Head for the Hills VHS

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The Can, The Throne, The Toilet…..The Litter Box!

When someone is asked how often they flush their toilet, the answer is usually, "every time it is used, of course!" We all know how repulsive 'porta-potties' are and we are not even asked to walk around in our own waste, like humans often ask of their cats!

So why do we expect our cats to use dirty litter boxes instead of just going somewhere else?

Humans seem to forget that a cat's sense of smell is more sensitive than our own. Add to this the instinctive nature of the cat to be clean and it is easy to see how a dirty litter box often spells disaster. Think about how a wild cat would handle their bathroom duties. They would not be confined to a 1' x 2' bathroom. They would not choose to walk around in their own waste. They would simply choose another plot of land and that "plot of land" could be behind your sofa or in another area of your home.

Cats may develop a preference for an alternative location over that of the litter box, most often, if social conflict exists in a multi cat household and/or if the cat has a shy, anxious personality. A cat may prefer a covered box or a box in a less busy area. By placing an additional box in the preferred location you can soon see if the problem is location preference. When a cat urinates somewhere he shouldn't, it is helpful to counter condition the cat. Thoroughly clean and odor eliminate the place where the cat was not supposed to urinate, then place food bowls in that location. If this isn't successful, then placing a plant or solid piece of furniture over that location may be required.

If a cat squats just outside of the box, then it may be appropriate to startle him/her within the first few seconds of the behaviour to help link the behaviour with the startle. It must not be so severe to make the cat fearful. It may be helpful to place a bell on the cat so you know when the cat is near the litter box. Physical punishment and rubbing the cat's nose in the urine of feces will not work and should not be done.

Provide multiple litter boxes; the general rule of thumb is one more litter box than the number of cats. Litter boxes should be placed in a number of locations: at least one on each floor in a multi-level home. It is also advisable to offer a variety of box styles (open, covered, shallow, deep, big, and small). Litter box cleanliness is crucial. Boxes should be scooped at least once a day (a dirty box is like using an un-flushed toilet) and emptied and washed out every other day if the litter is not the clumpable/scoop-able kind. However, even using clumpable litter, the entire contents needs to be discarded every week allowing the box to be washed out thoroughly. Do not leave any residues of disinfectants or deodorizers. Covered boxes will trap odors which can lead to the cat's refusal to use it. If you are using a covered litter box to minimize odor for yourself, you must re-evaluate your thinking and consider the fact that your cat's sense of smell is MUCH more sensitive than yours. Stick your head inside the box and take a deep breath. If you are unwilling to do this, why would your cat want to use the box?  Even if the box smells ok to you, that does not mean that it smells clean to your cat. Finally, size is important! Boxes need to be large enough- at least twice the length of the cat!

In general, the finely grained, silica, disposable, clumpable cat litters are preferred by most cats. The easiest way to determine the preferred litter type is to offer a cafeteria buffet of litter boxes with several types of litter. If a cat prefers one type to defecate in and another to urinate in, then so be it. A variety of types of litter boxes may also be offered. They really prefer an absorptive substance to soak up the urine fast. Dislike to a hooded box is especially likely when the cat is being terrorized by another individual (human or animal) or if the smell becomes unpleasant. If you are worried about sand being tracked around the house, then either a mat or a towel can be placed adjacent to the box.

Humans tend to think a cat's preference for the "bathroom" would be similar to our preference (private, enclosed, and hidden away).  In fact, the opposite is true. Cats want to be in the center of the room (not hid in the basement behind the furnace). They want to be raised up where they can survey the whole room for dangers. They typically like an open litter box (not a covered one, because that limits the ability to see potential dangers). If a cat makes a mistake once and urinates on a couch or bed, that can be almost instantly habit forming, because the experience for the cat is "purr-fect". The bed is usually raised up, center of the room, quickly absorbs, large area, and is always noticed and immediately cleaned up by the human.

Remember, even a small amount of urine smells strong to a cat! With non-clumping litters, only the feces are removed and possibly a small amount of the urine, thus only 'flushing' half of the cat's toilet. It is much easier to prevent an inappropriate elimination problem with a proper diet, yearly medical care and sound litter box practices than it is to fix one once it starts. If you have any questions please feel free to call your local veterinary clinic.