Cats and Litter Boxes (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this series, the Dog Trainer has more reasons why your cat may be avoiding the litter box - and how to get her back into good habits once and for all.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #220

Tip #2: Is Your Cat Old or Sick?

Until recently, it was believed that cats rarely develop arthritis. In fact, recent studies show that the majority of old cats show signs of arthritis on X ray. Not all of them are necessarily stiff or in pain, but if you’ve noticed that your elderly Kittychai is moving around less, or grooming herself less, or going up and down stairs more slowly, she may also have trouble getting herself to the litter box in time. Or it may hurt to climb into a box with high walls. Or posturing to eliminate may be painful – and, as with other problems that cause pain in the litter box, your cat may associate the pain with the litter box.

(By the way, given what we now know about the prevalence of degenerative joint problems in older cats, you might want to discuss the possibility with your vet even if the litter box isn’t an issue. Nothing reduces the quality of life to “cruddy” like chronic pain.)

A cat whose mobility is just fine may still not make it to the litter box if an illness creates urinary urgency – that is, she feels the need to go right now. If you have ever had a urinary tract infection yourself, you know what I mean.

Tip #3: Can You Identify Other Miscellaneous Stressors?

As I’ve pointed out with respect to dogs, many aspects of our companion animals’ lives are incomprehensible to them and out of their control. Moving house, visiting the vet, being left with a sitter while we go on vacation – pets get no say in any of these important events. As a practical matter, of course, that’s how it has to be, and fortunately most of our dogs and cats roll with the punches, most of the time. But because we’re doing our best for them, it can be easy to forget that they have no way of knowing that. So if a healthy cat who gets along well with your other pets suddenly starts avoiding her clean, quiet, large litter box, think about whether anything’s happened lately to cause general anxiety and distress.

It might not be something under your direct control. For example, we have near neighbors who feed stray cats. Of course, they intend this as a kindness, but the cats who come for the food also fight with one another and mark territory – which stresses the cats who live in the houses all around.

Solving the Problem

You might hope that once you’ve made your kitty toilets appealing, and addressed any illnesses or stressors, your cat will go right back to peeing and pooping in the box. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Once a fear or a habit is learned, it doesn’t automatically go away even if you fix whatever set it off in the first place.

Clean urine-soaked spots with an enzymatic cleanser formulated for the purpose, and don’t be surprised if you need more than one treatment to kill the stink. I’ve gotten the best results from cleansers specifically meant for cat urine. Forget supermarket products unless you enjoy wasting money. But thoroughly sun-drying the item once you treat it with an appropriate product seems to help a lot.

You may need to block your cat’s access to the “illegal” toilet. That means closing the door, because baby gates are no kind of barrier to most cats. Or make the spot unappealing to her sense of smell. Almost all cats avoid the odor of citrus, so cotton balls dipped in lemon juice can encourage them to go elsewhere. (Don’t use essential oils, however! Some are supposedly safe for cats, but my internet searches turn up a lot of self-styled experts and not many credentialed toxicologists.) Try double-sided tape on surfaces that it won’t damage – cats don’t like getting their feet sticky. Of course, double-sided tape will also pick up all the cat hair in the vicinity, so you’ll wind up having to change it every couple of days.

Cats prefer not to eliminate near where they eat and drink, so once the spot is properly cleaned you could place Kittychai’s food and water bowl there. Finally, a good tactic that takes some patience: put a litter box in the illegal location and, week by week, move it a little at a time till it reaches its final destination – namely, the place where you’d like to keep it permanently.  

With your cat’s toilet situation all sorted out, I say it’s time to take Dogalini for a walk. After that, please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer. You can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!>



About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).