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HELP! My Cat Stopped Using the Litter Box

HELP! My Cat Stopped Using the Litter Box

Your cat stopped using the litter box — Now What???32675706_1.jpg

Help! My cat stopped using the litter box! Cats are fastidious creatures so it comes as a surprise to people that little Pickles is indulging in urinating or defecating outside the litter box. This undesirable behavior is difficult for people to deal with, particularly if she is using the flower pots, bed or the sofa as her toilet.

Yet, this is a common problem with indoor cats, particularly in multiple cat households. In fact, it is so common that we have coined a name for this behavior: Multiple Indoor Situational Stress Elimination Dysfunction or M.I.S.S.E.D. As the name denotes, this behavior is due to environmental stress and frequently occurs in homes with multiple indoor cats. However, it can also occur in homes with a single cat.

First things first, we can not emphasize this enough, before you make any decision about giving this cat up PLEASE have her/him checked out by your veterinarian. When a cat suddenly breaks the cat box habit there is often a medical cause. Although we have encouraged cat owners to follow through with a visit to their vet, many choose not to. Instead, they prefer to think that kitty is “angry” at them or “getting even” with them. Many of them give up on the behavior and instead bring the cat to a shelter (where it’s often euthanized) or they make the cat stay outside, decreasing their lifespan and adding more stress to the cat’s life.

Please be assured that your cat is NOT angry at you — cats do not have the ability to think in these abstract terms. They are creatures of the moment, they are reactive, they do not harbor resentments or hold grudges. It may APPEAR as if they do—but in reality what they are reacting to is YOUR emotions. OR they are reacting to their OWN momentary emotion.

Some physical illnesses may mimic behavior problems. One is Feline Urologic Syndrome (FUS). Both male and female cats are affected by this but male cats are particularly prone to urethral obstruction (due to their narrower urethra) than females. FUS occurs when crystals and small stones form in the bladder. These will nick and cut the linings of the urethra and bladder creating inflammation and pain. As these structures travel from the bladder through the urethra they can be caught in the male’s narrow urethra, creating an obstruction. This is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention because obstruction can lead to kidney failure and death.

Cats with FUS will often indulge in continual licking or grooming of the area around the urethral opening. Due to pain and a constant full-bladder feeling, inappropriate elimination can occur. Some cats resort to urinating in the bathtub, the sink, the bed, or on the sofa. Some cats will vocalize their pain when straining to urinate. Others will simply “shut down” preferring instead to hide and avoid human contact.

Feline hyperthyroidism (an increase in thyroid gland hormone) can also appear as a behavioral problem. This condition causes increased thirst and appetite along with anxiety-like behavior. The cat may lose weight despite excessive eating. Increased thirst increases urine output and when accompanied by anxiety it can cause inappropriate elimination in felines. (This condition can also imitate gastrointestinal disease since the cat may experience vomiting and diarrhea.)

On the opposite side of the spectrum is hypothyroidism (a decrease in thyroid gland hormone). Hypothyroidism increases thirst and appetite. Again, this is accompanied with more urine output. However, instead of losing weight the cat gains weight and those extra ounces (or pounds) will often cause litter box problems. Furthermore, this condition leads to a lethargic cat who appears depressed. Hypothyroidism is often seen in older cats, so if your senior feline is experiencing these symptoms get her over to the vet for some tests. Both hypo and hyperthyroidism are treatable.

In sum, physical problems can be misinterpreted by humans as “behavior” issues. So, if your sweet little Pickles suddenly turns sour consider it a blessing in disguise, she might be telling you something.

VetExamOn the other hand, if Pickles received a clean bill of health from the veterinarian yet still persists in using furnishings, flower pots, or floors as a cat box the following check list might unearth the problem. Please keep in mind that these questions are not listed in order of importance.

1. Have you recently changed cat litter products?

A change in litter can create cat box aversion. Why? Because your cat is comfortable with the old brand and this new stuff smells and feels different. If you plan on switching cat litter do it a little at time: Place a small amount of the new brand in a clean cat box then top it off with a thick layer of the familiar litter. As Pickles uses the box the two brands will get mixed. Just keep adding more of the new litter and topping it off with less and less of the familiar brand. Pickles will adjust within 7 days, if not sooner.

2. Have you recently moved the cat box?

Cats simply will not tolerate switching cat box locations unless it is done gradually. Why? Well, think of it this way: if someone suddenly locked the bathroom door on you and didn’t tell you where the new bathroom was, what would you do? “Ah!” you say, “But a cat should be able to smell his way to the new location.” Not necessarily. Sure, cats have a keen sense of smell but they also have a stubborn sense of habit. If you need to change the location of the box, do so gradually. Move the box a few feet daily until it ends up in its new spot. Pickles will be much happier for it and so will you!

3. Have you recently changed the type of litter box you are using?

Cats prefer the open box variety to a covered box. A lidded box might be a great gimmick for you, to a cat it looks suspicious. Their nature is to avoid being enclosed. Observe the bathroom habits of the outdoor feline, they go where and when they feel like it. They do not look for a place that provides them “privacy” and enclosed areas are avoided. The idea that cats need privacy is strictly a man-made one. Try removing the cover and see if that helps. Also, is the litter box the correct size for your kitty?

4. How many litter boxes have you provided for your cat/s?

The rule of thumb is to provide each cat one box of its own plus one. Why? Well, strangely enough cats sometimes prefer one box location to another depending on the type of elimination required. For example, some cats prefer to use one specific box for their bowel movements. This might appear strange but if you think about it some people are the same with their toilet habits! This one-box-plus-one rule is particularly applicable when the home is multi-storied. In which case you might consider placing a box on each level.

5. Does the cat have access to the litter box at all times?

Placing a cat box in the bathroom or closet might be ideal for you. But if a person is using the bathroom the door might be closed, blocking the cat from its box. A closet door might also be inadvertently shut. And, if this box happens to be the only box in the house a cat with the “have-to-go-now” urge will have a real problem.

6. Have you recently acquired a new cat?

MISSED syndrome is common in multiple indoor cat households. Cats will eventually adjust to a new housemate. But it takes time. Sharing the litter box with another feline is stressful, much the same as if you suddenly had to share your bathroom with another person. It takes some adjusting to. For one, the box could be occupied when Pickles wants to go. For another, there’s a new smell in there. Keep in mind that urinating and defecating is also a cat’s method to “mark” their territory. Added stress in multiple cat households can be avoided by simply providing multiple boxes in various locations around the home.

cat-in-a-box7. Have you recently placed a new mat in front of the litter box?

In our efforts to alleviate dust tracking we purchase “litter mats.” However, some of these mats are not cat friendly. When seeking a litter trap keep the cat’s comfort in mind. Surfaces with large grates can cause a cat to feel insecure. Other mats appear to resemble outdoor carpeting, with brittle plastic “fibers” that can poke into a cat’s paw pads. Still others may have the annoying habit of slipping on hardwood floors, a feature not appreciated by the feline. Litter mats need to be soft, pliable, and secure feeling. A grated mat is fine, as long as the grates are small enough for the cat not to notice. A “carpet” type of mat is also fine as long as it doesn’t poke into the cat’s paws.

8. Have you recently moved?

This question opens up a myriad of problems since cats by far prefer to keep things unchanged. Yet, in today’s frenetic world change will occur despite the cat’ s wishes. You can help Pickles acclimate to her new space by placing her in a small room with her box and food and plenty of hiding places. When she becomes comfortable with this new space let her out to explore her new surroundings, a little at a time.

One word of caution, do not try to “comfort” Pickles when she acts nervous and afraid. Instead, adopt a calm demeanor and whenever she is doing something positive, such as eating or looking out the window, take that opportunity to pet her. Your own attitude about the move will greatly affect the cat so make certain that you feel happy about it and try to convey that to her in your outward expressions.

9. Have you recently placed an “air freshener” near the litter box?

A nice smelling home is something that people strive for, not cats. Their noses are very sensitive and foreign odors can create confusion. The MISSED syndrome will often show up if an owner places a plug-in air freshener or some other perfumed device near the cat box. So avoid this practice.

10. Have you recently added a litter pan liner to your cat box?

Simply put, cats do not like smooth, slick surfaces. While kitty box liners are fine for humans they are nor appreciated by the feline. Why? It changes the feel and texture of the litter since the plastic bag is often pulled up, dislodged or wrinkled by the cat’s digging. The result is an unpleasant experience that can result in cat box aversion.

11. Have you recently added “litter freshener” to the cat litter?

Covering up stinky cat box odors is a common practice among cat owners. However, if you have never done this before the new smell in the box could create cat box aversion. Even if you have used these products before your cat may suddenly decide she doesn’t like it. Instead of adding perfumed products or even baking soda to the box try scooping more often or adding additional boxes.

12. How often do you scoop the box?

We live busy lives and scooping might not be our priority. But it needs to be. The outdoor cat has a wide bathroom selection, the indoor cat does not. She is stuck with what you provide. To reduce odors and encourage proper elimination it is suggested that the cat box be scooped a minimum of two times a day. (It is of course better if it is scooped more often.) Some cat owners do not scoop at all, instead they dump the whole mess out once a week, scrub out the box, refill it with clean litter and call it done. This is not conducive to good feline toilet habits.

Why? Well, let’s contrast a fully-loaded cat box to our own toilet habits. Let’s face it, when you go out to a restaurant or a ballgame you want access to a clean toilet. What happens when you open up the stall door and see a toilet that hasn’t been flushed all day? More than likely you will seek a clean stall. And so it is with the cat, only she doesn’t have another stall to choose from. So pick up the scoop and start scooping! You’ll have a cleaner, more sanitary house (remember kitty gets on the bed, the sofa, and the surfaces of your home) and both of you will be happy.

13. Have you recently changed your routine?

If your routine has altered this could affect your cat’s emotional state. Often when cats become anxious they express themselves in inappropriate ways such as yowling or resorting to urinating in other areas of the house. This is NOT a “get even” action, so please do not put that human emotion on your cat. Instead it is an outward expression of an inward turmoil. Consider it this way, your indoor cat is trapped in its environment, it can’t get in the car to “get away from it all,” nor can it take a vacation or have a group therapy session.

Instead its reactions are purely primordial: an increase in adrenal causes all bodily functions to speed up, including the bladder and the bowels. (This also applies to humans.) Consider the fact that the cat is not only pumping extra adrenaline into its system but it also has an instinctual urge to react to this physiological change by marking out a defined territorial barrier. Why? Because this is an animal’s method of preventing other animals from encroaching into its area. In this case, the cat’s actions are a defense mechanism. The best way to handle this is by using feline pheromone products, such as a Feliway plug in diffuser, that will produce a relaxed state of mind.

14. Have you recently added a new member to the household?

This falls under the heading of changing your routine so please see number 12 and also number 13 for the possible solution. If a new baby is added to the home follow the instructions for out of town visitors (Number 15) until the baby’s scent is established in the home, that will only take a few weeks. The same applies to any other new household members.

15. Have you had visitors from out of town?

This also falls under the heading of changing your routine with a few unexpected twists. Visitors bring with them excitement, strange smells, and different voices. They also bring into the home a new energy level. That is, the normally quiet atmosphere may become chaotic. The opposite may also occur. A chaotic household may become quiet because the family is out more often. Either way, the cat could react negatively.

One common reaction to visitors is the cat’s penchant for urinating in your visitor’s suitcase. It is an annoying occurrence, frequently followed by ruined clothes and voluminous apologies from embarrassed hosts. Is the cat defiantly stating his resentment of the visitor? The answer is, no! The cat is only reacting to the visitor’s powerful new scent. Cats do not understand the human’s approach to scent. We try to erase ours by bathing, using deodorant, and washing our clothes.

On the other hand, cats love their scent and faced with an overpowering scent they will add what they consider to be “good smells” onto the bad stuff — much the same way that you use an air freshener to erase foul odors. This situation can be prevented: simply ask guests to keep their door closed, their suitcase closed, and to please not leave their clothes in areas the cat has access to. And explain why. Better to be safe than sorry!


If your cat has MISSED:

1. Clean it up: Clean up the area as quickly as possible. Use a specifically designed enzyme pet product that will eliminate the odor, you don’t want PIckles to think the carpet is her new litter box. In addition to a thorough clean up, spray the area with a feline specific pheromone product such as Feliway twice a day.

2. Block it: Utilize a large plastic bag and secure it over the area to prevent her from returning to it. In the case of a sofa or a bed you can use a shower-curtain liner or purchase a tarp at your local hardware store. Make certain that you secure it in place so the cat can’t move it with her paws. You can also use boxes or any other structures that will block the cat’s access to the area. Or prevent access completely by closing the door.

3. Prevent it: To calm a nervous or anxious cat (due to a move or a new cat or new routine) utilize a plug-in pheromone product or spray. These pheromones send messages of happiness and contentment to the cat’s brain. Purchase Bach Rescue Remedy and place a drop of the essence on the skin of the inner part of each earflap four times a day. In addition, you can also mix a few drops of essence into the cat’s drinking water.comfort-zone-with-feliway-diffuser-48-ml-10

4. Stay calm: Don’t overreact or become frustrated or resort to yelling. This will only create more anxiety in the cat. Instead, try to remain calm and adopt as regular a routine as possible.

5. Give the cat plenty out outlets to get rid of extra energy or frustration: Providing little Pickles with a set schedule for physical activity (such as playing with cat fisher toys or strings) will give her an outlet for pent up energy and stress. It’s much like our way of taking a brisk walk when we feel frustrated or indulging in a good workout to relieve stress. Afterward, Pickles’ energy will be spent and she can relax and enjoy a good meal and a nap.

cat pole


Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation Anxiety in Dogs, a Common Problem


Texas Animal Guardians - Bringing People and Pets TogetherSupposedly, absence makes the heart grow fonder. However, the absence of an owner sends some dogs into wailing and barking, frequent house soiling, and self-destructive behaviors. These are all signs that a dog is suffering from separation anxiety.

The canines most likely to fall victim are second-hand dogs. Whether from a shelter, rescue group, or greyhound-track adoption program, dogs re-homed in adolescence or older are at greater risk of suffering separation anxiety than puppies. This is probably because it is more difficult for these dogs to accept changes in their routine and environment. They cling to their new pack leader and panic when that leader leaves home to go about his or her daily business. For similar reasons, unemployed companion animal owners or those who take lengthy at-home vacations or recuperations may find that their dog becomes disoriented when they return to work. These distressed pets need help.

Texas Animal Guardians - Bringing People and Pets TogetherSeparation anxiety is often a problem of over-bonding. It is not healthy for a dog to follow his caretakers’ every step, to be constantly in the same room, sharing the same piece of furniture, being in close contact all the time. Promote independence by teaching the dog to down and stay on his own bed while you go out of sight. Start with a few seconds, then build up to a length of time the dog can tolerate. Put up a gate and eventually close a door between the two of you. Get family members involved in dispensing the “good stuff” to the dog.

Texas Animal Guardians - Bringing People and Pets Together Walks, play sessions, and feedings should not be provided by only one person, for that person’s absence means the end of all that is good in the world to the dog. Panic can ensue. If you live alone, perhaps a neighbor or relative will share the duties, or hire a pet-care professional to assist you.

The worst of a dog’s hysteria is often during the first hour after departure. Diffuse the emotion of your leave-taking by heartily exercising the dog right after you wake up. Then, after feeding him, scale back your attention to the point of ignoring him during the last 15 minutes before you leave. Turn off the lights and turn on the television, radio, or white-noise machine—whatever you play most when you are home. And with no more than a whispered “Be good,” leave the house.

Some dogs will read the signs of imminent departure and begin to work themselves into a frenzy. If putting on make-up, packing a lunch, or shuffling papers in your briefcase distresses the dog, desensitize him to these or other actions by doing them frequently and at other times (such as before mealtime) so they lose their direct connection to the dreaded departure. Presenting a toy stuffed with goodies can draw the focus of less seriously afflicted canines toward cleaning out the item and away from your leaving. Buster cubes, Kong toys, Goodie balls/ships work well as canine diversions. Unfortunately, the seriously afflicted dog will not give the toy a second look until his pack is together again.

Texas Animal Guardians - Bringing People and Pets Together Separation anxiety can be severe and all-consuming to some dogs. I have known dogs to jump through second-story plate-glass windows, eat through sheetrock walls into neighboring apartments, and bloody their paws and noses trying to dig through wooden doors or out of crates. These individuals need professional assessment by an applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist, for they may need pharmacological aid while they undergo desensitization exercises. Some people choose to manage the problem by dropping off their dogs at day care or adopting a second dog so they are never truly alone.

Luckily, if the earlier suggestions are followed, the majority of dogs will be howling “I will survive” in no time.

Written by Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, ASPCA Special Projects

Thanks to Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, ASPCA Special Projects ASPCA for giving Texas Animal Guardians permission to use this article. Permission provided from the ASPCA.