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.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Good Habits Gone Bad - Part 6 of Litterbox Blues

Dear Greyce, I am a 16-year-old  female and live with one purrson. For a long time (several months and likely longer) I have not wanted to use my litterbox for pooping. Instead I poop around the house and am tending to favour Herself's bed.

About a month ago I peed on top of Herself's bed. She washed all the sheets and she moved one of my two litterboxes to across the hallway (much more convenient than the laundry room). All was fine until just a few days ago when I did it again!

The only thing different in the household routine is this: The first time, Herself had been visiting a relative who has two dogs and three kittens -- one of whom may have been in heat. The second time, that same relative (and her human family) came to our place to visit.
Herself has put up with cleaning the poop. She figures I'm too old to retrain. But she is getting distressed by the liquid deposits on her bed. What should I do? Calie

Dear Calie, Cats stop using their litterboxes for many reasons: medical problems, dislike of the litter, a scary location and I could go on and on. I understand Herself has talked with your veterinarian. If what I suggest doesn't work for you, I'd recommend a veterinary visit just to confirm that all is well with you -- because many cats who are feeling unwell stop using the litterbox. But let's see what I can do to help.

First, I will deal with your most recent concern, peeing on the bed. You seem to have already identified the cause: the strange and scary smells emanating from this human relative (and associates). What Herself doesn't realize is that we cats are very protective of our territories and that smell is of primary importance in helping us identify what belongs to us and what could mark the beginning of an invasion. When an unusual or strange smell is introduced into your home, you correctly identified it as not belonging there and became anxious. Depending upon your catsonality, you might rub against the bearer of the smell to overmark it with your scent or your might back up and give it a spray of your own urine. (I can imagine the look on the relative's face if you had done that!) But some of us when confronted with such matters, become so anxious that we can only deliver the message privately. We may feel so unsettled that we need to overmark on or near the purrson we most trust, in the most private and safe space -- in your case, the bed. True, this is not the action of a confident cat.

When this happens, humans do strange things -- they yell at or smack the so-called culprit (fat lot of good that does) and dump all the bedding into the washing machine. Not the best of moves! The best your purrson can do is 1) NOT scold or punish you in anyway -- you are anxious enough already and a scolding will only make it worse; 2) wash the bedding in a biological washing solution; that's a fancy way of saying a product like AMAZE -- sold in the laundry section of most grocery stores and used to treat soiled diapers; it removes the fats from the urine enzymes -- fats that ordinary detergent won't get and that could re-attract you to the spot; and 3) find ways to bolster your confidence by giving you some more, positive attention (particularly just after that relative has been on the scene) -- perhaps a gentle play session, some pets or cuddles -- because a cat who reacts as you have, lacks the confidence to face the dreaded smell head on.

The simplest solution from a feline perspective would be to ban all further visits from or to said relative (and associates); cutting them off would do wonders for solving the problem. However it is highly unlikely that your purrson will see things the way a cat would. And so I offer "Plan B". Since the source of your anxiety is known, we have to change the nature of the associated smell so that it is not so scary for you. Here goes!

Have your purrson buy Feliway (from her veterinarian or pet supply store depending on where you live) -- that synthetic facial pheromone I keep writing about. If possible, this should be in the SPRAY form, NOT the diffuser I usually recommend.

If Herself goes to visit said relative, then as soon as she returns she should spray her trouser legs (and other items that have come into contact with those dreaded others) with Feliway. A few spritzes should do -- no need to soak herself.

If the dreaded relatives visit, then I suggest she use Feliway AFTER they have left (otherwise they will be insulted), on the items they have come into contact with.

In both of these cases (meaning whenever said relative visits your home OR Herself visits said relative), as a precaution, it would be worthwhile giving the bedding a spritz of Feliway or two.

In other words, Herself will overmark the dreaded smells for you with a scent that is very similar to the one you manufacture in your cheeks. It will give you a sense of comfort. Then you will not need to pee there. Yippee (pardon the pun!).

Now on to the poop question. Please refer to a previous posting I made, called Turned Off The Box. In it I mentioned two things that might help you: changing the nature of the litter to something soft, like Yesterdays News or the use of Cat Attract -- see the blog entry for details. Since you have been pooping elsewhere for sometime and seem to like using the bed, I think you like a soft substrate and so you might like Yesterdays News; but Cat Attract also has its fans. Just make sure to read the Cat Attract package BEFORE purchase; the additive can only be used with unscented, clumping litter (with NO baking soda in it). Better safe than sorry!

It is important, however, that you be given a choice and this means that you should have two litterboxes that are near each other -- one with your usual litter and one with one of the options I mentioned. Since you are an older cat and you still sporadically use the litterbox in the laundry room, that one should be kept "as is" for the time being. (Too many changes and/or the disappearance of one of your boxes -- even if located to a new area -- could be too confusing for you.) This will mean that Herself will have to purchase an additional litterbox for across the hallway -- so that you have a choice of litters. But please read all of this blog completely, before you urge her to make such a purchase.

You mention that you are an elderly cat. I wonder if aching bones and joints contribute to your problem. Elderly cats, just like elderly humans, often have sore joints -- it becomes more difficult to use a regular litterbox because the sides may be too high. If high sides are causing you a problem, then you need a low-sided box; unfortunately the pet supply industry does not see fit to make them. So your purrson will have to improvise.

To make a low-sided litterbox, have your purrson take a cardboard box that is about the same size as the litterboxes you already use. Then cut it down so its depth is no more that three inches high. Of course, cardboard gets wet and so if you pee in the box, it could make a mess. Make sure your purrson resists the urge to line the box with plastic or foil, because that will turn you off using the box for sure. Instead put the following underneath the box -- several sheets of newspaper AND then a piece of heavy plastic (like a garbage bag) underneath the newspaper. That way, the paper should absorb any residual liquid and the plastic should prevent it from seeping into the floor. Your purrson will have to throw out the newspaper daily in order to keep things clean. This is NOT a permanent box -- it is just a test box. If it turns out that you prefer the low sides, then Herself can purchase a low-sided equivalent (for example, a metal baking sheet with a rim or a plastic storage container whose sides can be cut down and taped over with duct tape to smooth the edge). Oh yes, of course the box needs to have litter in it!

And by the way, Calie, do you have long hair? Because some long-haired cats dislike clumping litter (see that other blog entry I mentioned) and sometimes, poop sticks to long hair and then gets carried away from the box and falls off elsewhere. But I'll stop now because this is a lot of information for you to absorb.

Calie, just remember that if my suggestions don't work for you, then it would be a good idea to give your veterinarian the honour of seeing you in the flesh --  to rule out medical problems. Sometimes having your purrson confer with your vet over the phone just isn't enough. I hope, however, that my suggestions work for you.