Contrary to popular myth, Garfield wasn't born using a litter box. He was just drawn that way! Cats do not come into this world knowing how to use a litter box--a colored, plastic box filled with sterilized clay gravel. Cats learn what is and where to use the bathroom from their mom at about 4 weeks of age. Learning can happen so quickly that the casual observer may be unaware that any active instruction has taken place. A caretaker must introduce the box concept to orphaned kittens. Otherwise, they will randomly choose a spot and imprint on the texture (cloth towels, dust balls, carpeting, etc).
A kitten should be placed in the litter box upon waking and after meals and vigorous play. His front paws can be dragged through the litter to simulate digging and covering. Most kittens soon take over and successfully use the box. The trick is to make sure it is the only spot the kitten uses. An unsupervised kitten can easily lose track of the box and instead use whatever is nearby when nature calls.
Strays and Feral Cats
If kittens are born outdoors, mom may designate a clump of leaves or some soft ground as the bathroom. Recently homed feral and stray cats may have to be actively trained to use a box filled with clay litter, especially if they have been imprinted on something else. While some strays catch on quickly, others don't. Try a fine-grained sand-type litter rather than gravel-textured clay. In some cases, it may be necessary to start off with the substance the cat is used to (soil, sand, newspapers, etc.) and make the switch by gradually changing the proportion of the old substance to the new one over a period of several weeks. Clean the solids out of the litter box daily, and completely change the litter and wash out the box as often as necessary to keep it clean and dry. Remember, a cat who lived outdoors had many sites to choose from. A dirty box will drive the cat away from the box and to a cleaner, drier spot (the back of the closet). If the cat refuses to use the box at any stage, back up to the last stage at which he was successful.
Is She Spayed...Is He Neutered?
Sexually mature cats use urine and feces to mark territory and advertise for a mate. If your cat is more than 6 months old, he or she should be spayed or neutered. Male cats are neutered and females are spayed. This is a relatively simple surgical procedure that is performed on an anesthetized cat by a veterinarian. Contact your vet or your local SPCA to get more information. An intact cat who does not use the litter box is very difficult to train because his behavior is hormonally influenced.
Spraying...What Is It and Why?
Is the urine puddle up against the wall or along the side of the sofa? If so, the cat is not urinating out of his box — he is spraying. When a cat squats, he is emptying his bladder to get rid of body waste. A cat does not squat when he sprays. He stands with his tail straight up and sends a stream of urine sideways. It hits the wall and runs down onto the floor. It is not clear whether spraying claims territory or warns trespassers to stay away, but it is clear that spraying has nothing to do with having to go to the bathroom.
Spraying commonly accompanies stress. Although both males and females spray, males tend to do so more frequently. Unneutered males almost always do it. The good news is that if an unneutered male has just started to spray, very often neutering him will put a stop to the behavior. Unfortunately, if the cat has been allowed to spray for some time, as is the case with many rescued tom cats, neutering may not solve the problem. In that case, it may be necessary to work with a professional behavior counselor in order to correct the problem.
Clean Box...Clean Cat
Cats will often refuse to use the litter box if it isn't kept clean. For some cats, this means cleaning out the box after each use. For others, once a day is more than enough. If a cat thinks the box is dirty, he may use the area around it (throw rug, sink or tub), especially if he scatters litter around it.
Is He Really Box-Trained?
Some cats can become oriented to the location of the box. You may think a cat is trained to use a box when he is really trained to use the space in which you have placed the box. If this is the case, the cat will continue to eliminate where the box used to be. If you must change a box's location, move the box a few feet each day until it reaches the new location. If you have moved into a new home, actively show the cat where the box is after he has eaten, when he wakes from napping, and at times when you know he has to go.
Changing litter texture (clay to cedar chips or stripped newspaper) or switching to a scented litter may cause a cat to go elsewhere. Switching back to the former litter usually solves the problem. Changing the size or type of box (covered/uncovered) can also send the cat elsewhere. After all, that's not what his bathroom looks, feels and smells like!
He Uses the Box...Sometimes!
Now we come to cats who are box-trained but have accidents. Has the cat ever used the box reliably for any length of time? Does he have accidents once a week, once a month, or once a year? A cat who has frequent accidents is not box-trained. In fact, he is demonstrating that he doesn't know that there is only one place to eliminate — the box!
Use close supervision or confinement to train the cat to use the box and only the box. All previously soiled areas must be cleaned and treated with an odor-neutralizing product. Whenever possible, visually change the areas that are most frequently soiled. Add a chair, an end table, a garbage can or an umbrella stand! If the area doesn't smell or look like the old bathroom, the cat will be less likely to return. If you see him sniffing or scratching around a forbidden area, gently but firmly direct him towards the litter box. If the cat has infrequent or predictable ("he always does it when I come back from vacation") accidents, it may be a sign of stress.
Don't Yell...Clean it Up!
Never hit or become aggressive with your cat for not using the litter box. Punishing him after the act will not teach him to use the box when he "has to go." Shouting, hitting and general stomping around will only serve to damage your relationship with your cat. They will teach him to watch out for you because you are an unpredictable and frightening human being.
It is important to clean a soiled area thoroughly with an enzyme-based cleanser that will not only take out the stain, but remove the odor. If you can't get to a pet supply store, an adequate substitute can be made from equal parts of seltzer and white vinegar. Never use ammonia or ammonia-based products to clean up because they will attract the cat back to the area. Follow package directions carefully, and make sure you are using the product that is best suited for your type of job (dried spots, new spots, spots previously cleaned, etc.).
Frequently soiled, foam-backed carpets and carpet padding can emit an ammonia-like odor. If this happens, enzyme cleaners may not work, so you might have to remove the padding and replace it.
Is it Spite? No, It's Stress
Environmental stress takes its toll on house cats. Studies indicate that there is a high correlation between ongoing stress and house soiling. Cats are as individual as people. Some are bold, outgoing and adventurous, and thus are resilient and forgiving. Others are timid, and thus slink from room to room and run from strangers. Most cats thrive on the predictability of a daily routine. Personal crisis, a new family member (spouse/baby) and redecorating are significant events from the feline point of view. A dinner party (a bunch of noisy strangers all over the place), going away for the weekend (isolation, change in routine, and/or care giver) or having the plumber come in to fix the sink (trespasser) may cause the cat to feel threatened and become anxious.
Take the time to learn who your cat is and how you can best both meet his needs and minimize his stress. Whenever possible, insulate a sensitive cat from stressful events. Create a sanctuary for him and bed him down there during a big party or renovations. In addition, prepare the cat well in advance of a change in routine. Have the cat sitter come and feed him several times before you leave on vacation.
Dealing with stressful situations can be very difficult for a cat. The cat may continue to avoid the box and/or urinate on personal objects like bedding, clothing and your favorite chair in the presence of unresolved, ongoing and/or escalating stress. This is not to say that you must eliminate the stressful element, but instead alter the cat's perception of it through socialization and/or desensitization. Consider working with a professional behavior counselor.
The Multi-Cat Household
Cats have a social hierarchy that includes not only dominant and subordinate roles, but pariahs or outcasts. The structure of the hierarchy is completely dependent on the individual personalities of the cats involved. Outcast cats hide most of the time or spend their days on the highest spots to which they have access. Other cats may attack them regularly, but they will rarely fight back. If you find that the house spoiler is an outcast, the best thing to do may be to find him a new home. A cat who was a outcast in one group may fit in well with a different or smaller group.
Ongoing stress within a multi-cat household can drive one or more of the cats to spray (mark territory) or urinate and defecate out of the box. If the presence of a new cat is causing an existing cat to soil the house, confine the newcomer and make every attempt to keep the first tenant's life as stable as possible. Other solutions for problems in a multi-cat household include multiple litter boxes placed in separate spaces and creating more "cat places" with multiple levels (scratching posts with hideouts and/or lookouts, carpeted shelves, etc.).
Retraining...Can He Be Helped?
The first step toward finding a solution is to rule out any health problems (worms, cystitis, intestinal disease, etc.) by having the cat thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. Once it has been determined that the cat is in good health, training can begin.
The method of choice is a combination of confinement and supervised freedom. The cat starts the program in confinement. Most cats do well in small rooms. Bathrooms are recommended since they typically have unabsorbent tile flooring and offer privacy. Since it is essential for people to use the bathroom on a regular basis, the cat is never isolated for an extended period of time. In addition to necessary rest stops, you should make time for three or four 20-minute sessions with the cat. Play, groom, talk and/or feed during the sessions. Put a cat bed and some toys in the room. Remember to place the bed and all bowls in the corner furthest from the litter box.
It is necessary to place some cats in an area smaller than a room for them to learn to use a litter box. This is because they will go in the wrong spot if they are given any opportunity to do so. In these cases, a cattery cage or kennel is useful. The enclosure must be big enough to accommodate the cat bed at one end and the litter box at the other. If the cat urinates on the cat bed, it must be removed. Feed the cat two meals a day, leaving the food down for approximately 20 minutes. Keep a diary and be sure to note when the cat uses the litter box.
When the cat has been using the box and only the box for two weeks, you can begin to allow him access to other rooms in the house one at a time. Observe the cat from a distance. Make sure that he has not fallen prey to old habits. The best time to let him roam is right after he's used the box. Make sure to return him to confinement before his next scheduled "pit stop." Do not leave the cat out when you are not home. Only when you observe the cat reliably returning to the litter box on his own can you begin to cut back on the supervision. Do not leave food out all day long. Constant nibbling increases the chances of a misplaced bowel movement. The cat should not be able to urinate or defecate outside of the box without being observed and directed toward it. It is better to proceed slowly and build a h4 foundation than to rush through the procedure because it is inconvenient or time-consuming. In order for effective learning to take place, the cat must be watched carefully and encouraged to use the box. Consistency is everything!
The complexities of cat behavior become quite evident when dealing with a cat who does not reliably use his box. The solutions often require patience, and always require consistency. Be sensitive to your cat's needs. Your investment of quality time and attention will be well rewarded.