When litter box
aversion is not
just about the
box
When Litter Box Aversion Is Not Just About the Box (c) 2014- 2017 Frania
Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved

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
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."
Brownpau 2
info@animalbehaviorist.us
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"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""