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Understanding Litter Box Habits
The Cats Angle

* * A Few Basic Facts * *

A common misconception is that a male cat is more likely to spray even though it has been altered. Actually a female cat is more likely to exhibit such behavior because by nature the female is more sensitive.  Inappropriate litter box behavior in an altered cat is no longer a sex-related issue; it is a behavioral or health issue. A cat may err in litter box habits due to stress, caused by events that are perceived as insignificant to humans, such as bringing in an adult cat, a new puppy or dog after the cat has become established, a dog that chases or pesters the cat, a new girlfriend, boyfriend and even a new baby. 

A cat that is attentive can become anxious when it senses tension or anxiety in the owner's life because the cat perceives something is wrong but does not understand. Examples include family illness or a difficult time at work. No matter how busy life becomes, one must take the time each day to include the cat in family life. A bit of consideration for the cat, will ensure a well balanced mind, and in turn the cat will bestow it's soothing aura, helping the owner through demanding times.

Litter box mistakes are always occasional. Most cats with issues continue to use the box most of the time. That is the nature of all inappropriate litter box behavior. This fact does not signify that the cat is missing the box to upset the owner or that the cat is lazy or untidy.

It is easier to prevent litter box accidents by being sensitive to the cat's basic needs, than to have to correct an issue created by setting the scene for a messy disaster.
If correct steps are taken from the start, the cat will respond by consistently using the litter box.

* * Know the basics to prevent or solve existing litter box problems * *

LITTER PANS are available in a variety of styles and sizes. The "Feline Pine Litter Box" or the "Tidy Cat Breeze Litter System" are the two finest litter boxes available. However, they both require the use of pellet litter. If a hooded box is used, it is best to begin with a simple basic pan without the hood.  After the kitten is completely comfortable in the new home and is reliable in his litter box habits, the hood can be placed on the box, removing it immediately if the kitten is experiencing any issues.  I have found that most cats do not like a hooded box.

The use of an automatic litter box has caused many a cat to stop using the box.  The noise associated with the raking process, frightens many cats, not to mention the potential dangers associated with their use. An automatic box should always be backed up by an additional simple, standard litter box, located in a different room.  In my opinion, the Cat Genie,  a self flushing litter box, is the only safe, acceptable automatic box. 

SIZE: A ten to twelve pound cat should have a litter pan at least 18" long x 15" wide. If it is a hooded pan it should be at least 17" high. A larger cat must have the next larger size pan, measuring at least 22" long x 17" wide.  By adoption time, kittens are using a full size standard pan.

LITTER: A natural, biodegradable, non-scented product is preferred. Cats have an aversion to the strong perfumes in scented litters. I personally like the wood pellet litters, they are clean, attractive to the cat and economical.  Although clumping litters are preferred by many care-takers, most of the clay based litters are dusty, not healthy for the cat or the environment. "World's Best" cat litter is a corn based clumping litter and the best choice in the clumping category.

If a change in type of litter becomes necessary, remember that cats crave a strict daily routine.  Introduce new litter gradually. The best method is to place one inch of the cat's familiar litter over the top of the new type. While using the litter box, the cat will mix the two litters during the routine of scratching. Patience is the key and a worthwhile effort to ensure a smooth transition. Switching between brands of the same type of litter should also be done with discretion.

NUMBER OF BOXESOne for each cat plus one additional box. It is important that the boxes not be side by side. Ideally, the additional boxes should be located in different areas of the home as certain cats are possessive of their litter box.  Many times a passive cat will not use the box simply because a more dominant cat does not allow it.  Most often this communication is not visible to humans as there can be an "unspoken word" among cats. In a large or a multi-level home, it is advisable to have a litter box on each floor regardless of the number of cats. Providing the cat(s) with several choices, will further reduce the risk of inappropriate litter box behavior.

LOCATION, location, location!   Place the litter pan in an easily accessible area, but fairly private, and out of the thoroughfare of people or dogs. Cats are personal beings and like their privacy.

Avoid areas of LOUD SUDDEN NOISE such as door chimes, loud TV etc. An unexpected noise while in the litter box may cause the cat to find an area that is more secluded.

In addition, never place the cat's litter box in the basement or in the garage, even if the basement/garage is finished, unless at least one additional box is provided in the home living area.  Providing solely a basement/garage box almost always leads to litter box issues which are usually impossible to correct by the owner, once the cats habits have been ruined.

CHANGE OF LOCATION should never be taken lightly. Cats are creatures of habit and do not like changes. If it is necessary that the litter box be moved, always place an additional box in the new location, leaving the original in place.  When the cat is faithfully using the new location, the previous box can be removed and if possible, prevent the cat from entering that room for at least a week, preferably a month. This will help reinforce the new and erase the previous habit at the same time

FOOD & WATER should not be located in close proximity of the litter box. Cats like to eat in a clean area and will find another spot to eliminate if the litter box is too close.

CLEANLINESS:  Most cats will avoid elimination areas where there is risk of getting their paws dirty. It is VERY important that the litter pan be kept clean.  If the pan is scooped at least once a day, preferably twice a day, the cat will be more likely to use it. Both wet areas and solids should be removed daily.  Cats are fastidious animals and may seek an alternate area if their box contains even one previous elimination.

Ideally, wash the litter pan once a week or at least every 2 weeks. Provide a complete change of fresh litter. Use a mild, unscented soap, as cats have an acute sense of smell. Lingering odors, even those which humans find pleasing can be objectionable to cats and cause them to eliminate outside of the litter box.

Even if there is only one cat, that cat will appreciate having more than one litter pan.  Over the years, I have repeatedly witnessed various cats that use one box to urinate and then rush to another box to defecate.

DISINFECTANTS like bleach or Lysol can leave an objectionable smell in the box and may cause problems.  Use a simple detergent, like Palmolive dishwashing liquid and rinse well, removing all residue. Never use Lysol or any product containing phenol to clean any place where the cat has access.  Lysol & products containing phenol are toxic to cats, even after a thorough rinse of the surface. Due to the cat's limited ability to quickly clear toxic chemicals from the body, repeated exposure to even minuscule amounts of phenol, will result in an accumulation of toxin in the cat's system which can cause the cat to have a seizure among other possible issues.

A few people have reported that the use of bleach to clean the SINK or BATHTUB seemed to attract the cat to use these areas for a litter box. The behavior stopped when the use of bleach was discontinued. It is important to remember that like people, no two cats are alike. What works for one may not work for another. Apparently, the use of bleach can cause some cats to adopt this practice because to some cats, bleach smells like urine. If the cat starts this behavior, immediately break the cycle by leaving about 2 or 3 inches of water in the tub or basin which will discourage the cat before it becomes a habit.

A cat with a bladder infection or a urinary problem such as crystals, often will seek cool areas, like tile, the bathtub or the sink. Urination on a bed, couch or rug is also common. Be alerted to a medical problem if numerous trips to the litter box, crying while attempting to urinate, excessive cleaning of the urogenital area or  droplets of urine, frequently but not always tinged with blood are noted and for which immediate veterinary assistance should be sought.

Also important is that the cat not be punished or yelled at for an err in litter box behavior. The cat that misses the litter box is exhibiting stress, whether emotional or medical.  Missing the litter box is a symptom and a clue that the cat needs help. Punishment will be interpreted by the cat as owner rejection and will serve only to further confuse the cat and exacerbate whatever the issue. Cats are not capable of spite even though it may appear that way.

RESPECT:  Please don't stand over the cat with the scoop or allow a dog or children to pester the cat while it is in the litter pan. The cat could view this as harassment and may then eliminate wherever it can find privacy. 

If a young child, a dog or a dominate cat is allowed to chase a more submissive cat, even if it is only sometimes, this will cause the submissive cat a great deal of stress and may cause litter box issues.  This does not apply of course to a cat that is obviously enjoying the interaction. Such as, the dog will chase the cat to one end of the house, then the cat will chase the dog to the other end of the house.

WHEN A NEW CAT OR KITTEN IS ACQUIRED, the first week is the most important time for reinforcing good litter box habits.  Most cats become anxious when they enter a new environment. The stress causes them to hide, not eat, drink or use the litter box. Depending on the level of stress, some can appear aggressive and anti-social. All is very normal behavior for the average cat or kitten when placed in unfamiliar surroundings. A frightened cat will not seek out the litter box.  Confinement to a very small area approximately the size of a master bathroom is an intelligent and kind action on the part of the new owner. Larger areas will delay the bonding and acclimation process.  The "safe" room should be quiet.  A television or radio will not create a tranquil atmosphere for a cat due to the erratic mix of noise or music and will actually causes the cat additional stress.  Remember cats are creatures of habit, they do not like change.  Company for a cat can be provided by playing low level, calming classical music. Sitting with and talking to the cat or kitten, allowing it to bond on its own terms will assist in a favorable advancement. Gentle petting and short pick up sessions will also help.  These simple steps during the first week will ensure a non-eventful and successful adjustment.  Please note that kittens cannot be confined by the use of a baby gate. They are quite capable and will quickly climb over. When the cat or kitten is comfortable with its room, is responding favorably to visits and is no longer afraid, begin introduction to the home gradually.  At first, allow short visits out of the "safe" room and only under strict supervision.  When you are not home or cannot watch closely, the cat or kitten should be returned to the room. A bit of patience and gentle guidance will be time well spent.

In Closing, while some of the above may seem trivial to human beings, rest assured that each and every one of these tips are very important to a cat. Granted, there are cats that tolerate any litter box conditions. In spite of the stress that it puts upon them, they will still use the litter box.  However, those hardy souls are few and far between.
Inappropriate elimination is the number one reason that cats are turned into shelters. Most of those poor creatures are not bad cats. They needed a toilet area that met their most basic needs. When one wasn't provided, they did what their natural instincts told them to do; find another location. As animals who want to be clean, they had no choice.

As people, we do have choices. Mine was to write this article for the sake of those cats whose lives end in a shelter for no other reason than the absence of suitable toilet accommodations. I hope those who read it will also make a choice, will take a realistic look at their home environment and lifestyle before deciding to share their lives with a cat. An honest assessment of whether there is the space and time to meet a cat's basic needs can make the most important difference there can be for a cat. The difference between a long, happy life in a loving home and a short, frightened one in a shelter.
There is rarely a litter box issue that is a cat issue. Please be considerate of their needs.  Give them a chance to live with you in harmony. They want to be clean, please allow them to be.




"As with any behavior problem, the reason why the cat is not using the litter box must be determined before attempting to resolve the problem. Medical causes should always be ruled out first. Trying things at random, or because they worked for someone else may actually make the problem worse unless we understand the reason for the behavior. This is determined by obtaining a behavioral history and by observations of the cat and the environment.

The most common reasons we see for litter box problems are changes in the cat's surface and location preferences for elimination. In these cases, cats often do not cover their waste, they may "hang off" the edge of the box and be reluctant to step inside, or they may go right next to the box. If the cat is eliminating on soft surfaces such as carpet and furniture, try changing to a clumping litter which has a softer feel than clay litter. If the cat is using slick, smooth surfaces such as sinks and tile floors, try barely covering the bottom of the box with litter. In general the litter should not be very deep - not more than 1-2 inches. The litter box may have become unacceptable because it is not kept clean. Feces should be scooped out daily, as should clumps of litter if you are using a clumping litter. The litter should be changed often enough so that the litter looks mostly dry and there is no noticeable odor. The frequency will vary with the number of boxes and the number of cats in the house but should be at least once a week.

Cats may also develop litter box aversions because they associate "bad things" with the box. Perhaps they have been "ambushed" there by another cat. Try adding a box and making sure there is more than one escape route in and from each box. There should be at least as many boxes as there are cats, and in general it is best to have them in different locations so one cat cannot guard all the litter boxes. Large cats may not like a covered box because it is difficult for them to find a comfortable position if they are restricted by the cover. Try taking the cover off. If the box is located in a high traffic area or next to household appliances such as a washer, dryer or furnace which makes startling noises, the cat may have been frightened while in the box and will then refuse to use it. Move the box to a more private area. Most cats are repelled by the smell of strong room deodorizers. Do not place any of these near the litter box. If the boxes are kept clean, odor should not be a problem.

Soiled areas can be made less attractive by covering them with a vinyl carpet runner, pointy-side up, or with strips of double-sided sticky tape. Commercial products such as Scat Mats are also effective. But do not use these things in the vicinity of the litter box. This approach alone will not resolve the problem unless the litter box is made more attractive - otherwise the cat will go right next to the "booby-traps". Some problems require assistance from a certified behaviorist to resolve."



University Study

"A study conducted at Cornell University indicated that a large percentage of hit-or-miss litter box behaviors that were NOT associated with a health issue, simply had to do with the box being too small. Standard commercial size boxes, they concluded, were not big enough for some of these cats. Increasing the size of the container gave the cat enough room to eliminate, then cover without having to stand on top of the deposit.

Additionally, in multi-cat households, the optimum number of boxes has been shown to be equal to the number of cats plus one - many litter pan aversions trace to dominance issues."

Ellen Crockett



Litter Box Problems
A Practicle Approach To Feline Housesoiling
by Susan Little, D.V.M., Diplomat ABVD..Feline Practice












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