Suki refuses to urinate in her litter box. It wasn’t always like that. At first, she urinated only on the carpet a couple of times a month, and then it progressed to every week. I tried everything I could think of to stop her — new cat litter, moving the litter box, and uncovering it. Nothing worked. I admit that out of frustration I yelled at Suki, swatted her little butt and squirted her with water. Now she urinates everywhere, and she won’t sit on my lap or cuddle with me any more. How can I get her to use her litter box and to love me again? –Anne
There are always reasons that behaviors happen. Cats do not out-of-the-blue decide to engage in annoying behaviors. An event, medical issue, or an environmental condition triggers the behavior. In Suki’s case, something initially caused her to urinate occasionally outside her litter box. Then the behavior escalated after Anne, frustrated, punished her. Anne’s reactive response caused Suki to distrust her and feel more stressed. Although urinating outside of the litter box is a difficult problem to live with, it can be solved without using punishment or actions that stress the cat.
In order to change Suki’s behavior so that she urinates exclusively in her litter box, Anne needs to first identify and then address the original causes of the behavior. Additionally, the relationship between Anne and Suki needs repairing so that the cat will feel secure and trust her again.
Before approaching Suki’s litter box avoidance as behavioral, all underlying medical causes need to be ruled out. Painful urinary tract infections, bladder stones, thyroid issues, renal failure, and diabetes are examples of medical problems that can cause cats to avoid their litter boxes. The first item on Anne’s agenda is scheduling an appointment for Suki with a veterinarian for a thorough examination.
After Suki is given a clean bill of health, Anne can start sleuthing for clues.
After Anne identifies the reasons for Suki’s behavior, she can put a program into practice that includes behavior modification, environmental changes, a thorough cleanup, and managing or eliminating triggers.
No matter what is triggering Suki’s behavior, Anne needs to thoroughly clean the soiled areas with an effective enzyme cleaner. Standard household cleaning products do not work. Cats have highly developed senses of smell, and areas that might smell urine-free to human noses can be pungent to cats.
I encourage Anne to work on her relationship with Suki — building trust and strengthening the bonds. Doing so will decrease Suki’s stress and help stop her from eliminating outside the litter box. Cats, when stressed, will often escalate unwanted behaviors and develop others. Anne can help Suki trust her again by engaging the cat in activities she enjoys. If Suki enjoys playing, then Anne should have play sessions with her every day at the same times. Although some cats run at the sight of a comb, others love grooming sessions. Suki may be one of these. Food also builds bridges. Anne can do treat rolls and treasure hunts — rolling treats for Suki to chase and hiding them for her to find. Clicker training is also a wonderful activity that builds bonds and is mentally stimulating. Consistency is important. To be the most effective, Anne needs to schedule the activities at the same times every day.
It takes time and work to change behaviors. After implementing these changes, Anne will find that Suki will start favoring the litter boxes and rely on Anne for lap time and cuddles.