Visiting Veterinarian

Litter-ally a problem

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - October 12, 2006

My cat Baby Buck figured out an effective way to proclaim herself queen of the household. Urinating in the toaster. You can't truly appreciate the power of cat urine until you unsuspectingly pop your bagel in the toaster and set off a conflagration of smoking kitty pee. I don't know for sure why, but Baby Buck pees on electrical appliances. The stove. The microwave. The toaster. Jennyanydots, on the other hand, urinates on throw rugs and bath matts. I love my cats.

Studies indicate that around one third of pet cats have some difficulty with house soiling, also called feline inappropriate elimination (FIE), involving urination, defecation, or both. Many people think only unneutered male cats are at risk, but FIE affects males and females, neutered and intact, all breeds and ages, and is a complex issue with multiple causes and solutions. The first question is whether your cat, Pischer, has a medical problem or a behavioral one. Diseases that can lead to FIE include bladder infections, idiopathic interstitial cystitis, bladder stones, tumors, inherited or congenital anatomical disorders, and metabolic problems like hyperthyroidism and kidney failure.

We begin by asking questions about Pischer's precise behavior patterns, and continue with a physical examination, and lab tests. Which tests, and how many, depends on your veterinarian, your philosophy, Pischer's history, and your pocketbook. A thorough initial work-up might include collecting a sterile urine sample for urinalysis and culture, a chemistry profile, thyroid test, and X-ray. These will diagnose the majority of bladder stones, metabolic problems, infections, and inflammatory conditions. Once we rule these out, we are left with a presumptive diagnosis of behavioral FIE. It's not physical. It's emotional.

All in the mind

So what's Pischer's problem? The major causes are territory marking and litter box aversion. Which one? Well...where does he pee? How much? When did he start this? Does he scratch afterwards? Cats marking territory usually stand, spray small amounts on vertical surfaces (like walls), and do not scratch afterwards. Marking behavior may be set off by moving to a new house, or when a new cat, dog, or even person, is added to the home, or the neighborhood. Cats who squat and urinate larger quantities on horizontal surfaces (like the floor) and try to cover it by scratching are probably not marking. They are just eliminating waste, but in a place you wish they wouldn't. Why? Anyone knows a kid who'd rather wet her pants than use a porta-potty or a gas station bathroom? Pischer may feel the same about the facilities at your house. It's called Litter Box Aversion. Here's what to do.

Number of boxes

Specialists recommend one box per cat plus one. In other words, two cats, three boxes. Too many, you say? Well, would you rather have three boxes or cat pee in your toaster? Location. Cats like privacy, but don't like to feel trapped. The box should be accessible but out of traffic. Private but not claustrophobic. Cats are also creatures of habit. If you had the box in the shower, then moved it, Pischer may keep peeing there. Consider the impact of household changes, and aging. That box in the basement was fine ten years ago, but now Pischer is older, he may not feel like climbing stairs every time he needs to go. Maybe that new dog intimidates him and he doesn't relish the idea walking past Playful Puppy. "No," he says to himself. "I'll just stay here where it's peaceful and pee on the rug."

The box itself

OK, he doesn't have pants to wet... instead he thinks, "I'm not going in that litter box. It's disgusting. I'll just hop in the laundry basket and wet your pants." Pischer wants a pristine box, cleaned daily. Don't just scoop the solids. Remember the urine. Put your nose right down where Pischer's nose is gonna be before you get mad at him for eschewing the box. Then there are covers, liners, deodorizers. Some cats hate 'em. On the other hand, some like the privacy afforded by a cover or a large cardboard box with a door cut in it placed upside down over the box. Self-cleaning boxes scare some cats. Some cats like higher or lower sides. Experiment. Find what Pischer prefers...or call the animal psychic.

Last, but not least, is substrate. Pischer may have specific feelings about texture, granularity, and coarseness of his litter. Most cats like finely textured litter that is not too heavy, but, as all ailurophiles know, cats are highly opinionated individuals. Provide a variety of boxes with different types of litter and see what he likes. Try clumping litter, unscented clay litter, rabbit pellets, sawdust, sand, and/or litter made from newspaper or corn. (Be careful if your cat shows signs of eating their litter. I have seen cats ingest and get sick from some of the "organic" litters.) Vary the depth. Some like deep, some shallow. For cats that pee on material, like laundry or rugs, shred a towel and sprinkle a little on top of the litter. An occasional cat prefers a smooth surface. Try a plain, empty box. Once you find Pischer's preferred substrate, stick with it, but continue to provide a number of scrupulously clean boxes.

Strategies worth trying

Clean areas where Pischer has been peeing with a product specifically designed for eliminating pet odors. Don't use ammonia or chlorine products. These smell like urine to Pischer and may actually exacerbate the problem. Next, try one of a number of retraining techniques. You can put one box at the spot he's been peeing, and a second where you ultimately want the boxes to be. Gradually move the first box, an inch a day, toward the second box. Now, make the area where he has been peeing inappropriately unattractive by covering it with heavy plastic, tin foil, double-stick tape, sandpaper, a tray of marbles, scented potpourri or soaps, or electric "Scat mats." Or convert it, in his mind, to a different function by feeding him there, or putting his bed and toys there. If he pees in the tub or sink, leave a few inches of water in the bottom until he is retrained. Remove temptation. Pick up those throw rugs, put away the laundry.

Do not punish him. It won't help and may make things worse. If Pischer has anxiety or other underlying behavioral problems, discuss these with your veterinarian. Try Feliway. It's a synthetic pheromone you can spray around the environment designed to change Pischer's overall mood and attitude from being, well, pissed off, to one of happy cheek-rubbing contentment. Be patient. All these techniques take time. Occasionally I advise removing the animal from the environment entirely, or confining it to a small area and then gradually allowing access back to the house once a new pattern of litter box use has been established. In most cases a combination of Feliway, behavioral modification, and environmental change help. If all these fail, discuss medication with your veterinarian. And hide the toaster in a cupboard.