I recently had the honor of interviewing two accomplished cat behavior consultants from my part of the world: Mikel and Dilara of Feline Minds. (By the way, they offer reasonably priced phone consultations.)
I was eager to get Mikel and Dilara’s take on problems that can break up a happy cat home, starting with cat spraying, and urinating or pooping outside the litter box.
Most humans find this cat behavior crazy-making, even when they love their cat. I have experienced this twice:
- My childhood feline soul mate sprayed counters and corners in his later years. Sadly, it was only after he died that we learned his spraying was likely a medical issue. (More on preventing those medical problems in an upcoming report for subscribers.)
- In a relationship that wasn’t working out, there was a sweet feline who insisted on peeing on the bed until we split. Then he stopped. Interesting?
(Now that you know my cat box confessions, I invite you to share yours in the Comments below.)
Let’s see how Feline Minds answers my questions about this hot topic…
Do you usually ask clients to rule out medical problems before addressing this problem as behavioral?
“Yes! We always ask our clients to take their cat for a veterinary examination when litterbox ‘issues’ arise – it’s important to rule out the possibility of any type of urinary tract issue or other issues such as diabetes or kidney problems, before addressing this as strictly a “behavior problem.”
Defecation outside the box is also frequently related to medical problems so a vet check is a must.”
What is going on in the cat’s mind–what would they say if they could speak our language?
“Most litterbox cases can be lumped into one of three categories (although some cats may be experiencing all three issues at once!):
- There’s a medical issue that triggers the behavior – either from pain or other unpleasant sensations – that lead the cat to avoid the box.
- There’s something about the box itself that isn’t suiting the needs of the cat.
- The cat is experiencing stress over something in the household (or in some cases outside the home, such as neighbor cats hanging out by a window).
Eliminating in a sandy substrate is a natural, innate behavior for cats. They don’t typically need any real “training” to use a litterbox.
So, I’d say what cats are trying to tell us when they stop using the litterbox consistently is that something is wrong! The challenge is to figure out what that is!”
What are a couple good things readers should try at home for the “outside the litter box” problem?
“Assuming there’s no medical issue, anyone experiencing a litterbox problem with their cat should take a good, long look at the litterbox itself:
- Is it cleaned at least once a day?
- Are there enough boxes? (the rule of thumb is 1 per cat + 1)
- Is the litter acceptable to the cat? (most cats prefer a sandy, unscented litter)
- Is the box large enough, of a preferred style (some cats don’t like covered boxes) and in a suitable location?
One place where people go wrong is they try to change TOO many things at once.
I would say the safest thing to do is add an additional box to the existing setup and then try changing one thing at a time (from the list above) so they can tell if the cat has a clear preference.
What’s the strangest or worst “outside the litter box” case you’ve ever solved?
“The strangest cases are those where animals are eliminating on very unusual or hard to access surfaces, such as in a frying pan on the stove, on electrical outlets or in heating vents.
The toughest cases are long-term problems where the behavior has gone on for many years – a good reason to deal with these types of problems immediately when they crop up!
Most house soiling cases are pretty ‘typical’ – that is, the cat is choosing an alternative location for elimination that has some desirable features that they might seek in a litterbox – a soft substrate (bedding, clothing), a location with a view (such as on the bed or the couch), away from food and water, or perhaps a more emotionally charged place such as another animal’s bed or a window where outdoor cats hang out.”
Anything I should have asked here that I didn’t?
“An important factor in this is that recent studies have shown a connection between stress and inappropriate elimination in cats.
Cats who were subjected to an unpredictable routine were more likely to demonstrate ‘sickness behaviors’ including inappropriate elimination. (Here’s a link to one study.)
This demonstrates how important it is to provide routine for our cats, but also that we must help reduce any negative response to stressors by providing lots of exercise and environmental enrichment for our cats on a regular basis.”
Dear reader, what’s your experience with cats not using the litter box?
I’d love to hear your cat box confessions (and success?) in the Comments below.
Curious about Feline Minds consulting?
- Phone consult: $60 first hour, then $15/quarter hour
- Home consult: $125 + travel fees if extensive travel is required
- Introducing another cat or new baby? Preventative counseling at a reduced rate. They can help you select your new cat or create a smooth transition with cat or baby introductions.