No Littering Please

June 1, 2012

Litter box issues are one of the most common, and frustrating, problems cat lovers encounter. Anyone who has ever been owned by a cat knows that there is nothing worse than the smell of cat urine on the carpet (or sofa, or comforter, or laundry…the list goes on.) The question: why is Kitty urinating outside of the litterbox in the first place?

Two main categories can result in “inappropriate urination”: behavioral causes and medical causes. We cannot default to a behavioral diagnosis without thoroughly ruling out underling medical issues such as cystitis, bladder stones, urinary tract infections and systemic diseases like diabetes. The first order of business when evaluating an inappropriate urinator is a trip to the veterinarian, where bloodwork, a urinalysis and/or x-rays can help rule out an underlying medical problem. If these medical problems have been ruled out, then we can focus our efforts on behavioral and litterbox management.

Cats, though I love them dearly, are mysterious creatures whose motives are often poorly understood. Sometimes obvious household changes such as the addition of a new dog/cat/baby, a move to a new home or the presence of handymen in the house can stress a cat and cause urination outside the litterbox. Sometimes the picture is more blurry and we need to dig even deeper to find an underlying cause. Does Kitty sit in the window and watch stray cats outside? Did Kitty’s litterbox move from a quiet, upstairs bedroom to the basement, next to a scary, noisy washing machine? Did Kitty recently have a “friend cat” stay over while his owners were away on vacation? Did Kitty’s litter change from clumping clay to crystals? Any of these seemingly minor changes can precipitate a litter box strike.

There are certain undisputable facts about what types of litter and litter boxes cats prefer; this topic has been studied extensively by veterinary behaviorists so there is a fair amount of research to support the following recommendations.
Cats prefer clay-based clumping litter to any litter containing pellets, crystals, litter made from recycled newspaper or wood shavings.
Cats often prefer unscented litter over scented litter.
Cats prefer uncovered litterboxes to covered ones; think of a covered litterbox as a “port-a-potty” that traps foul odors inside. No human or cat wants to be trapped with those odors!
Cats consistently choose bigger, wider boxes over smaller ones (I tell my clients that, when it comes to litterboxes, bigger is always better.)
Cats prefer litterboxes in well-lit, quiet locations where they can eliminated undisturbed by other household pets and inquiring household children.
Simple litter boxes are best; avoid self-cleaning litter boxes and other contraptions that may make loud noises and scare Kitty away. Veterinary behaviorists often recommend large, plastic Tupperware containers instead of traditional boxes, especially for “hefty” kitties.
Most importantly- cats want meticulously clean litterboxes. Scoop early and often (this is a minimum of once daily!)

There are a few other considerations when it comes to litter box management. Since cats prefer a clean litter box, it is easier to achieve that by having multiple litter boxes available for your cat to use. The equation we recommend is one box per cat, plus one additional box for good measure. This means, if two cats are present in the home, three litter boxes should be available. Sometimes a simple solution such as adding one additional litter box, or moving a litter box to a more desirable location may be all that is needed to prevent future accidents.

In addition, Kitty should not have access to places where she has soiled. Close doors if needed to prevent Kitty from encountering areas where she has repeatedly urinated. If this is not possible, cover soiled areas with tin foil or plastic, as these substrates often deter cats. Clean all soiled areas with an enzyme-based pet cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle. Cleaners in this category dissolve the chemical bonds in cat urine, so Kitty can no longer detect the odor. Most household cleaners contain ammonia, a compound also found in cat urine; choosing the right cleaner can make all the difference.

Since litter box issues are exceedingly common, your veterinarian likely has additional tips and advice to share. Please contact your veterinarian for additional hand-holding and moral support, if needed.