Litterbox Blues
By Dr. Karen Thomas

Most cats have impeccable toilet habits, and would never think of using any place in the house other than the litter box. House training a kitten or cat is usually as simple as showing the new kitty the litter box. In most cases, if you bring the new cat to the litter box and place it in it, the cat will use the box, thereby marking it as a place to return for future use. At some time during their lives, many cats will experience problems with the litter box. In the majority of cases, these problems are related to a medical condition or to stress. The first step for the owner is to find out if the problem is medical.

A urinary infection can lead a cat to use an area other than the litter box. Mineral granules, commonly called sand, can form in the bladder and cause a blockage, making urination difficult or impossible. This condition is most often found in male cats, and is very serious. If not treated quickly, it can lead to serious illness or even death. Many times a cat will attempt to urinate in an inappropriate place, right in front of you, straining but producing only a few drops, sometimes containing blood. Most people feel that this is the cats way of telling you that it has a problem and needs to see the vet right away.

If the cat checks out OK at the vet, it is time to look for stress as a factor. What could be upsetting the cat enough to make it change its ways? Is the box clean? Cats hate dirty litter boxes, and often refuse to use them. The box should be scooped often, preferably twice a day. When the box starts to smell, the litter should be disposed of, and the box washed and filled with fresh litter. If you have changed brands of litter recently, that may be the problem. Cats can develop a strong preference for one type of litter, and resent change. Switch back to the old litter and see if that helps.

Is the box in an out of the way place? Some cats like their privacy and donít want to be on public display when using the box. A privacy screen or even a covered litter box may help. If there is more than one cat in the home, one of them may not like sharing the litter box. A second box in another room may solve the problem.

Have there been any changes with the people in the home? Are you working longer or different hours? Has someone new moved in or someone old moved out? Changes in routine can upset a cat. Some extra attention, play time, or just lap time may relax the cat and bring it back to normal. A cat will sometimes choose a closet or a certain room to use, and it becomes a habit. Simply closing the door will usually break the habit. If a bathtub is the chosen area, try leaving an inch of water in the bottom to make it less appealing.

If a cat has chosen an area behind a piece of furniture or behind a plant, placing carpet tape, which is sticky on both sides, on the floor in these areas. It is unlikely that any cat will venture into an area where its feet stick to the floor.

A cat that chooses to use a piece of furniture as a toilet is a bigger problem. A plastic painters drop cloth placed over the furniture will usually stop the behavior. Most cats do not like to urinate on a non-porous surface.

It may be necessary to confine the cat as a way of correcting the problem. A bathroom works well for this. Leave food, water, some toys and a litter box in the room with the cat while you are away. This will leave the cat with few choices other than to use the litter box. By blocking the automatic nature of habitual incorrect behavior, you can redirect the cat to the proper way of doing things, in the litter box.