Stress
related litter
box
avoidance
When Litter Box Aversion Is Not Just About the Box  ,
copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

You already know that keeping the litter box clean is important, so, 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 vital 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 infor-
mation 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 environ-
mental 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.

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.

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link
to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You
may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document
without permission of the author. Email inquiries to info@animalbehaviorist.us

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 a 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
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.
"Urinating and defecating
in other areas, like an
owner’s bed has a definite
sress/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.  


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