Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Boxed Out: A Tale of Litterbox Woe


Pet Column for the week of February 5, 2007


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelyn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

If you are having a problem with your cat using its litter box, you are not alone. It is one of the most common gripes owners have with their cats. We've called in Linda Case, a behavior specialist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Urbana, Ill., and owner of the Autumn Gold Dog Training Center in Mahomet, Ill., to help explain some of the issues surrounding litter box usage.

Case explains that cats don't use their litter box for one of two simple reasons: either they have developed some aversion to their litter box or some stressor is causes them to stop using the box.

The most common cause of litter box aversion is the simple, undeniable truth that it may not be clean enough. Case says, "If you are having any inkling at all that this could be your problem, the first thing we say is to scoop every day and completely change the litter more often than you have been." Another reason a cat might develop an aversion to its litter box is simple accessibility. Some cats don't want to have to work hard to get to the bathroom, and by placing the litter box in an accessible place you're removing this obstacle. Or, your cat may simply not like the spot that you have designated for it.

Stressors can cause your cat to urinate outside of the litter box. Oftentimes multiple cat households create stresses that are undetectable to humans. Group dynamics amongst cats are a burgeoning field in behavioral research. Recent literature suggests that even though one cat may not be being kept away from the litter box, there may be anxiety that is manifested in inappropriate urination or in marking behavior. The rule of thumb is that an owner should have a litter box for each cat, plus an additional one. These litter boxes should be placed in various locations to allow your cats to have some choice in location and with whom they choose to share their box.

"Litter box aversion often goes hand-in-hand with location preferences. Cats tend to prefer either smooth porcelain surfaces or soft absorbent surfaces," says Case.

She reminds that cleaning the spot well, keeping the cat away from the location, and covering up that spot are ways to break the cycle of litter box aversion and location preferences. In some cases you may need to retrain your cat to use his litter box. This may require isolating the cat to a small amount of space, perhaps a single room, with the litter box. You can then gradually allow the cat more space privileges as it successfully uses its litter box.

Common feline medical conditions, such as urinary tract infections, can cause a litter box-loving cat to become an inappropriate eliminator. Cats also have unbelievable memories for specific incidents paired with people or locations. For example, a cat who has a urinary tract infection and goes to use its litter box may feel pain when trying to urinate. This cat will then associate the pain with the litter box, almost as if saying to itself 'Avoid that place, and you won't feel this pain.' If your cat is normally good about using its litter box and suddenly starts urinating elsewhere, it is a good idea to have your pet checked by your veterinarian for any medical causes.

Finally, some people complain that their cat will "misbehave" and urinate on a bed or on clothes when the owner leaves the house. People claim that their cat is "angry" with them for leaving and is acting out to spite its owner. This claim, however real it might seem, simply isn't the case.
"Cats don't develop separation anxiety in the same manner as dogs because their social groups aren't as strongly attached," says Case. Cats do, however, become stressed by change. This change causes anxiety which manifests itself by in appropriate elimination.

"Try to avoid blame placing. It is only anxiety and stress shown as this species way," says Case. Furthermore, placing blame will not help you resolve the problem any sooner.

For more information about litter box issues, contact your local veterinarian or animal behaviorist.