Solving Chronic Litterbox Problems

A feline behavior expert offers tips to help stop inappropriate elimination.

By Pam Johnson-Bennett

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Q: We have two neutered male cats, 9-year-old Murdock and 3-year-old Drake. After owning Drake one year, we moved into a new house and Drake started eliminating on the carpet, the guest bed and the couch. We have tried different litters, liners, no liners, hood on box, no hood on box. We have two boxes, one for each cat. We finally isolated Drake to try to retrain him. Even in his safe room, he eliminated on any carpet-like material.

We have seen three different vets who say there is nothing physically wrong with him. One vet suggested Feliway. He also gave us a prescription for an anti-anxiety medicine. Drake seemed to make progress and stopped eliminating inappropriately in his safe room. We decided to let Drake out of the room. He lasted 2 and a half days, and last night he elminated on the carpet in our bedroom. What can we do?

Feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of Think Like a Cat, says:
A move to a new home is very traumatic for cats because they are territorial creatures of habit. In Drake's case, because you mentioned he is very attached to you, he may not have handled the sudden move to unfamiliar territory and the stress related to that. Inappropriate elimination is a very complex situation and can have various causes and one of them can be a need to find a safe place. Drake may have been over the top stress-wise and didn't know what part of the house was his.

You didn't mention in your post how you handled the move. If the cats, especially Drake, weren't placed in one room and then gradually introduced to the home, it wouldn't be unusual for Drake to react this way. From Drake's point of view, this house is totally unfamiliar and overwhelming.

One other thing you mentioned in your post is that when Drake was starting to do well in his sanctuary room you let him out. It sounds as if you let him out for too long. When I put a cat in a sanctuary room I then gradually let him out for very brief periods of positive interaction so he can get comfortable with the rest of the home. I'd like to see you bring Drake out for some gentle interactive play sessions for fifteen minutes or so, reward him with a meal or a treat, and then place him back in the sanctuary room. It's better to do lots of short sessions throughout the day rather then risk having him out for several hours and ending up with a elimination episode. As he starts to do better you can gradually increase the time he is out of the room. Don't be in a rush though and always make sure you are there to supervise.

Keep using the Feliway diffuser in his sanctuary room. Do lots of interactive playtime with him, using a fishing pole toy to help build his confidence. Then open the door and conduct a play session right outside the door. Gradually work your way into the main part of the house for these play sessions. Always end them with a treat or offering him a portion of his food. He needs as many positive experiences in the main part of the house as possible.

Set up several open, uncovered litter boxes in various parts of the house. They should be spread throughout the home to allow for different areas that a particular cat may claim. The rule is that you should have the same number of litter boxes as cats but when you're experiencing a crisis such as yours, you need to up that number. I would recommend initially setting up three or four boxes and then as Drake gets more comfortable in the home you'll probably find that one or two of the boxes aren't used that much and you'll be able to eventually remove them.

The boxes need to be in plain sight. Don't put them in closets, under tables or wedge them in corners. Since Drake is not comfortable in the home right now, he needs "escape potential" from the box. This means that he needs to feel as if he is totally safe when in the box and will have plenty of avenues to get out should he feel as if he about to be ambushed or is worried about a potential "intruder". Position the box in a room so it is on the side opposite the entrance. This gives Drake a longer warning time should someone enter the room. The need for escape potential is often why cats eliminate on elevated surfaces such as an owner's bed or a couch or the kitchen counter. It offers them more of a visual advantage to watch for intruders and it makes them feel more protected so they won't get ambushed from behind. It's also why cats may choose throw rugs because they are often in front of objects and out in plain sight so the cat has adequate escape options. This is something you need to seriously look at in terms of your litter box set-up.

As for drug therapy, buspirone is an excellent drug if prescribed and used correctly. The cat must be on the drug for several months at least and it usually takes about 3 weeks before you see a change in behavior. Drug therapy must also be used in conjunction with behavior modification. I think it might be a very good idea for you to look into having a behavior consultant visit your home so he/she can see your cat in his environment and make some specific behavior modification suggestions.

I can't be more specific without knowing more of your situation. For example, what is the relationship like between the cats, especially since the move?

The above information should get you started. Let me know if I can be of more help.

Best,
Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC
IAABC-Certified Animal Behavior Consultant

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Reader Comments

Sunny    Jamestown, IN

10/15/2013 2:09:38 PM

My fourteen-year-old Siamese quit using the litter box after his sister, a sixteen-year-old tuxedo, died almost ten weeks ago. I've doubled the number of boxes from three to six, used a litter box attractant, cat repellant, and nothing works. I know Moses is mourning his companion of thirteen years, but I don't know what to do about his litter box aversion. I've even placed boxes next to his preferred locations (excepting my laundry), a habit I may have broken), and he still refuses to use a box.

janet    bethlehem, PA

3/6/2012 4:22:12 AM

good information, thank you

carol    Somerville, TX

8/4/2009 12:40:18 PM

I got a "dominant" female (spayed) a couple of years ago. I have 2 previous (fixed) cats...1 male and 1 female, both approx 14 yrs old now. The dominant female insists on pooping on the kitchen throw rug and the bathroom rug...not all the time, just enough to drive me nuts (every couple of days)! I've tried Feliway and the diffuser with no luck. I'm beginning to think that she's playing with me! AARRGGHH!

janet    bethlehem, PA

1/9/2009 4:27:26 AM

fortunately my two cats use both litter boxes without any trouble

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