Negative experiences may scare cats from litter box
March 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA
Author's Note: Before beginning behavioral treatment for feline house soiling or any other pet behavior problem, a full medical examination should be conducted to rule out physiological conditions that can result in behavioral changes. During this exam, you should describe to your veterinarian all behavioral changes exhibited by your pet so that he or she can conduct appropriate tests as needed.
One of the most common behavior problems among pet cats is urination outside of the litter box. Although many cats are easily litter trained and never stray from their pristine litter box habits, all too often cat owners find cat urine or feces deposited on carpets, furniture, or even household appliances. (One cat owner recently described to me his cat's habit of regularly climbing onto the kitchen counter to urinate on the toaster!)
Last month, I discussed some of the social and biological causes of urine marking among cats. Here I discuss causes for feline house soiling that may not have a territorial or social function.
Many cats start as successfully litter trained kittens, only to begin house soiling as adults. In some cases, a process called aversive conditioning may have created a fear of the litter box. For example, while using the box, a cat may be frightened by the family dog sticking his nose in to investigate, or startled by a sudden noise or movement. Many litter boxes are set up in ways that can increase the cat's vulnerability in situations like this, especially if they are located in corners or are covered. If any event in the cat's environment causes her to startle while using the box, she may develop a fear of the box itself. Upon her next feeling of full bladder or bowels, she may therefore avoid the box. If she then urinates or defecates elsewhere, and nothing frightening occurs, the cat is further convinced that the box is somehow dangerous while this new location is safe.
The same situation can develop if cats experience pain while using the litter box. For example, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can cause pain upon urination. If a cat with a UTI experiences pain while urinating in the box, she may avoid using it the next time she has a full bladder. If she urinates elsewhere and again experiences pain (due to the UTI), she may continue to experiment with new locations in an attempt to find a spot that isn't associated with pain.
While some cats thus develop litter box aversion, other cats develop substrate preferences. That is, they develop a fondness for other, non-litter surfaces. Mattresses, down comforters, and piles of laundry can serve as cozy and absorbent alternatives to litter. If the cat is temporarily unable to access the box (e.g., a closed door prevents access), she may be forced to test out another surface. Many cats prefer to sleep in areas that smell of their owners' belongings, and may simply use nearby areas for elimination. (Owners often mistakenly describe their cats' behavior in these situations as spiteful or vengeful. Simpler explanations can better explain the cat's choice of Dad's favorite pillow or the fresh pile of Baby's laundry.)
Often some amount of environmental modification is needed to address feline house soiling. Owners may need to experiment with new locations for litter boxes or increase the number of boxes. Attempts must be made to prevent access to preferred substrates or make those materials less appealing while increasing the appeal of available litter boxes. Often, a reinforcement plan also must be put in place to reward the cat for appropriate elimination in the box while discouraging or preventing house soiling.