Many cat owners have had the unfortunate experience of living with a cat who suddenly decides that her litterbox is no longer to her liking.  For reasons known only to the cat, beds, furniture, and carpets become fair game for answering nature’s call.   While this behavior is often dismissed as spiteful, fussy, or eccentric, the truth is that our cats may be trying to tell us something.  Let’s take a look at some of the causes of this frustrating behavior.

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Your cat may be sick

Cats who are suffering from urinary tract infections, diabetes, or kidney disease may be unable to get to the litter box in time.  Before addressing any behavioral issues, take your kitty to the vet for a thorough checkup.  An analysis of her blood and urine will determine if she is dealing with a medical or behavioral problem.  In my experience, I have found that resolving any underlying medical problems almost always stops the unwanted behavior.

You may not have enough litter boxes

Households with cats should contain one litter box per cat, plus one extra box.  For some of us, that’s a lot of litter boxes, but just making this one change can prevent or eliminate the problem completely.  Each box should be scooped daily and the litter changed at least once per week.  When changing the litter, wash the box thoroughly with a mild, non-citrus based cleanser.  Nobody likes a dirty, high-volume public restroom.  And neither do our cats.

Our cats do not share our tastes

Cat owners are big fans of covered litter boxes.  They keep odors out of our environment, and discourage dogs and young children from going exploring.  However, those same covers trap odors inside the box, making for a very unpleasant experience our cats!  The same holds true for perfumed cat litters and heavily scented cleansers.  You may also have to try several different types and textures of litter before finding one your kitty likes.  Remember, what works in our world might not necessarily work for our cats.  Make sure all litter boxes are as long as your cat from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail, and that she can get in and out of the boxes easily.  Shallow boxes are a better choice for young kittens and senior cats.  Be mindful of the placement of boxes as well.  Cats appreciate peace and privacy when nature calls, so place boxes in low-traffic areas, away from noisy appliances and rumbling garage doors.

Your cat may be stressed

While it may seem to us that cats have the perfect life, once again, we need to look at the environment from their point of view.  Changes we take in stride can be confusing and upsetting for a cat.  A new partner, a new pet, a new baby, a new work schedule - these are just a few of the things that can wreak havoc on a cat’s sense of security.  An anxious cat may respond to Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that mimics the scent of a lactating mother cat.  While odorless to humans, the scent is very powerful to cats and can give them the sense of well-being and calm that stems from knowing that “Mommy is here.”  Feliway is available as a spray or diffuser and can be found on Amazon.com.  Stress can also be managed by enriching your cat’s environment with food puzzles, extra play sessions, and Cat Sitter DVDs that can be played while you are not at home.  A shelf mounted to a window sill can provide hours of entertainment and relaxation, especially if the window faces a bird feeder or butterfly garden.  These simple changes do wonders for alleviating boredom, which is yet another source of stress for our cats.

Your cat may feel threatened

If you live in a multi-cat household, you may have a bully in your midst.  Inter-cat intimidation can be very subtle, so watch out for staring contests and resource guarding.  A bully cat may even guard the litter boxes!  If you suspect your cat is being bullied, the bully needs to wear a cat-safe collar with a bell on it.  This will warn your other cats of his presence and give them ample time to move away.  Give your cats access to high places such as shelves and kitty condos, as height gives them a sense of security, as well other options for avoiding or escaping bullies. 

It also helps to evaluate the outside of your home.  South Florida is home to a large population of free-roaming and feral cats.  Ferals may be visiting your yard while you are sleeping or away from your home.  While their presence can easily go unnoticed by humans, our cats are acutely aware of theses uninvited guests.  Outdoor cats may be hissing or glaring at your cat through sliding glass doors, or marking their territory just outside your home.  This can cause tremendous anxiety for your cat, and can drive her to mark her territory inside your home.  Discourage outdoor cats from eliminating near your home by replacing dirt with rocks or concrete.  If you don’t want to tear up your gardens, place plastic forks with the prongs pointing up in the soil to prevent digging.  And if you’re not growing edibles, a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper will quickly and humanely let ferals know that your garden is not their bathroom.  If you feel compelled to feed outdoor cats, make sure they are all spayed and neutered and feed them as far away from your home as possible.

Inappropriate elimination is the most common reason adult cats are surrendered to shelters.  And adult cats with behavioral problems rarely make it out of shelters alive.  With a little proactive management and a lot of empathy, we can help our fabulous felines live the rich, fulfilled life that they deserve.

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