Stress related
litter box
aversion
When Litter Box Aversion Is Not Just About the Box (c) 2014- 2018 Frania
Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

Why is your cat not using a clean litter box?  Cat litter box aversion is the number one cause
of owner surrender and one that, at times, is not always as simple as clean litter and multiple
cat boxes.  This predicament is frustrating for both humans and cats.  First steps in figuring
out what is going on should always start with the medical to rule out possible urinary tract
infections, bladder stones, arthritis, etc., all of which can contribute to litter box avoidance
(de-clawing is also problematic, more on this below).  After obtaining a clean bill of health,
going back to litter box usage 101 is in order along with tackling the reasons behind the
behavior.  

Getting a cat to use a litter box works so well because it approximates what they would
normally use in a free living situation, a clean, safe location with a soft, fine substrate
(ground covering) to cover waste in, away from where they eat and drink.  It makes perfect
cat sense that a clean litter box, with the right sort of litter (fine textured and unscented), in
the right place, is essential. A quick review:  Litter box size matters, think 1 and ½ times
longer than the cat and avoid covered boxes (designed more for humans than for cats).   Food
and water bowls should be separated.  Keep boxes out of closets if possible and away from
noisy appliances, like the washer, avoid litter box liners which can interfere with scratching
and covering.  Scoop litter waste on a daily basis.  More than one cat?  Than, you need more
than one box.  Make sure to replace the box every 6 months to one year; plastic is porous and
holds on to odors, especially when scratched.  Adding timothy grass to the litter can also
help.  Former ferals do need more training on litter box usage especially those that have used
the great outdoors as their litter box.  
When addressing this, no matter how often you have
gone back and tried a solution with
litter box basics, it is always helpful to start again from the
beginning
.  

But what about when litter box aversion is more than just about the box?  A closer look at
what is happening can help the both of you.  

Human beings mainly communicate visually and verbally, smelling is not high up on our
list but for cats and dogs it's a whole other story.  In the feline and canine world, odor and
scent work to convey and process vitals details about themselves and their environment.   
Urine marking and middening defecation (intentional placement of feces) are definite
expressions of information to be shared.  While dogs scent mark with urine and will over
mark another’s after reading the “pee mail,”  cats do not over mark and find an adjacent
unmarked location to spray urine on.  Cats who are urine marking are usually intact males,
this is thought to relate to territory as is “middening.”   Cats may begin spraying, intact
male or not, when “intruders” are involved whether the intruder be a visiting outdoor cat,
raccoon or new addition to the family.  This sort of signaling is mostly to delineate territory,
especially when placed next to an exit door.  Even knowing that marking and middening are
deliberate communications we do not come close to knowing the full particulars that cats and
dogs are transmitting through "smell-o-vison" so limiting it to territory is certainly too simple
an explanation in every scenario.  The cats and dogs that encounter the purposeful
placement and scents left behind are certainly fully aware of their significance, for us, it's a
bit more work.  

Urinating and defecating in other areas, like an owner’s bed has a definite
stress/frustration/insistence aspect and may relate to a traumatic event (as perceived by the
cat) such as a move, mistreatment or other significant change in environment or routine.  
Urine and feces do not mean the same things to cats as they mean to us.  While we may think
such an act is an insult, it is anything but in this scenario.  And even as there is a definite
component of communication in some instances of inappropriate elimination, we still need to
puzzle out what is being "said".

This communication is not directed in a vengeful or adversarial way, rather it is meant to
share an urgent concern that the cat has about what is happening around them that they
feel the situation to be so uncomfortable and untenable that they are pressed to communicate
this to their human in a location that has the most of our own scent deposited on it, our beds,
clothes or shoes.  We do not know the chemical component of the urine or feces when this
behavior occurs.  It is very possible that it might "communicate" this sort of message through
scent if we were able to process it.  (We often use a non invasive method to determine stress
levels in animals by measuring the cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in urine and feces.)  
No doubt cats are able to easily decipher this information with the urine and feces of other
cats and in fact, most probably,  use urine and feces as part of how they communicate all the
time in outdoor living situations.

The cat’s welfare is directly and forcefully impacted by routine and environmental events. A
ground breaking study done in 2011 found that disruption to routine resulted in sickness
behaviors (which are defined as vomiting, diarrhea, decreased food or water intake,
elimination outside the litter box, lethargy, fever, decreases in grooming and decreases in
social interaction) in healthy cats and that providing an enriched environment to sick cats
resulted in a significant decrease in the number of sickness behaviors and/or symptoms
exhibited. The study found that keeping the time the same every single day for each feeding
was paramount to stress reduction. Other factors were providing for the same caregiver,
playing classical music (no rap or heavy metal please) offering playtime including the
interactive kind, keeping clean litter boxes in the same locations and avoiding manual
restraint.

A separate study published in May of 2017 by the
Journal of Feline Medical Surgery compared
the behaviors, including inappropriate elimination, excessive grooming and aggression, of
cats that had been de-clawed compared to cats that not been de-clawed, the de-clawed cats
significantly demonstrated more of these behaviors.  63% of the de-clawed cats were found to
have bone fragments left in their digits, these cats were more likely to have back pain,
inappropriate elimination, biting and aggression.  de-clawed cats without retained bone
fragments were found to have increased biting and inappropriate elimination.

Introducing a new cat into an existing cat household can also generate house soiling and litter
box issues.  

The work is in figuring out what is stressing the cat so very much that this is what they feel
they have to do in their cry for help to reach us to do something about it.  Start with trying to
determine first what has changed and what change would be most upsetting from the cat
point of view.  Again, a two pronged approach, where litter box
basics as noted above needs to
be reviewed and implemented at the same time as working on behavior, in order for the most
effective solution.

Once the stressor is identified, remediation and mitigation and of course, enrichment, need to
happen. Allow for a period of latency, for a time when the cat will continue or attempt to
continue the prior behavior while you are making changes. In cases where a new cat is  being
introduced reconsider
introduction strategies, including revisiting them from step one.

There are several strategies to tackling litter box aversion.  One approach is the "no other
option but" method as told to me by the guru of dog training, animal behaviorist,
Dr. Ian
Dunbar.  Dunbar’s approach to litter box issues is similar to the kitty boot camp technique
advocated by others including such esteemed reference sites as the ASPCA’s Virtual
Behaviorist.  The process is to basically confine the cat with a litter box and wait for the cat to
use the box (Dunbar adds in treats for litter box usage, which is a big plus as long as you have
a cat comfortable enough to take them).  The method can  produce the desired results and
may be best suited for training cats who have previously toileted outside as a way of
introducing them to the whole litter box concept.  For indoor cats there may be displacement
issues after the process, meaning the stress of the experience may cause other unwelcome
behaviors.  It is also worth noting that most cats will probably not like being confined.  When
this particular litter box training is successful, there is usually a period where the cat will
continue to use the litter box after the confinement.  For some cats the litter box aversion
returns, most probably because what was causing the aversion in the first place has not been
addressed or remedied. My alternate feline friendly protocol has proven more effective in my
practice:

Remember, part of changing your cat's behavior is changing your behavior with your cat.  
Should your behavior include punishment, no matter what the form, even verbal or body
language you want to remove it.  And spraying water or shaking a can of pennies or rocks?  
Stop doing that, definitely out.  Punishment crates fear, increases stress and makes behavior
problems worse not better, especially with cats.  For what will make things better- adding in
the following changes will help:

Do apply management initially along with addressing the causes of stress. With cats that
have been de-clawed the use of gravel type litters or clumping litters is probably not a good
idea.  These cats have compromised abilities to manipulate litter so the softest possible litter is
the kindest.  With a cat that is targeting the bed, placing the litter box on the bed might shift
placement but is definitely not palatable from a human standpoint, in this scenario, placing
unwelcome objects from a cat point of view on the bed or temporarily prohibiting access to
the bed or bedroom would be a more workable strategy.  Another example of a management
strategy for outdoor intruders is blocking the view to cut down on visual stimulation; think of
taping paper over window panes.  Additional strategies would have to be employed to deter
the outdoor visitor as well because even if they cannot see the intruder they can smell them -
mothballs, placed outside, are an excellent deterrent.  Although not always effective, a plug
in pheromone diffuser that has been tested specifically for marking behavior can be tried.  
Add in overall soothing (tested and approved) scents such as lavender oil (a few drops on
flannel, tucked close to the cat's preferred resting place).  Catnip and Valerian root sprinkled
around are beneficial and stress reducing.  

An enriched environment is essential for these cats to alleviate stress and allow for necessary
and natural behaviors that are intrinsically rewarding.  Provide opportunities for of
satisfying  cat activities like foraging and hunting with puzzle feeders for meals instead of
food bowls and daily interactive play with their humans with fishing wand toys. Consistently
offer
the right sort of petting to stand in for allogrooming (cats grooming each other).   Make
sure the appropriate cat furnishings are available such as beds with at least three sides to
offer containment, raised resting spaces (shelves and towers) for safety and retreat, scratch
boards rubbed with catnip or valerian root (because they need to scratch) and plenty of toys
(fur mice that rattle are a must) with the most important aspect of play, again,
being with
you -unpredictable, bonding and way more engaging.

The key here is looking at the whole entire picture from a human and cat point of view to
solve and address things that are troublesome.  That a cat would think we have the power to
solve the problem gives us some big shoes to fill, it is also amazing and motivation enough for
us to do just that.

References:

-Martell-Moran, NK, Solan M., Townshend H.G.G. (2017). Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. Journal
of Feline Medicine and Surgery, (published online May 2017)

-Stella, J.L., Lord, L.K., Buffington, C.A.T. (2011).  Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in
healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical
Association, 238, 1, 67-73
cats communicate with us and each other with all their senses
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Contact me for an individual consultation
Litter box basics and addressing stress can help kitty use the box more faithfully
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"That a cat would think we have
the power to solve the problem
gives us some big shoes to fill, it is
also amazing and motivation
enough for us to do just that."
De-clawed cats have more litter box issues due to painful paws
Brownpau 2
Frania Shelley-Grielen is AnimalBehaviorist.us
info@animalbehaviorist.us
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Stress can contribute to litter box avoidance
AnimalBehaviorist.us
AnimalBehaviorist.us is a participant in the Amazon
Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate
advertising program designed to provide a means for
sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking
to Amazon.com.
"Urinating and defecating in other
areas, like an owner’s bed has a
definite stress/frustration/insistence
aspect and may relate to a traumatic
event (as perceived by the cat) such
as a move, mistreatment or other
significant change in environment or
routine.  Urine and feces do not
mean the same things to cats as they
mean to us.  While we may think
such an act is an insult, it is
anything but in this scenario.  And
even as there is a definite
component of communication in
some instances of inappropriate
elimination, we still need to puzzle
out what is being "said""