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.
- Where is Suki urinating? If she is targeting doors and windows, there might be neighborhood cats or other animals hanging around outside Anne’s house.
- How often is Suki’s box scooped, and what size is it? The litter box might be too small or not clean enough.
- Is the litter box covered? Cats can feel trapped in covered boxes, and covered boxes retain odors.
- Where is the litter box located? Suki might be avoiding her litter box because it is located in a high-traffic area or it is in a place where she can be cornered.
- Does Suki have enough litter boxes? The golden litter-box rule is one box per cat plus one more.
- What product is Anne using to clean the targeted areas? Cats will urinate on the same areas if they are not properly cleaned.
- Are there other resident animals in the household? If so, does Suki get along with them?
- Have there been recent changes to the household? Remodeling, the death of a human or animal companion, even changes in schedules can be stressful and contribute to Suki urinating throughout the house.
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.
- The neighborhood cats have to be discouraged from hanging around Anne’s house. She should consider having a friendly talk with the neighbors, encouraging them to either keep their cats indoors or install fences or enclosures that contain their cats. Safe deterrents will also make Anne’s property unappealing to the unwanted visitors.
- Anne can make it difficult for Suki to see the outsiders by covering the windows and not allowing Suki in the rooms that have views of the trespassers.
The right boxes in the right places
- Most commercial litter boxes are too small for cats. Minimally, Suki’s litter boxes should be 1.5 times her length. Large, translucent storage containers or under the bed storage boxes double as perfect litter boxes.
- The litter boxes should be uncovered so that Suki can easily escape if she feels threatened.
- Suki needs more litter boxes. Initially, Anne should add at least two to three additional boxes. After the problem is resolved, she can gradually decrease the number of litter boxes to two or three.
- Suki’s litter boxes need to be placed in different locations throughout the home, in areas where the cat cannot feel cornered or trapped. Ideal locations have great viewsÔÇöallowing Suki to see potential threats and easily escape from them. Closets, cabinets and noisy areas are poor locations for litter boxes.
Litter box management
- Anne should scoop Suki’s litter boxes at least once a day and empty, wash, and refill them with fresh litter every two or three weeks. Ideally, she should avoid washing the litter boxes with harsh chemicals — hot water and a little mild fragrance-free soap will do the trick.
- Any changes to the type of litter needs to be done gradually over a one- or two-week period.
- If Anne recently adopted another cat, she needs to separate the newcomer from Suki and gradually reintroduce them to each other.
Repair the relationship
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.