An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coping with Loss -- Part 7 of Litterbox Blues

There is a song with the words, everybody's got a story that will break your heart. Daisy's story is one of them.

Dear Greyce, My world has turned upside down and I don't know what to do. There have been so many changes in my life that I can hardly keep them straight. So let me begin at the beginning and try to put you in the picture.

I am a senior (11 year old) black and white, Holstein-patterned, shorthaired cat who was the darling of her purrson. We spent a lot of time together; I would sit on her bed and she would fuss over me. I'm using the past tense because my purrson died, seven months ago. Since then all hell has broken loose.

Around the time that she died, there was a strange cat outside who unnerved me by hanging around the windows and spraying the front door. And then the adult human who lives here (along with her partner and a young, teenaged boy) developed a serious medical problem, the symptoms of which were scary and stressful. Then they (those humans) turned the place upsidedown -- packing things in boxes and carting them away, rearranging and getting rid of furniture. I couldn't even recognize the place! To add insult to injury, a male kitten invaded about three months ago and it sure looks like he is here to stay. He is very energetic and wants to play ALL the time. It gets on my nerves so I give him a swat but I lack the confidence to do anything else but run away.

I have been coping with these changes as best I can -- by NOT using my litterbox for anything. I've been doing this ever since my purrson died. It's a good box, filled with clumping litter and scooped clean every day. But I just can't use it. The humans are fed up because they say I've made a mess and its just too much for them. So now when everyone is away, I'm locked up in the bathroom. I pee in the shower stall and poop on the floor. And just the other day, when I was let out of the room I peed on the running shoes by the front door.

They think I am beyond redemption. My only advocate is my 'human aunt' who does not live here; and I cannot go to live with her because she already has several cats. Now they are talking about euthanasia. I wonder if there is another way to help me.

Dearest Daisy, Have you ever read Dante's Inferno? It's about a man who visited the many levels of hell and frankly, my dear, you are in it! My heart breaks to hear what you have gone and are going through. One of your many problems is that your behaviour and the reasons for it, is not well understood by the members of your household. So I will first take some time to talk about that before I discuss how to approach your situation.

From what you have written, Daisy, you are not a very confident cat. You are grieving the loss of the one purrson who made your life quite wonderful, spending lots of time with you and giving you lots of attention. Grief is a natural reaction to this loss and even though humans might think otherwise, cats (and even dogs) grieve too. And like humans, we all grieve in different ways. Some cats withdraw and may even go into hiding, others stop eating, and others pick their fur off until their skin is red and bleeding. Some grieve for a short while and then get on with their lives but others don't. Just as for humans, recovery from grief depends on extra attention, care and compassion from those around you.

Not only did your purrson leave you, but all the routines and attention that gave you a sense of comfort and security were taken with her as well. It does not appear that others rushed in to fill the gap. They were probably busy with their own issues -- like their own grief, for example.

When you were are your most vulnerable, three things happened to threaten you even more:

1) the actions of that strange outdoor cat probably gave you the willies. Smelling his urine at your front doorway and seeing him at the windows (doors and windows being seen by you  as vulnerable entries into your territory) would be a constant reminder that the bully was lurking about. If your humans washed the spray off, they probably did not treat it with an enzyme-based cleaner and so the fats in the urine remained -- things that you (but not necessary they) could continue to smell; and that would put you on edge.

2) belongings and furnishings were taken away or moved, so the most precious smell residues of your most valued person went with them. (It's too bad the remaining humans didn't set aside a piece of her used bedding or used (unwashed) clothing for you --  for the smell could have given you a sense of comfort.) But it is more than the smell that is gone. By removing so much (and probably rearranging what was left -- or perhaps even bringing in some new stuff) they completely altered your territory. Unfortunately, most humans are clueless when it comes to understanding how important territory is to a cat. They don't know that it is critical to your sense of security, even in a domestic (household) situation.

3) a new, young cat invaded. Let me guess, this cat is probably the apple of the family's eye. He's peppy and cute and loves to play. So any time for attention to you has been taken away. And I doubt he was properly introduced to you -- probably just brought in and you were left to face the music. Now don't blame him because he doesn't know any better. He wouldn't know that it could take up to a month of repeated, short exposures along with periods where space would be time-shared, in order to effect a proper relationship. (I've had so many e-mails that relate to the issue of improper introductions that I plan a separate blog -- later -- on how to introduce cats properly.)

So you do the only thing you know how. You express your concern through not using the litterbox. And the reaction? Well that depends on your humans and their understanding of what you are trying to tell them.

In such cases, many humans start yelling at their cats -- or smacking them. Some people would think to teach them a lesson by rubbing their noses in the errant waste. Others would lock them up in the room that is easiest for them to keep clean, and then not clean it with enzyme cleaners so that the errant waste just re-attracts them back to where they last made their deposit. Humans could be so fed up that they stop giving their cats much attention (other than that of the negative kind). Any and all of these responses just succeed in making their cats more anxious and confused, and thus more likely to continue the behaviour that got them into trouble in the first place. And then the discussion goes to euthanasia.

Now your human family has been under a great deal of strain. The death of a family member and all the changes it brings are just as stressful for them as for you. And the serious medical problem of the key adult human in your household cannot be taken lightly. Like you, she probably feels scared, like her world has collapsed and she doesn't know what the future holds. The one family member in your household who likes cats has a young and peppy newcomer to keep him occupied. And the one who is your advocate doesn't live with you and cannot take you to live with her.

Not a pretty picture!

How much this situation can change will depend, largely, on the humans in your world -- on their willingness to follow the recommendations I make to the letter and on their ability to have patience. Then the rest will be up to you.   

Confining Your Travels

I think confining you to a set space is a good idea for the next while. The right space could be your sanctuary and give you a sense of comfort and security. And yes, it is easier on your humans because they don't have to worry as much about finding your waste deposits elsewhere. My only concern is with the present room that is used, the bathroom. I don't know enough about your house to know if that is the main and/or only bathroom available. If so, it means it cannot be your sanctuary because so many others are using it as well. And bathrooms tend to be the places with the most smells in them; thus it can provoke a cat's anxiety. Sure, people think they keep them clean, but a cat's sense of smell is far more able to detect the myriad smells that come forth.

So I will provide two options -- one based on finding another sanctuary room, and the other based on continuing to use the bathroom for your confinement.

Suppose another room is made available for your use as a sanctuary. Ideally it would have a window and some kind of perch nearby (like a shelf, table, dresser, whatever) so you could look at the view -- hopefully a view of birds or the street or the yard and not of a blank wall. If there is a bed or upholstered furniture in this room, it could (for now) be covered with thick plastic sheets; shower liners from the dollar store would do. Over these plastic sheets, old towels or blankets could be placed for you to sit on. It would be helpful to have a cardboard box, turned on its side, and put on the floor far away from the door, in which you might choose to hide.

Your litterboxes (and I will be recommending two for reasons I will give a little later) should be placed in one area but at least two feet apart from each other. Your food and water dishes should be placed as far away from these boxes as is possible. Many humans place all these things together for their convenience. But being such fastidious creatures, we don't like to deposit our waste where we eat or drink. And that means that many cats, when faced with a situation in which all their resources are crowded together, choose to eat and drink there while depositing their waste elsewhere (that it, not using the litterbox).

Since you are VERY anxious, a Feliway diffuser should be plugged into an electrical outlet in that room. The synthetic facial pheromones that waft out of it (humans cannot really smell them) will help give you a sense of comfort. This can be purchased from your veterinarian or a pet supply store, depending upon where you live. It's a bit costly at first, because both the diffuser and the container of Feliway have to be purchased; refills (which last at least a month) can be purchased separately, later. To further alleviate your anxiety, a radio tuned at a low volume to a channel of easy listening music (NOT heavy metal, loud voices or such) will mask other noises.

Some bedding to rest on and a few of your prefurred toys would complete the picture.

When the humans who usually let you out come home, one of them should at least come a say hello to you, calling you by name and possibly giving you a cat treat or two (nor more than that).Transitions in and out of the home tend to be anxious times (keys inserted into locks, snacks to be had, groceries or homework to put down, etc.); so I recommend that you continue to be kept in your room at this time. But having a treat at this time reinforces the idea that the re-entry of humans into the household is a positive event.

At a couple of points in the day, someone should keep you company (say for 10 to 15 minutes twice a day; if that is not possible, then 20 - 30 minutes once a day). That purrson could just sit with you, talk to you addressing you by name, pet you (if you wish), and play interactive games with you (say, with a fishing pole toy -- they just have to remember to put it away before they leave so you don't get caught in the string or accidentally bite it off and ingest it.) Games are one way to help you work off your anxiety. Adding food to your bowl or cleaning out your litterbox should NOT be your main source of human interaction. If, for example, this room is a home office, that person could also do office work there. Keeping you company is the main object of visitations.

At another point of the day -- when things quiet down -- the young, peppy cat should be put in a room (with a litterbox and some water -- and perhaps even a person for company) with the door shut, and then someone can let you out of your sanctuary to explore other parts of the house. Please make sure that the peppy cat does NOT use your sanctuary for this or you will feel invaded and this will make you even more anxious. There will be plenty of residue of the peppy cat's smell throughout the house and that should be more than enough for you to cope with at this time. For now, it would be helpful to keep other bedroom doors closed when you are out of your sanctuary, to limit the possibility of problems.

The door to your sanctuary should be kept open at this time, just in case you want to return to it. And someone should supervise you when you are about. If you show that you want to poop or pee outside the box while you are exploring, then that purrson should gently carry you to your sanctuary and place you in your litterbox with no comment. If you use the litterbox at that time, you should be praised. If not, it means that exploring was a bit much for you at this time and you need to stay in your room.

Start with one or two such exploring sessions for short periods of the day -- 5 to 10 minutes or so -- depending upon human convenience and your own prefurrences -- if you seem to be okay with this (and don't give evidence of wanting to pee or poop in an undesirable location) and they have the time to supervise,
Suppose no other room is made available to you for your sanctuary and you are left in the bathroom, as you are now? Again, my recommendations remain: 1) about litterbox(es), along with the separation of them from your food and water dishes, 2) about the Feliway diffuser, and 3) about the radio -- but make sure the radio is either battery-operated or if plugged in, is NOT near any source of water, since if you walk or jump near it you could cause yourself (or even a human who found you) great harm. Don't forget a toy or two. And it would be nice if you had some way of looking outside or a perch on which to sit (other than whatever floor space is available).

Now if the bathroom continues to be used to confine you, your humans will have to find another place for you when they are at home -- otherwise that bathroom door will be opening and closing and you will have to watch people go about their various ablutions at all times of the day and night (not a pretty sight I tell you). You may also want to escape. Whatever other place is found needs to have litterboxes, water, possibly food and most importantly needs to be yours -- not that peppy cat's. Because that cat is also setting you on edge. That is why I think the idea of using another room would be a good one. (That room can be used by other humans -- as long as they keep the door shut when you are in it so the peppy cat stays out.)

My prefurrence is to have you set up in your sanctuary BEFORE we deal with the issue of the litterbox. However your people may prefurr to have you remain in the bathroom instead. And that will make this next part more challenging. But here goes:

I would like you to have two litterboxes. One box should be the one you already have and it should contain the regular litter than you are refusing to use. (I assume that your current clumping litter has NO scent and NO baking soda additive -- if it does it should say so on the label. This is VERY important because what I'm about to suggest will NOT work if either scent or baking soda is in your litter.)

The other litterbox should be a new, large size, uncovered box. It needs to contain regular UNSCENTED, NO baking soda in it, clumping litter TO WHICH IS ADDED Cat Attract Litter Additive (available at pet supply stores -- call first to make sure it is available at the store of choice). This additive has a scent that is very attractive to cats and encourages them to use the litterbox. It is VERY important that the human read the instructions for how much and how to mix this additive with your litter.

Why two boxes? Simply because some cats who change their litter habits end up prefurring to use one box for peeing and another for pooping. So I want to anticipate that possibility and give you every possible chance to get back on track.

If you are confined to the bathroom when people are not at home, and then are kept largely in another room when people are at home, you MUST have a litterbox in each of those rooms because they are your 'home base'. And I don't want people thinking they will save money by just carting your box around from room to room, because if you are wandering about and need to use the box and find it missing from the place you usually go to -- you will get confused and anxious and are likely to deposit your waste elsewhere. And because you are under such stress, I would prefurr that you have the box(es) in your sanctuary for your EXCLUSIVE use -- no peppy cat waste here please. The smell of another cat's waste right now, will not enhance your recovery.

Exploring Beyond Your Sanctuary

When the humans let you wander about, they don't realize that you have opportunities to become even more anxious. The two main ones are as follows.

1) Encounters with the peppy cat -- even if you run away -- because it erodes your confidence and you never know when he might bug you so it makes you always on your guard. That is why I recommend that the peppy cat be put in another room, with the door closed, when you are out and about. (There is plenty of time to get to know the peppy cat at a later date.)

2) The other opportunity for anxiety is the vulnerable areas (to your mind) of the house (doors to the outside being a key one) where strange smells from outside are brought into your house and territory. This is why shoes (which track smells in), especially running shoes (which really hold smells in), in the front hall (where the door to the outside is) are a target for anxious cats. Your humans can take the following action:  1) clear the front hall floor of ALL shoes, bags, etc. by (say) keeping them in a closet with the door closed, and 2) spraying the doorframe sides (about 8" from the floor) with Feliway spray about 15 minutes BEFORE you are let out of your sanctuary (and again keep the shoes out of the way -- or spritz the offending shoes with Feliway too); Feliway spray is a different form than the diffuser and would be an additional cost. Your humans may not want to incur this cost at this time. (If there is ANY possibility that another cat is continuing to spray your front door, then using an enzyme cleaner -- more about that later -- is in order.) Alternatively they could bar your access to the front hall in some way, but in many homes this is quite difficult.

Cleaning Up Waste "Spills"

Should you deposit waste outside the box, the area should be cleaned with an enzyme cleaner made especially to deal with such waste.

If the waste is on something that can be cleaned in the washing machine (like a towel, small bathroom rug, sheet) then it should be washed in a laundry product such as AMAZE (available in the laundry section of most grocery stores) which is used to clean soiled diapers.

If the waste is on a hard surface (like the shower floor you are now using), that floor should be cleaned with a liquid enzyme cleaner. Examples are Plus II and Nature's Miracle. Such things are available from pet supply stores or from stores that sell vaccuum cleaners or carpets. BEFORE anyone makes such a purchase, they should read the instructions. Different products have different instructions -- some are more complicated than others, and if someone isn't willing to follow them then the purchase is a waste of money. Since many stores have more than one brand of product, it is worthwhile to read the labels on each of them before deciding what to purchase.

Many of the cleaners made to deal with hard surfaces are also fine for carpets or upholstery. But if not, then a product made for carpets should be purchased.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should ordinary cleaners (ones not made for pet stains, ones without enzymes) be used. And NEVER use a scented product.

Making the Plan Work

Okay, who is going to do all these things? Obviously it is up to your humans and I would hope that your advocate could play a role in implementing some of these recommendations and in visiting you regularly.
If your humans follow everything to the letter and you are able to change your habits, then please write me again and I will outline in detail how to re-integrate you more fully into the household. Alternatively (and again if you can use the litterbox successfully), I could outline some suggestions for finding you a new, one-pet, quiet home.

What happens if your humans don't follow these recommendations? If they don't work as well as expected? Then I'm sure they will be contacting your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may suggest trying a medication instead. It will all depend on your veterinarian's point of view and assessment of your human's commitment to your success.

You've been through a lot already and I sincerely hope you will soon be on your way out of the inferno. I am going to cross my paws, Daisy, that things will work out in your best interests.