concentrating them in one place.
Some of the methods of transforming your cat’s territory may have already been implemented in the Cease and Attract sections, depending on what the territory was like at the time of the problem. Transforming the territory is one part remedial and three parts preventative. It is very important. My goal is not just to fix immediate behavior issues and prevent new ones, but to make your cat’s life better. Refer to Chapter 5 for all the important details, and see the handy checklist in Appendix B.
In the next chapter, I’ll discuss urine marking, a slightly more challenging behavior that’s often confused with mere urination but has entirely different causes.