Stress
related litter
box
avoidance
When Litter Box Aversion Is Not Just About the Box (c) 2014- 2018
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 nd 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
cent 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 commu-
nicate 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 in-
appropriate 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.
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
AnimalBehaviorist.us
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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.  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""
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.

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


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