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, February 27, 2011

Cat Still Poops Beside the Box: An New Action Plan for Tigress

Dear Greyce,

I contacted you recently about preferring to poop near but definitely not in my litter boxes. I tried many of the suggestions you gave me but they do not work (entry: Tigress Poops Beside the Box - 2/9/11). My folks and I are VERY FRUSTRATED. Please give me ideas that will work for me.

I need your help!

Dear Tigress-in-Distress,

Fear not. Detective Greyce is on the trail!

While not all litter box issues are easy to solve - as you have just shown – I’m not ready to give up yet.

For the benefit of other readers, as well as for you, let’s review the progress that has been made on this case. Be patient, Tigress. I’m doing this so other cats with similar problems can benefit as much as possible from the information – and then I will get to your purrsonal action plan.

We know the following clues about your situation and this has helped narrow the problem down.

1. You and your cat companion, Ebony, get along very well. So social issues between the two of you are neither a source of anxiety to you nor a contributor to your problem. (Can you believe that some of us live with other cats who, for example, guard the litter box and don’t allow us to use it?)

2. Ebony has no litter box issues, so the problem rests with you alone.

3. Your poop is a combination of cigar shapes and puddles. You have no history of digestive or poop-related problems (like constipation or diarrhea). This means that there is no medical problem which causes you pain or strain that you might associate with using your box (and thus seek to avoid by doing your business elsewhere) – either in the past or at present.

4. You are declawed. Why is this important?

Because some declawed cats have litter box issues, largely related to substrate (whatever is used as litter inside your box). That is why immediately after being declawed, most vets recommend the use of compressed newsprint litter (such as Yesterday's News) because its smooth surfaces and lack of grainy texture are easier on the amputations. And a few cats continue to remain paw-sensitive and thus require smooth, non-grainy litter for the rest of their lives. Now, you are not one of them because you have been successfully using your litter until recently; and you continue to do so when you pee.

5. You don’t vocalize while using the box (just before, during, or just after). And this just confirms that pain and/or anxiety with the act of pooping is not a contributing factor.

6. You have confirmed that you are not anxious, either by nature or by circumstance, because everyone loves you and there have been no changes to the household. That’s good news because we don’t have any such issues to mitigate.

7. You tried leaving an area completely around each box clear (rather than up against the wall or in a corner) for you to walk around. No change. So access around the box is not an issue for you.

8. You have not tried a larger box, but once I saw the photo (and I’ll talk a LOT more about that) I knew it wouldn’t work. So don’t bother.

9. You only poop beside the boxes in the alcove. You are not interested in using the box in the laundry room and so it has been removed. This tells me that you both prefurr the alcove location. And just like in real estate, location is a critical and important factor. To you, boxes and the alcove is a match made in heaven. You like the alcove, just not the substrate.

Now here is where it gets interesting – based on a combination of what you wrote me recently AND the photo you sent. Believe me, a picture really is worth a thousand words! 

Important New Clue #1: You are pooping on carpet. I had assumed your boxes were on a smooth surface (like lino or concrete). Knowing that they are on carpet is VERY important.

You see, some cats develop a prefurrence for using carpet. It usually starts like this. They use their boxes faithfully and all seems to be well. But the substrate isn’t that great for them – Sure they use it for lack of an alternative and then, for whatever reason, they discover the softness of carpet. “This is more like it,” they say to themselves and proceed to use the carpet instead. And this tends to happen more often with poop (rather than pee) problems, because with pooping most cats tend to dig more before and after doing the deed, and moving their paws through a substrate they really don’t like encourages them to look for alternatives.

Other cats are reasonably okay with the substrate they have, even though it isn’t the greatest. But once they discover the carpet alternative, all bets are off. They can be encouraged back to using the box and may even do so from time to time. But they really, really like the carpet. In technical terms this is called mild substrate aversion with strong substrate preference and that is what I think you have, dear Tigress because of your experience with Dr. Elsey’s Cat Litter.

Important Clue #2: At my suggestion you tried Dr. Elsey's Cat Attract Litter (with attractant to get you back into the box) two weeks; it worked for a while. This tells me that doing things to make the box more attractive can, at least, get you attention. It also tells me that that is not enough, because there is something else (carpet) that is attracting you more.

Important Clue #3: You approach the box from the side. You are not a big scratcher (either when you prepare your spot or cover it after use). When you pee, you put your paws on the side and do your business in the middle. I am not 100% sure what you mean by this, but the picture I get in my furry mind I have visions of you putting your paws up against the rim or the walls of the box (which would indicate that you want to avoid putting them on the litter as much as possible (i.e., that this substrate just doesn’t do it for you). But you don’t stand on the edge of the box and dig around outside it (which would be proof positive that you detested the litter). You do dig around the carpet area on which you have pooped, which would give you sensory feedback of the loveliness of the carpeted surface on your paws. In other words, this supports my thoughts from Clues #1 and #2.

Important Clue #4: When I saw your photo, it also told me that you are pooping only on the carpet – and not, for example, on the hard plastic that is nearby. So it is definitely carpet that turns you on (and possibly this kind of texture and depth of carpet in particular).

One Other Clue That MAY Be Important

From your photo I see that you use plastic, disposable litter box liners – which many purrsons like (for the convenience of clean up) and many cats detest (either because of the slick surface or it’s getting caught in their claws). Now you are declawed so the latter doesn’t apply. But you might not be that thrilled with the smooth surface.

So what do I now think? You don’t like your litter, though there are things that can be done to it that make it more tolerable (like using Dr. Elsey’s). But when push comes to shove, you believe that the alcove carpet is the best pooping surface by far.

Your Purrsonal Action Plan

To get you back to using your box for pooping, you are going to need to remove the option of carpet from under your feet.

Now before your folks have a heart attack at the thought of ripping up the carpet and replacing the flooring with a hard surface (like sheet vinyl or lino), tell them to take a deep breath and read on.

Here is what I’d like you do to:

Step 1. Go to a hardware or carpet store that sells heavy plastic carpet protector. It comes on a roll (and they just buy the size they need). It is usually about a metre or so wide, is clear, and has pointed bits on the bottom to grip the carpet so it doesn’t slide. Most people use it to cover carpeted stairs or hallways – places of heavy traffic that can damage carpet faster. The good news, is that this is a relatively inexpensive option.

Have them buy enough of the stuff that they can cut it to fit a large area of the alcove. It should go at least all the way around your boxes – except for the side of the box that is up against the wall - for a metre (or even more) so you have no carpet available when you need to poop.

(The other option is for them to get an off-cut of vinyl flooring and cut it to fit the entire alcove space. An off-cut is just a leftover piece that carpet stores offer at a deep discount. Sometimes this is cheaper – if they get an off-cut bargain – and sometimes not. The cheapest short-term solution is the way to go – until we are assured that this solution is really working well for you in the long run.)

Step 2. Clean up the pooped area with a special cleaner made to clean up pet poop – sold in pet supply and carpet stores) so that the smell is removed. This is important because the smell can re-attract you back to using that area. Besides humans don’t tend to like the smell anyway. (There are lots of decent products on the market. Just get one that is prefurrably non-scented and that has the easiest instructions to follow.)

Depending on the product, they can help it dry faster using a hair dryer - but they need to read the label and make sure this is okay. Otherwise they need to ensure that you can’t use that area for pooping. This means pushing back the plastic from that area and then covering it with a weighted box (a empty box with NO bottom and some small holes punched in it to allow air circulation) and weighted with phone books or such so you can’t move it away. This gives the area a chance to dry without you getting to poop over it.

Once that area is dry, it needs to be covered with the plastic carpet protector too.

Step 3. Along with protecting the carpet, they must return to using Dr. Elsey’s in one of your two boxes, so that at least it is a better option for you than not.

So what do I expect will happen? I hope you will go back to using the box. And if not?

If you start to poop on the plastic, then it tells me that your litter is still unacceptable to you and we will have to get more creative. While you have exhausted many of the alternatives, I would need a detailed list of each and every litter tried, before I gave up on this.  (There are a variety of soft litters to consider.) And I’d also give serious consideration to getting rid of the plastic liners. But don’t jump the gun yet. Give Steps 1 to 3 a try first.
If you start to poop on the carpet at the end of the carpet protector, then you are saying loud and clear that you are a committed carpet-pooping cat. The good news is that you are still determined to use carpet NEAR your litter boxes. So . . . we can also go the route of offering a carpet option inside one of your boxes. For this, I’d suggest using box #3 – that one from the laundry room that you no longer use now put into use in the alcove. (Don't worry, we'll get back to using only two boxes, later.) Your folks would need to buy a small bit of carpet similar in depth and texture to what is on the floor. They would still keep the regular floor covered in plastic.

Once you start to use this box for poop, they would SLOWLY (and I can provide very detailed directions about what this really means) cut back on the size of the carpet in the box and SLOWLY replace it with the litter that has proven to be the most acceptable to you. Over time, you would get used to using the box and eventually using one that has only litter and no carpet in it. BUT they would still need to keep your access to alcove carpet restricted by plastic protector (or some such).

Some cats keep prefurring the strip of carpet with either no or very little litter. Frankly, if this is what it takes after all other things are tried, so be it. It's an awful lot easier to replace a carpet scrap from time to time than to deal with poop on the floor.

Option of Last Resort: The other option (only if absolutely necessary) is to confine you in a small room (NOT CLOSET!) which has no carpet (or whose floor is completely covered in plastic protector or a vinyl off-cut. You would have no carpet option here and would likely start to use the box instead. Of course, this means having your food, water, toys, etc. here too. And possibly Ebony. And having visits from your folks. It’s my least preferred option because it takes a lot more commitment on everyone’s part and thus can be stressful. If you go this route, then once you have been re-trained to the box, they could start re-introducing to the rest of the house.

(Note: This is the option many vet clinics use to re-train cats with litter box problems. The cat is kept in a clinic cage with no option but to use the box. If she still won’t use the box, it is removed and the bottom of the cage is covered with litter instead. Slowly the amount of litter is reduced and eventually – when it gets to a box-sized area, the litter is but in a box for use.)

In any event, the rule in your house is going to be: no litter boxes on carpet EVER - even though I remain a fan of that alcove because that is the place both you cats prefurr. And if that means long-term use of plastic carpet protector or vinyl off-cut or consideration of replacing the alcove floor with a hard surface, then so be it.

And please note: lino or vinyl is a better choice than hardwood or ceramic. Some litters do a great job of wearing hardwood down and scratching its surface. And should you have an accident, the chances of leakage (and thus the difficulty of thorough clean up) is more so than on the surfaces I recommend. Ditto with ceramic tile or slate (whose surfaces, if not sealed) can be problematic in a litter box area.

But it's early days yet, Tigress. Before you start diverting your cat nip fund to the re-flooring fund, give those steps in your action plan.
So Tigress, you have some work to do. Just keep me posted on your progress.

I’ll keep my paws crossed!


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