When Litter Box Aversion Is Not Just About the Box, (c) 2014- 2016 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
The animal behaviorist, Ian Dunbar has always been a profound inspiration for me when it comes to working with dogs. Dr. Dunbar gets dogs and he gets people and he is able to reach both, something very few behaviorists can do. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him last week. We talked about dogs and training and we touched on cats. Dunbar’s approach to litter box aversion is similar to the kitty boot camp approach advocated by others including such esteemed reference sites such as the ASPCA’s Virtual Behaviorist. In this approach you 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 approach usually produces the desired result and may be best suited for training cats who have previously toileted outside. For indoor cats there may be displacement issues after the process and most cats probably will not like being confined. 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 remedied. More on how to work with this follows.
Cat litter box aversion is the number one cause of owner surrender and one that is not necessarily as simple as clean litter and multiple cat boxes. When working out preferences and aversions for litter box use you do have to first rule out medical issues such as urinary tract infections and the like. The basics are making sure the litter box is the appropriate size (1 and ½ times longer than the cat), is not covered, placed in a corner, next to a noisy machine (like the washer), the litter is a fine texture and not scented. Avoid litter box liners which can interfere with scratching and covering. Clean litter is an absolute must and more than one cat? Than, you need more than one box and do 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. Remember that getting a cat to use the box works so well because it approximates what they would normally use in a free living situation, so keep it clean, with the right litter, big enough and in the right place.
We also need to remember that marking and middening defecation are definite expressions of information to be shared. Dogs scent mark with urine and will over mark another’s after reading the “pee mail.” Cats do not over mark. Urine marking usually occurs with intact male cats and is thought to relate to territory as is “middening” which is leaving feces in certain locations. Marking and middening are deliberate communications. 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. 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.
Urinating and defecating in other areas, like an owner’s bed has a definite stress/frustration/insistence component 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. And while 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. 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 use urine for communication all the time in outdoor living situations.
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 review basics as noted above needs to happen at the same time in order for the most effective solution.
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
Introducing a new cat into an existing cat household can also generate house soiling and litter box issues.
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.
Do apply management initially along with addressing the causes of stress. For instance, 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 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. Although not always effective, a plug in pheromone diffuser that has been tested specifically for marking behavior can be tried along with adding in overall soothing 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. Remember, enriching the cat's environment includes the appropriate cat furnishings such as raised resting spaces (shelves and towers), scratch boards and plenty of toys with the most important aspect being interactive play between human and feline.
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.
-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
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Urinating and defecating in other areas, like an owner’s bed has a definite stress/frustration/insistence component 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. 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.
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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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.