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Litter Box Victory

By Jennifer Van Valkenburg

If there is no clinical reason, reducing stress and adding environmental enrichment can help resolve litter box issues © Can Stock Photo/oksun70

In this post, I am going to talk about a very basic feline need – going to the litter box. Cat owners may wonder, when there is a perfectly good litter box, why does their cat think it is preferable to use the floor, the laundry basket or maybe even the bed to do her business? The answer can be complicated. First, go to the vet to check for any physical/medical problems such as urinary tract infections (UTI). UTIs are very painful. As a result, a cat may associate pain when urinating with the litter box itself and take her business elsewhere. When no sign of medical impairment is present, stress is another common factor for abandonment of the litter box.

Like most animals, cats love routines, so if a routine is broken, or changed suddenly, that can cause stress. Another cause of stress can be lack of physical or mental enrichment. Whatever the reason for the stress or anxiety, cats may create ways to try to handle it stress or “self-soothe,” just like humans do.

Scent is incredibly important to cats. Scents tell them everything, from who’s been in the area (other pets and humans alike) to the weather and even the emotional state of others in the household. One of the more effective ways to self-regulate, then, is for a cat to surround herself with her own scent. This explains why stressed cats may urinate outside the litter box. Basically they are flooding their surroundings with their own comforting smell. And this type of self-help can be quite addictive. How, then, do we get back to loving the litter box?

Sometimes it can be something as straightforward as blocking access to where kitty has created a new bathroom (the couch, the bed, etc.), work on stress reduction (more on that in a minute) and allow her to rediscover the box on her own. Her instincts to bury and hide will, hopefully, take over and you’ll be back in business. Other times, kitty will be more persistent and find new, inappropriate bathroom spots once you’ve blocked her favorite ones. Then, a little more hands on effort will be involved to win her back to using the box. Sometimes positive reinforcement can help, i.e. going in the litter box means she gets a treat. Sometimes it may be more about keeping her on schedule, meaning feeding at the same times each day and cleaning the litter box more regularly. It is also of value to look at the household. What behaviors might occupants exhibit that could be causing stress to the cat? How can you reduce stress in your household? A predictable schedule can work wonders on your cat’s emotional wellbeing and, when possible, a consistent schedule can really help alleviate stress on your cat and help get her back to normal routines.

Stress reduction can come in many forms. In addition to keeping to a schedule, play and “hunting” games, scratching, interaction with their owner, and stretching can all help cats relieve stress. However, perhaps the most important of all and largely overlooked stress reduction is simply alleviating boredom by providing greater enrichment opportunities.

Imagine you are a fine, furry companion in a two-bedroom apartment overlooking beautiful downtown Santa Monica. Your human seems to go out most days and sometimes even at nights and comes home smelling of all kinds of amazing things that you can’t even start to identify. And you are stuck here in the same place, day after day, with little more to do expect sleep and claw at the couch in an attempt to reduce your anxiety and boredom. With a little modification, stress can be alleviated by making the environment more interesting and challenging via the addition of a few small, interactive toys that are routinely changed out; a lovely scratching post covered in a fabric the cat loves; high shelving to climb up on and look out from; and food dispensers hidden throughout the apartment that the cat can “hunt” and be rewarded with kibble.

Finally, being aware of your cat as an individual – her temperament and preferences – can help a lot in the enrichment options you provide and make your home more harmonious for all concerned.

Read a case study about Ruby, the cat who developed a long-standing aversion to the litter tray as the result of a short-term medical condition:

You can find your local feline behavior professional here:

For more resources on cats, see:

About the Author

Jennifer Van Valkenburg is a feline trainer and behavior consultant (Animal Behavior Institute) who operates Natural Healthy Cats in Woodland Hills, California.

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