Stress related litter box aversion

By 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 of litter box 101:

Litter box size matters, think 1 and ½ times longer than the cat and avoid covered boxes and automated litter set-ups (designed more for humans than for cats). Finest grained and unscented litter is necessary. Adding timothy grass or a commercial cat attractant may help. 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.

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 inappropriate (for us, the cats have their reasons) elimination 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, bringing in a new cat or person, 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. (Continue reading below)