Litterbox Secrets

By Jackson Galaxy

The most common problem we deal with is inconsistent use of the litterbox. Often, by the time clients call, they are “at the end of their rope,” which translates to “show me progress or else…” where the “or else” is not a happy ending for the cat.

Much of the frustration experienced by our clients is the result of anthropomorphizing (that is, assigning human emotional values to a cat’s behavior) the offending events. The guardian interprets the behavior using their own frame of reference. For instance, she thinks that Fluffy is peeing on the bathroom rug out of spite, anger for being left alone all day, or simply because he is a “spoiled brat.”

One of our most important tasks is to help guardians to understand the huge differences in the way humans and cats express themselves. While it is not impossible for a cat to bear a grudge, it is not a typical reason for not using the box. Consider that cats have limited methods of communication available. They communicate among themselves with posture, body language, vocalization, and scent, i.e., pheromones, which are components of urine and the anal gland secretions that coat the feces. (Cats also mark with scent glands located on the face and feet, but these seem to have different meanings than urine and fecal pheromones).

Is It Medical?

Since cats can’t talk, when they have something to “say” to their humans, they often use marking behaviors instead. It’s common for cats to mark with urine and/or feces to advertise stress, pain, or that they don’t feel well. That’s why the first step in an analysis of litterbox problems includes a trip to the veterinarian, including a thorough physical, and examinations of urine, stool, and/or blood, plus any other tests the vet feels are necessary. We don’t want to mistake a physical problem for a behavioral one, and fail to take the steps needed to help the cat heal. A veterinary exam will help keep costs and time invested to a minimum. (If a physical problem is diagnosed, please see this article on Urinary Tract Disorders in Cats.)

Once physical illness is ruled out, it is important to recognize that many litterbox problems are stress-related. Cats are highly “projection-sensitive” – they feel any tension in the home and internalize it. Cats are often mirrors for our own stresses. Therefore, punishing Fluffy , yelling at him, squirting him with a spray bottle, or even arguing with a family member about the problem are not only unhelpful, but they tend to make things worse.

Flower Essences can be very helpful in resolving the prevailing energetic patterns which may contribute to litterbox problems. Spirit Essences has a variety of essence remedies that can help break these “stuck” energy patterns.

Is It the Litterbox?

The litterbox itself is one of the main reasons cats avoid using it. Let’s concentrate on the physical properties of the litterbox.

Consider the size of your cat(s)

This applies to the size of the box that you choose, as well as the choice to use a hooded box or not. A cat needs to feel a sense of space in his place; that is, room to turn around, to cover what they’ve eliminated, to choose one corner over another. Often, if they feel their bodies hitting the sides of the box (especially bigger or long haired cats), they will simply choose a place that affords them more “elbow room,” and that usually means a place that we deem inappropriate.

To hood or not to hood?

If you have a small box with a hood for a large cat, he will have two alarms that will sound upon entrance and exit from this confined appropriate area.

  • First, the whiskers are designed to detect whether there’s enough room for the cat. If the whiskers brush against the opening, they send a message that the rest of the cat probably won’t fit, either.
  • Second, the cat’s fur touching the hood sends that same message. Cats prefer space to “privacy”. Outside, a cat doesn’t look for a discreet place in which to eliminate. Quite the opposite! They want to mark their territory so there’s no doubt about its ownership. It’s only us who would rather see them eliminate inside something that leaves them sight (and scent) unseen. There’s also an inter-cat aspect of the hood that can come into play. If there are hierarchical problems in the house, one place where conflicts take place most often is around a hooded box. With no sightlines, and thus no escape route, the cat in the box is completely at the mercy of another who wishes to ambush. If an ambush occurs, as with all of the possible reasons we’re outlining here, the result is a negative association with the box itself. Once that association is made, chances are not much else will be made in there, if you get our drift…So if a hooded litterbox is a potential issue in your household, get rid of the lid!

NOTE: This also applies to litterboxes cleverly disguised as pieces of furniture, or are otherwise made inconspicuous or tucked away… as they say, out of sight is out of mind. This just creates another way for you to forget to scoop. And the deadly sin of leaving a dirty litterbox is virtually guaranteed to make your cat look elsewhere for a suitable elimination spot.

Silver liners?

Cat pan liners are a convenience for the guardian. Especially with clay litter, it is much easier to just grab the bag, replace it, and never have to come into contact with the litter itself. Of course, with every good idea there can be drawbacks. With this concept there are two, one obvious, and one a little subtler. The obvious “snag” is that different cats like to paw at or bury their litter at different depths and with different intensity. If their claws get hooked on the bag, whether side or bottom, once again we’re dealing with a negative box association that could lead to non-use. When following a system of rule-outs, or the detective work that goes into each of our consultations, we always look for leaky liners as a possible cause. The second reason liners may not be too friendly is that they do carry a bit of a static-electric charge to them. It’s not much, but again, most especially in the cases of larger and/or long haired cats, the combination of coming into contact with the hood and the liner can give them just enough of a zap, going both in and out of the box, that it almost takes on a punishing tone to even attempt entry! Why, then, if you were in their paws, would you keep trying?

Where it’s at

The number and location of the litterbox(es) is also a big factor. If you have multiple cats, the rule is “one box per cat plus one.” If your cats are willing to live with less, fortune has favored you, and you should appreciate it! Dr. Jean’s five cats all shared one (gigantic) litterbox for many years… until one day they didn’t! So if one of multiple cats develops an issue, try adding a box (after a veterinary check-up, of course!).

However, it does not count if you simply line up two or three or five boxes next to each other in the basement. That is still, as far as the cats are concerned, one box.

If you have a multi-level home, there must be one box on each level (even for a single cat). This is crucial for older cats, whose stiff joints may make the trip to a different level not worth the trouble. Bear in mind that research shows that 90% of cats over 12 years of age had signs of arthritis that were visible on radiographs (x-rays), many of them severe. These cats are hurting, and have been hurting long before it’s bad enough to be visible. Assume any cat over age 10 has arthritis and arrange the boxes appropriately.

Make sure the litterbox is available 24/7, not behind a door that can be shut by the wind, or a toddler, or a teenager! And it should be in a quiet location, rather than next to the dryer where an ill-timed buzzer can make an ordinarily serene trip to the litterbox feel more like being launched to Mars!

It doesn’t have to be a “litterbox”

A litterbox doesn’t have to come from the pet store.Use your imagination! A case in point—friends of ours have a cat who loves to use litter. In fact, he loves everything about it: scratching it, covering it, making sure it’s kept clean. His problem is that he aims too high. Not spraying per se, but high enough that in an uncovered box his urine wound up on the wall, and in a covered box, it seeped between the cracks and wound up a mess on the floor, on the sides of the box, everywhere. (This is common with older cats, as their joints get stiff and squatting becomes uncomfortable.) Their solution? They got a 20-gallon Rubbermaid garbage can, cut the front out completely so he could just step in, and kept the back intact so wherever his pee hits, he’s still a good boy. Ingenuity goes a long way, and for very little money. Those rectangular storage boxes work well, too. Rubbermaid is good because they’re sturdy, there is no plastic odor, and the surface is relatively non-absorbent; but there’s also something to be said for clear plastic, especially if the sides need to be high–this makes it possible for the cat to see another cat approaching.

Is It the Litter?

Let’s focus on the substrate—-the elimination surface, the litter itself. Although surface preferences usually develop early in life, cats can change suddenly for reasons we don’t always fully understand. We can only try to cater to these preferences, often by trial and error. The following factors are based on a mixture of scientific studies and anecdotal observations by behavior consultants.

Kinds of litter

The choices seem limitless: Clay, scoopable, newspaper, corn-based, wheat-based, granules, pearls, crystals, scented, non-scented… Cats themselves evidently prefer to have it be soft, since the majority of substrate preference problems we see are for soft surfaces like bath mats, bedding, and clothing. This may mean that a change from regular clay litter, pellets, or crystals to a finer-grained, scoopable litter is in order. Cats who are used to eliminating outdoors and are in the process of being retrained to an indoor litterbox might even prefer garden dirt or potting soil. One caution: clay and scoopable litters are dusty, and may contribute to asthma or other respiratory problems. Corn, walnut, and wheat-based litters, or pelleted types, are the least dusty, and are made from a renewable resource rather than mined clay.

Depth of litter

From experience and the expertise of other behaviorists and knowledgeable guardians who have been down the path of trial and error, cats prefer the “less is more” philosophy when filling their box. Add enough so that they can cover and dig, but not enough so that their paws actually sink in into the substrate—about 1-1/2 to 2 inches. There is also the human misconception that the more litter, the less stinky. If you live with multiple cats especially, you know what a major fallacy that one is! The ammonia odor in cat urine, despite the best marketing campaign of the litter manufacturer, is strong!

Older cats may have issues with arthritis pain that impact their use of the litterbox.  Less litter provides a more stable surface that may be more comfortable for those creaky old joints.

Frequency of scooping and cleaning

If you’ve chosen a scoopable litter, it is important to remove waste daily, as the primary clumping agent, sodium bentonite, absorbs moisture and greatly enhances the size of the waste, decreasing the availability of free space in the box. Even with non-clumping litter (as we’ve discussed in past issues), cats like the feeling of picking their own spot, circling it, digging a shallow space for it, and burying it—we want to leave plenty of room.

Strange as it may seem, we can actually overdo cleaning the box. It is often claimed, in the name of fastidiousness, that boxes need to made be spotless daily. That may not always be true. For some cats, the comforting presence of their own scent is important in maintaining good litterbox habits. However, if your cat is having problems and you’re not cleaning the box regularly, a thorough cleaning (or even a new litterbox) is the first order of business.

There is also a difference between necessary removing of waste daily, and cleaning the box. In general, litterboxes do not need a deep cleaning (dumping all the litter and washing the box) more than once every three or four weeks. Hot water and soap are adequate for cleaning. Stay away from heavy-duty cleansers like Pine-Sol, Lysol, or ammonia; strong citrus or pine odors may actually cause aversion.

A dirty litterbox is the #1 non-medical reason for Fluffy to avoid the litterbox. You wouldn’t want to go near a toilet that was frequently used but only flushed every few days, would you? Your cat doesn’t either! Especially because his nose is only a few inches away from… well, you get the picture!

Scented/Non-scented litter

Non-scented litter is best, especially if there is a lid on the box (if you still insist on having one). Remember what the cat has to deal with in those close confines, and don’t add another complication! Many cats seem to dislike the strong perfume of some litters, and we aren’t convinced that they may not be entirely safe for kitty’s sensitive respiratory tissues.

The declaw factor

Declawed cats may prefer softer surfaces over the coarse feel of litter. Newly declawed kittens or cats may instantly make an association between the pain in their paws and the litter. Lesson? Don’t declaw! Check out Dr. Jean’s excellent article, “Declawing: A Rational Look,” in our library for a complete, science-based look at this procedure.

If your cat is already declawed, use the softest substrate possible. Spirit Essences also offers “Declaw Remedy,” which helps to disperse the stuck energetic patterns associated with the emotional and physical aftereffects of the surgery.

Making the switch

Cats are slaves to routine. If we’ve decided that a surface preference is a component of their elimination problem, it may only make the problem worse change litter quickly. The best course is to be patient, and introduce no more than a half a cup per day of the new substrate in the litterbox until the switch is complete. Be sure to note if the problem is worsening – if so, just back up to the previous contents, and leave it be for two days. It may take a couple of weeks to change over. But what’s two weeks out of the whole life of your cat? Answer: Nothing!

Is It a Social Issue?

Next, we look to a cause that we often see particularly during inclement weather. Cats who normally have access to the outdoors are suddenly spending much more time inside. This means more turf-sharing than usual, which can shake up the delicate social structure.

The direct results are obvious. You might notice increased tussling or even fighting, or at least unfriendliness. This can be manifested as cats just not moving as freely about the house as they were, growling or hissing, or acting “on guard” or being more easily startled. It’s fairly easy to spot signs of aggression, whether full-blown or more subtle. But there is a trickle-down problem (no pun intended) that may occur: refusal to use the litterbox by one or more of the cats in the home.

Let’s look at an actual case example. A client introduced a new cat into her home, where the resident cat,  Kaplan, had lived alone for his entire six years. The new cat, Mookie, is a one-year-old, very rambunctious cat who doesn’t know much about boundaries. Kaplan was unprepared for the introduction—the two were not initially separated, and from the outset were forced to share a single litterbox. The guardian wasn’t really to blame, as she had always been a one-cat person and just didn’t know about careful cat introductions. But the result was a huge problem with cat territoriality.

A few weeks after Mookie’s arrival, Kaplan reached his limit. Invasion of his favorite resting spots, incessant pestering by Mookie, and seeing his person spending time with the newcomer, all forced Kaplan to strike out. He began to lie in wait for Mookie, jumping him with great ferocity at every opportunity, leading to serious fights and even one abscess. However, it wasn’t until litterbox problems arose that the client called us in.

Kaplan often ambushed Mookie in the most contested location, the litterbox. Since there was a lid on the box, it was a perfect ambush spot, since once in the box, Mookie didn’t have adequate peripheral vision. Mookie began eliminating directly outside the box, where he could see his tormentor coming. Kaplan, in turn, was urinating in the bedroom, which was the “seat of the territory”—where the guardian spent much of her time and left her scent.

It’s important to recall that litterbox problems with cats who don’t get along are a product of the aggression, not a separate problem. In this case, Mookie and Kaplan had to be separated and reintroduced to one another to create positive associations possible between them (see our article on cat-to-cat introductions). In general, however, it is essential that cats never feel “cornered” in the litterbox by other cats. Otherwise, they can form a negative association with the box. If they do, they are less likely to use the box. The first step, then, is to remove the lid from a hooded litterbox. The second step is to make sure litterboxes are in accessible areas. This may be a temporary move as the cats sort out their differences, but squishing a litterbox between the washer and dryer or under the sink creates the same sort of situation as a hooded box. The cats must be able to see what’s around them in order for the litterbox to be an acceptable place to eliminate. Eventually you may be able to move the box to a more convenient location.

Besides this common-sense behavioral approach, we employed flower essences to help reduce the friction between Kaplan and Mookie. In this case, we used “Ultimate Peacemaker” by Spirit Essences during the re-introduction, which worked very well. Depending on the personalities and situation, however, other essence remedies may be more appropriate, including “Safe Space” for the cat whose home is being invaded, and “Changing Times” for the newcomer.

The final essential step is to add more litterboxes! The tried and true formula, “one box per cat plus one”, actually works very well. Thus, in a two-cat household, you should have three litterboxes, four boxes for three cats, etc. Be sure not to put all the litterboxes in one place. The goal is to give cats an expanded sense of territory, which is accomplished by spreading their scent. We sometimes need to put boxes where our cats need them, even though they may not be the most desirable places from our human point of view. If it helps keep the peace—and keep everything inside the box—it’s definitely worth it!

These steps, along with separation followed by gradual reintroduction, worked very well for Mookie, Kaplan, and their guardian. But what works even better is a proactive approach. Taking steps early to diffuse the aggression will help promote harmony in household and prevent many problems from developing.

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