LITTER BOX LOGIC
Lisa Nelson VMD
"Why is my cat not using his litter box?" is a common question that owners ask their veterinarian…. unfortunately, there is not always a quick and easy answer! There are, however, some things that you can be aware of that may prevent litter box problems from occurring, and are good places to start if litter box problems do occur.
If you find that your favorite feline is using the "wrong" place, your veterinarian should examine your pet. A urinalysis will determine if your cat has an infection, urinary stones, or other condition that causes pain; a stool sample should also be tested for parasites or blood. Any reason that your cat is painful may cause him to avoid the litter box, and go elsewhere; the longer the problem goes on, the more your cat learns to prefer the new areas or surfaces. If your veterinarian determines that there is no health problem, your cat's choice of where he is going may be related to "The Three Ls": litter, litter boxes, or location.
Let's look at litter first. There are a lot of choices for litter available at pet supply stores and supermarkets. There are clay-based litters which are coarse, clumping type litters which are more like sand, litters with deodorants, and then there are other types made up of recycled newspaper, silica beads etc. Generally, many cats prefer the soft clumping litters. Longhaired cats in particular favor this; as kittens they become used to the soft feel of their mother's fur and this gets translated into preferring soft litter. Once you find a litter that your cat likes, stick with it. Changing type of litter or even brand of litter can make your cat very unhappy. If you find your cat eliminating next to the litter box, trying to keep his feet out of the box as he uses it, or using the box and then scratching outside the box, there is a good chance that your feline is telling you that, as far as he is concerned, there is something wrong with the litter. Litter choice is one way to go-give your cat a choice of several types of litter in several boxes, and see which one she prefers, then use that. Some cats will not use litter with deodorants or baking soda-they do not like the fizzing sound that soda makes when it gets wet. Litter type is important, but no more so than keeping the litter box clean. Cats are fastidious about cleanliness. The general rule is that you should scoop the litter box twice daily, and add fresh litter to replace what you have removed. If you use clay litter, change the litter weekly; if you use clumping litter, you can usually change the litter every 1-2 months. Use only hot water to clean the litter box as many cats will not use the litter box after it has been cleaned with a detergent, no matter how well you think you have rinsed it.
Litter boxes are another area that can cause or solve problems. There are many choices: covered boxes, open boxes, self-cleaning boxes, and plastic liners that hold the litter in the box. Covered boxes may seem like a good idea to us as they hide the litter; but with the litter out of sight, its easy to forget to scoop it or change it, and odors can really build up inside. If your cat is a large cat, getting into a covered box may be tricky. Also, if you have several cats and one is being bullied, getting into a covered box is a little like driving into a blind alley-there's no place to go to escape! Open boxes allow cats to see who is out there, and you can improvise to use larger boxes for large cats or for cats that like to do a lot of scratching. One solution that seems to work well is using a sweater storage box, which is bigger and deeper than regular litter pans. Even though liners make life easier for us when we changed the litter, some cats do not like the feel of plastic. Try offering your kitty a box without a liner to see if this part of the problem.
Where is the best place for a litter box and how many should you have? Keeping the litter box away from high traffic areas, such as entryways, stairs, and busy rooms is important. Also, remember that most cats prefer not to eliminate near where they eat, so move that litter pan away from the feeding area. A quiet room, such as a spare room, bathroom or basement area is best. Noisy furnaces or laundry machines can be scary to cats, so try to avoid putting litter boxes in their vicinity. Generally, a good rule is to have one litterbox for each cat and then one extra. So, that means four litter boxes for 3 cats. It's best to spread them out in the area they are in, or even put them on different floors in the house, so cats are not forced to use the same area at the same time.
A word about punishment: if your cat is having litter box problems, punishment will only make it worse, especially if it is after the fact. If you catch your cat in the middle of the act, startle her and then quietly place her in the litter box. If punishment is associated with litter box, your cat will avoid it and find a quiet, safe place to eliminate that is out of sight from people. Clean up is another important factor: use a good enzyme or bacterial based odor neutralizer.
If you make the changes above, and are still having problems, ask your veterinarian for further help. Most litterbox problems can be solved, or at least managed, so that your cat will remain a wonderful companion and family member for many happy years to come.
Lisa Nelson VMD is a member of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association. For more information, visit www.vtvets.org.