The Ultimate Guide to Litter box Issues – The Princess and the Box

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful, grey cat named Princess.  She was the picture of dignity, grace and felinity – until she started eliminating all over my couch and my bed, three times a day. 

The next 9 months, I spent desperately trying to figure out the cause of her litter box issues while cleaning the house to keep it from smelling all the time. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I owe her and her behaviour a lot. She inspired me to dig deeper and set me on this journey to learn more about animal behaviour.

Litter box issues are the most common problem behaviour in cats, not to mention one of the main reasons that people bring their pets to the shelter. And I was almost one of ‘em. It is infuriating and exhausting to deal with as a guardian and it can drive you to the brink of insanity. The resentment and anger that builds up completely ruins your relationship with your kitty who – believe it or not – is not doing this to spite you. In fact, chances are they are as miserable as you are and are desperately trying to cope with an impossible and stressful situation of their own.

So how do you deal with an untenable problem like this? 

 

Step 1:  Do Not Skip This Step – See your vet!

I know – it’s the number one piece of advice out there, but honestly, it is the most important step. So many cats out there are ‘under-diagnosed’ since cats do not complain or show weakness. They are solitary animals – showing vulnerability can cost them their lives. Unlike dogs and humans, they don’t have a pack to help and protect them in the wild. 

So, it is up to us as a guardian to detect the signs. 

Typical symptoms include vocalisation during elimination, small puddles of urine and frequent urination, along with apathy and hiding.

With litter tray issues, you usually want to bring in a urine sample and have your cat checked for lower urinary tract problems. They could have infections, kidney stones, you name it. Alternatively, if their nr 2 is hard as stone, they’re likely suffering from constipation. And these conditions tend to be incredibly painful, causing the cat to blame the litter tray – as the pain always manifests in that location – which in turn leads to them trying to avoid that pain by going elsewhere.  

Litter Box Aversion After Recovery

This also means that if your cat does have a medical issue, they could keep soiling your house and avoiding their litter box even after they’ve been treated. Since it was the evil box that hurt them so, they rather not take any chances. And who can blame them, really?

The easiest thing to do here is to buy your kitty a really cheap, temporary box of a different shape and/or colour. Place it not too close to the old one (or remove the old one for now), and see if your cat will go for it. If you really liked your old litter tray, you can try reintroducing it after a while, once your cat is once again dedicated to using his litter tray – think a month or two after the problem has been solved.

Luckily, in my case, my Prin was perfectly fine, medically speaking. On the other hand, that meant something else was very wrong in my home. And so I start reading like crazy to figure out why she was being crazy – from my perspective, of course.

Step 2: Identifying The Trigger

If your vet has given your kitty a clean bill of health and medical causes are ruled out, it is time to put on your Sherlock Holmes’ hat and find out what is triggering your cat to spread their scent around the house. 

Finding the trigger can give you vital information as to what to do next. Keep in mind though that the trigger might not be present anymore today, but the problem behaviour continues since now a habit has been established. For instance, say there was a sale on cat sand and you brought home a different brand because of that. Your cat, however, didn’t care for it and preferred your rug in the other room instead. Unfortunately, since the rug is perfectly satisfactory to your kitty, they didn’t go back to their litter box when you switched back to your regular brand. 

The trigger (= the sand) may be gone, but the soiling continues! Still, knowing the trigger can help us by providing valuable understanding into what started the behaviour and will help us rectify it in the end. 

So, how do you find out what is – or was – bugging your kitty? 

Ask yourself the following questions

 * What changed in or around the house at the time the behaviour started?

For instance, did you: 

  get new furniture

  Get a new or lose a family member

  notice your (new) neighbour’s cats visiting a lot suddenly?

– …?

* What pattern keeps repeating itself? 

Sometimes, the behaviour only happens sporadically. One of my clients noticed that every time her boyfriend went on a business trip, her cat would eliminate in the bed – on his side. Once he was home again, the cat no longer felt the need. The absence of their beloved guardian was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So, if your cat is eliminating sporadically in the wrong place…what occurs right before the behaviour is triggered?

* Where in the house does the cat eliminate instead of the litter box?

Sometimes, the location itself holds the key to the trigger. Maybe that new rug in the guest room is irresistible due to the privacy and softness? Perhaps your windows and doors are being sprayed – indicative of outside threats like other cats or the neighbour’s dog. Ask yourself – why there?

Armed with all this information,  you can check out the scenarios further below in the urination and spraying section to see which one(s) is affecting your kitty and how to address it. 

Meanwhile, all of this was unfortunately no help to me – I still had no idea why Princess had started using my bed and couch instead of her litter tray.  And I am not alone in this – a lot of owners feel at a loss when this type of problem occurs. Which is why this situation can be so maddening.

So…what do you do when you have no idea what the trigger could be?

Deducing the trigger

There are 3 different ways this problem can manifest itself – spraying, urination and defecation. At first glance, spraying and urination present as the same problem. The thing is that for the most part, they are two different behaviours with different motivators. And uncovering that motivation could be the key to solving the problem. So, let’s have a look:

1) How to identify a spraying problem

 

Spraying is typically done standing upright, with their tail quivering and a concentrated stream of urine shooting out. Usually, you’ll find a stream dripping down from the object that was sprayed, forming a small puddle on the floor. 

Spraying is territorially motivated. Territory is vitally important to cats as it provides their sense of safety and security. Compare this to dogs who can also rely on their pack for their security – unlike a cat. This means that territory is king to cats. 

One of the ways that they communicate their territorial boundaries without conflict is by using pheromones in their urine when they spray. This avoids direct face-to-face confrontation – which can be really costly health wise – and communicates anything from sexual availability to personal boundaries and warnings and likely so much more that we still don’t really know about, due to our own limited scent capabilities.

The thing is, spraying is also considered the most aggressive way of marking. Normally, cats will only use this method on the periphery of their living area. The middle of their territory, where they usually feel most secure will be marked by bunting – you know, that ‘rubbing on your leg and furniture thing’ they do. They’ll rub their faces and flanks against objects and living companions to spread their scent. And then, there is of course also scratching, which acts as a way to maintain your nails, spread your scent and a visual demonstration for other cats around. 

So..if your kitty is actually spraying in the house, they’re either advertising sexual availability and need to be neutered or it most likely means they don’t feel safe in their own home – at all. And they are desperately trying to deal that situation in their own way. It’s not an attention seeking ploy, or any way to seek revenge on their owner. 

It’s an act of desperation, driven by anxiety.

So, what would cause spraying?

First off, sexual advertising would. Usually this is accompanied by the cat desperately trying to get out to find suitors and a bunch of vocalisation.

However, when we’re dealing with territorial insecurity, the answer is any changes in the territory. And this is where things get complex. Each one of the following scenarios is likely to cause territorial insecurity, either alone or in combination with other scenarios, depending on what your particular kitty is most sensitive to. What stresses one cat out of their mind, won’t even register for another.

– Moving to a new home, be it with their current family or when adopted into a new family

– A new family member: dog/cat/baby/boyfriend/…

– Owner on holiday/cat hotel

– New neighbourhood animals (dogs/cats)

– Loss of a family member/pet

– New furniture

– Not enough territory available

– Lack of environmental enrichment

2) How to determine you’re dealing with urination?

 

Urinating is typically done while squatting down, which leaves a big puddle of urine on the floor. though often they’ll prefer using an absorbent surface – one of the reasons why Princess picked my couch and bed for her business.  So why was she doing it?

Something was wrong with the litter box.

Urination means that there is a problem with the litter box, plain and simple. For instance, the most common reason for house soiling and litter box problems is because the litter box is too dirty. 

So, ask yourself, what could be wrong?

Also, you should know there is some crossover between urination and spraying – meaning that there could be scenarios from both lists at work, which will both need addressing. Some cats will eliminate instead of spray to express territorial insecurity or vice versa. These situations can have components of both issues meshed together.

3) Where is the no. 2 in all of this?

Often, the problem behaviour features the liquid version, but no. 2 can certainly also be used to blatantly mark things. Typically, if a cat uses their box for no.1 but not for no. 2, you’ve got a territorial insecurity issue. One exception and something to try is to add another box, just in case you have a cat that prefers to have one box for no. 1 and another for no. 2. If they’re doing both outside the box, there is either something wrong with the litter box, or they’re territorially insecure, or both! At that point, you may want to check out both the urination and spraying section for scenarios that checks your kitty’s box.

Meanwhile, Princess was urinating for sure and not spraying. So, something was up with that litter box. I just didn’t understand what. About 2 months into trying to figure this stuff out, and reading all the books I could find,  I finally caught a break – and my resentment towards my kitty turned into utter empathy. 

One afternoon, I was sitting in the couch when I noticed Princess heading to my ‘litter room’ in the back. In that room were four covered litter boxes, all clean and ready to be used. I heard her go into one of them, scratch the sand and get down to business.

As she’s digging, I noticed my playful, pitch-black Luna wake up. I watched her as she perked her ears at the sound of Princess digging. And I saw her pupils dilating, giving her an evil look. She jumped up and stalked to the back. Intrigued, I followed her. Then, I saw her tiptoe to the litter tray that Prin was using and cleaning up in. She jumped on top of it, waited for Prin to come out and then jumped right on top of her. Next thing I know, there is a hysterical scream of a furious cat and a gleeful black cat running off. Talk about something being wrong with the litter box!

Now tell me, who of us wouldn’t choose the bed instead for our needs next time – where you could see your foe coming from miles away when you’re at your most vulnerable?

Step 3: Addressing the problem

So, here we are. You must be going: ‘ All right, I get it! Cats have good reasons for driving me mental! So, how do I fix it, already!!???’ So, here goes:

Removing the trigger

Remember that trigger that set the cat off which we talked about in the beginning of this article? Yeah, let’s first get rid of that, shall we?  

We had a look at a serious number of possible triggers above, so you should have decent idea of which ones apply to your situation. Each one links you to another post that will show you how to best deal with this particular trigger.

In my case, I removed all the covers from my litter boxes, and put the boxes in different rooms so there was no guarding them or surprising the other cats. And – more importantly – I addressed Luna’s boredom, which was causing the play aggression she displayed towards Princess.

Cleaning thoroughly

Unless you clean the spots that have been soiled thoroughly, the faded scent will trigger the cat to re-use it every now and then. So, it is important to clean things thoroughly. This is true for both actual litter box issues and spraying issues.

Pro tip: if you want to make sure you’ve found all the spots, you can use a black light since cat urine (but also vomit and nr 2’s!) lights up under a black light. 

The best thing to use is a cleaning product that breaks down the enzymes on a molecular level – usually available at pet shops. That way, you know for sure that even to a cat’s nose, there won’t be anything to smell. Though, in a pinch, I’ve been known to use 1 part white vinegar to two parts water, myself. Green soap supposedly does the trick as well. 

In my situation, I also used a watertight tarp that I put on the bed during the day and on the sofa during the night (as I was home during the day anyways). That way, the cleaning process was a lot faster and easier.

Avoid and Redirect

In order to fully break the behaviour, we might also try to change their perception of the area. So, what does that mean ? Well, you could – temporarily – put small food and water bowls on the spot(s) you have cleaned earlier. If this is not an option – due to, for instance, crawling toddlers or gobbling dogs – you could also use a deterrent, instead. Think of things like double sided tape on a placemat to cover the spot. 

Once your cat goes back into its litter tray, you can start playing with the removal of these things. Just make sure you only remove one, then test them, then put it back, remove another, test, and so on. Eventually, you can just remove them all.

With spraying issues, you can use both the Feliway vaporiser and the spray. Clean the spots, then spray them with the Feliway spray to encourage your cat to use his facial pheromones. The cheap variant of this is to use your cat’s own pheromones by rubbing a cotton ball along the cheeks and mouth corners of your cat and pin them on the spots that had been soiled. That way, you mark the spot with their scent for them. You can also add a scratching post instead, so they can use their claws for marking as an alternative to spraying. This is particularly useful near doors and other exits. 

In my case,  I didn’t use this step, but I could’ve – I just stuck with the tarp. I did make sure there was a scratching post near the sofa and plugged in a Feliway the first month, to alleviate some of the tension.

Exercise and confidence

One thing that is really great to use is the 15 minutes of playtime a day (minimum) with a wand toy. It will allow your cat to vent frustrating and alleviate stress, effectively treating the symptoms of their anxiety, frustration, whatever is bothering them. It’s like what exercise does for us.

However, play time can also be used – especially for more timid cats – to build their confidence and change their perception of a specific area.

Say your cat always gets harassed by your other cat in the hallway. That hallway is going to have a very negative association for the one that gets harassed. Once you’ve addressed the bully’s issues, you can retrain your other kitty to enjoy the hallway by owning it. Literally. Just like we can build our confidence by honing our skills, you can do the same with your kitty by playing the ‘quivering prey’ that is scared of them and hides behind things (so do not wave the thing in his face!).  By doing this exercise in that haunted hallway, your cat will see that place as a hunting ground instead and feel more secure and even happy being there.

The playtime exercise was a huge game changer, in my case. Before bed, I would take 15 minutes to play with Princess. When I dragged a string over the bed covers the first time, she trembled so badly for about a minute, I was afraid she’d literally vibrate out of her skin. And then, when she finally let loose, she literally bounced off of all four walls in the room. Apparently, she’d been carrying a lot of stress around. Once we did that daily, she was a lot more relaxed and able to deal with the situation. And since she was a cat with high confidence and still happily visited the room she got ambushed in by Luna, I thankfully didn’t have to help her ‘reclaim’ that area.

The Safe Room Option

In some cases, it can be useful to confine a cat to a safe room. Some use this as a last resort due to the Kitty Jail danger, others prefer to start off with this. Personally, I use it when I find that it just makes the situation more manageable for everyone involved. 

For instance, if your kitty is being harassed and is therefore soiling outside the litter tray or spraying, you can give them a break from the bully by giving them their own safe space where they don’t have to worry about the other cat. It would restrict their access to the trigger (= bully) while they learn how to deal with it properly, through addressing the aggression and potentially staging a re-introduction. 

Meanwhile, if the cat also has litter box issues, they will be learning again what a joy a litter tray can be since there is no where else to actually go to the bathroom. It’s not like they would want to soil their own nest, after all – that goes against every instinct they have. So how long should you keep them in the safe room? The general guideline is one week per month they’ve been refusing the litter box (up to six months), but play it by ear. You’re trying to make them feel safe, not caged, after all.

So, you set up your safe room with the food and water bowl on one side of the room and a litter tray on the other. Also, make sure you have some toys in there and a scratching post. The idea is to make them comfortable and safe when you’re not there to supervise. Then, let them out and have some fun times together when you are in fact there to supervise. Be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of creating a kind of Kitty Jail for a problem animal as that won’t actually solve the problem or alleviate the chronic stress they (and you!) are under.

Since I worked from home, I opted to confine Princess to the bedroom with us at night, so she’d have a break from Luna. Once I started doing that, along with the removal of the litter box covers and playtime, she thankfully started to make progress with leaps and bounds.

All in all, this is the type of stuff that can drive people to tears and desperation – and for good reason. I know I went mad after months of this stuff, and it wasn’t until I saw real progress that I was able to really feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. And it did take me almost 9 months to fully figure it out  and put it all together from the information I had – by the end, she only eliminated on the couch once every 3 weeks, but still. 

There is absolutely no need to put up with this stuff for that long. Recognise when you’re in too deep and don’t be afraid to contact your local cat behaviourist for help. In many cases, this can be resolved within 2-3 weeks. In some, it’ll take a bit longer. And do it before you’re too far gone, before you no longer have the energy, belief and willpower left to actually do the training that is required to remedy the situation.

Before you start resenting your cat so much that you no longer can get past it.

Start with your vet. Often, your vet will know someone to recommend.