Pet Points: Litter box behavior a clue to other issues

What do you do if your cat urinates or defecates outside the litter box?

In the past I have written about some of the medical issues that can cause this problem. A urine test can quickly show whether the cause is medical vs. behavioral. Today, I wanted to concentrate on it as a behavioral issue and look at possible solutions.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners has issued new guidelines on how to control this unwanted behavior, which can lead to cats being abandoned to live outdoors or brought to a shelter. Few people want to adopt a cat with a urinary behavior problem.

Cats mark as a normal behavior. When cats rub you with their face, they leave a scent. Sometimes they mark territory with urine and stool. If a cat is not already spayed or neutered, that is the first step. Unless you are an experienced breeder, your pet cat should be altered.

In my opinion, every cat in urban areas should also be kept be indoors. You cannot control other people’s pets, but a cat outside can stress your pet. Keeping stray cats from the yard with water sprinklers can help the situation. Minimizing your cat’s stress can only improve your chances of stopping this behavior.

Cats want a nice, big, clean litter box. Commercial boxes are often too small; buy a jumbo box or make one from a plastic storage box. Some cats have specific preferences on the type of litter and liners or covers. Experimenting with different litters can be tricky but necessary if a problem starts.

Litter pans should be cleaned daily and changed frequently. With an extraordinary sense of smell, cats do not like a dirty box. Owners should have more litter boxes than cats. I believe there should be one on each floor in the home.

The environment around a litter box must be convenient and quiet. Cats do not appreciate noise or commotion. Imagine how stressful it would be to use a box by the clothes dryer when the buzzer goes off. 

Cats will sometimes mark new items such as suitcases or dirty clothes, especially if another cat has left even a faint odor. They may feel that a visitor’s belongings are fair game, and any new stress, including workers or new pets in the home, may prompt them to mark. Each new cat in the house changes the relationships among pets and people. Put too many cats in a small place, and marking becomes a natural behavior.

The solution could be as simple as giving your cat more attention, a scratching post, toys and a place to perch.

Pheromones and drug therapy can help in some situations. For more information on that, consult veterinarians and the websites of veterinary schools such as those at Ohio State or Cornell universities.

Litter box problems can have multiple causes and require an ongoing discussion with a veterinarian. Discuss behavioral issues at your cat’s annual physical. After a medical problem is eliminated, adjustment of the environment and stress elimination will help avoid this common behavioral problem.