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Swaying Cats to Aim Into the Litter Box


Here’s what you can say for sure about litter boxes and cats. Eliminating outside the box is a significant cause of death. The human animal bond can fracture easily enough as a result of cat pee or poop around the house. No surprise, this is likely the most common explanation for cats to be relinquished to shelters or just tossed outside to fend for themselves. Also, there are absolute rules experts, such as veterinary behaviorists, have researched. But cats being cats sometimes laugh at those rules. For every rule there are a contingent of cats who point out that such rules don’t apply to them.  If whatever you are doing works for your cats – go with it. But understand, your cats may possibly be tolerating and adjusting, for now.

Dr. Meghan Herron, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine says there are three common offenses which cats would post on a blog site, if they could:

  • Box or boxes are too small: “Cats want to sniff around and investigate, then turn around, then dig, and cover what they did in the box,” says Herron. “This is a hard-wired behavior among most cats. Even for your average cat, the average-sized box just isn’t large enough.” Herron and most of her colleagues believe that the larger the box, the better.
  • Box or boxes are too dirty: “Boxes should be scooped daily – even more often if several cats are sharing a box and still more often if at least one of those cats typically has a messy (loose) stool,” says Herron. “And boxes should be entirely changed out twice a year.”

Veterinary behaviorist and chief investigator of many cat studies Dr. Therea DePorter likes hot water, perhaps with gentle dish soap to clean litter boxes. In part, this is because cats’ sense of smell is so far more advanced than our own, and in part because of what might smell great to us (to clean the boxes) can be offensive to many cats. She adds don’t’ use citrus wipes, vinegar, ammonia or household cleaners.

  • Box or boxes are too hard to get to: DePorter explains that the law for cat boxes is to have one plus one more box for each cat in the house. So, if you have three cats, that means four boxes. If you have six cats that means seven boxes. Because so many caretakers are unable or are unwilling to have seven boxes – at least keep a box (or more than one box) on each level of the house. Keep in mind three boxes side by side by side in one room, from the cat’s perspective is like one giant box.

Herron notes most cats prefer privacy to do their business. Who can blame them? Still too far away from the family is inconvenient. Near windows where loud noises occur, or near equipment like furnaces which may blast with an unpredictable loud sound can startle cats. When startled in the box, some cats may instantly have an aversion to that location, and even that box.

            Cats never have accidents out of spite. Think about it, a cat deciding to inflict punishing people by urinating or defecating makes no sense.

Decoding Your Cat

So what’s going on? Herron, who is co-editor of a book authored by many of her veterinary behaviorist colleagues, called Decoding Your Cat (scheduled for release Spring 2020) says that when she was in private practice half the clients presenting with litter box issues actually resolved with medical treatment.

            Whenever there is a change in a cat’s behavior – consider asking “why now?” The answer might be medical.

In any case, the cat is never being vindictive, but instead is only attempting to cope.

Litter and Litter Boxes Through the Years

*Kittens: For kittens under about 9-weeks, DePorter says very small boxes which are easy to get into, are best. Young kitties have limited mobility. Once they reach a few months old, they become circus performers – so getting into the box is no issue, so now a larger box to grow into is fine.

DePorter says that if you do have the opportunity to offer young kittens various litters, early positive exposure is likely a good idea and they may accept that variation throughout life. When adult cats have an aversion to litter, DePorter says considering the general type of litter they were likely exposed to as a kitten may be helpful. For example, barn cats in all likelihood grew up using sand or dirt, and shelter kitties clay or clumping litters.

*Geriatric: Herron says do consider that most elderly cats have a surprising degree of arthritis going on, whether or not you see any indications. What’s more, some illnesses, such as diabetes, GI issues and kidney disease, can induce cats to urinate and/or defecate more often. Also medications may induce the urge.

A golden rule for cats in their golden years may mean more litter boxes in more places.

“Understand the threshold for tolerating a situation the cat really never liked may also change with age,” Herron notes. For example, a geriatric cat who tolerated a certain litter but never really like it for many years on his 15th birthday may decide not to tolerate it any longer. As in people, with age, levels of tolerance may change.

The easier to step into a box, and the roomier the better. Storage containers (like the kind you’d keep sweaters under a bed) with an entrance cut out so the cat can just walk in is a good idea.  Another idea about giving geriatric cats space, DePorter has even cutting an entrance into a small kiddie pool (if you want one of those in your living room) or to use a pan used at the bottom of dog crates.

General Rules of the Road

*Most cats prefer fine unscented clumping litter. Still, all cats are individuals and have their own preferences.

* Most cats prefer covered litter boxes, as they presumably offer privacy and a feeling of safety. Having said that, many cats don’t care and some even prefer uncovered boxes.

* In multi-cat environments products, such as Feliway Multi-Cat, can lower mild anxiety around the box.

* Don’t drown the cat in 6 inches of litter, or be too stingy with less and a quarter of an inch. On average, it’s best to use one to three inches.

* Litter boxes should not too be close in proximity to food or water.

* If the cat jumps in the box and does business then instantly jumps out, it may mean the cat is tolerating the situation but doesn’t like the litter and/or the box isn’t clean enough.

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