Litter Box Issues

Litter Box Issues and How to Solve Them

Cats may not use the litter box for a variety of reasons. They may need to be neutered or spayed. They could be sick and have a UTI, crystals, or an irritated bladder or an illness. They could be ignoring the box due to litter type or box location or because the box is dirty. Stress, fear, and anxiety could have developed regarding the box. Another cat, pet, or person could be bothering the cat when it tries to use the box. Never punish a cat for having this problem, no matter how upsetting or frustrating it may be. Try to work with the cat to discover what it needs and what clues it is giving you regarding what it needs.

We have had problems with the cats not always using the litter box and the reasons have varied from cat to cat.  One cat, Jimmy Stewart, is very sensitive and was easily bullied by our older and much larger cat, Cooper.  He eventually became weary of using the litter box.  We're not sure why he couldn't use the box because Cooper never seemed to bother him when Jimmy used the box.   Eventually, we found behavioral techniques that worked as well giving him Prozac, both of which contributed to him now always using the litter box.  But that process took a few months to discover and a few more months to resolve, and another year before we knew he could use the box on his own.  But we still use behavioral techniques.  Elizabeth, Bette, and Baby are prone to UTIs and Bette and Elizabeth are prone to idiopathic cystitis. Elizabeth and Baby take Buprenex to keep the cystitis from flaming up and causing bladder irritation which leads to going out of the box.  Bette is now on Valium to ease her pain and possible anxiety but still has trouble from time to time using the litter box.  Cooper had hypercalcemia-high calcium levels-which we believe contributed somewhat to his inability to always sit in a box.  He sometimes stood up and urinated and because he was long and tall, the urine traveled over the edge of the box.  Not only did we need to bring down his calcium level but we also put him on Valium to ease any anxiety he may have felt when he tried to sit in the box.  With Valium he sat almost all of the time but still went over the box from time to time.  Myrna takes Valium to relieve her anxiety which may have been caused by the constant need to urinate as caused by the lasix.  

These are the basic behavioral techniques we developed through reading websites, books, and talking with a behavioral specialist at the local Humane Society.  Try to work with your cat, discover its needs, and discover the clues it gives about when it needs to use the litter box.

First, make sure the cat doesn't have a UTI, crystals, or any health issues. Take the cat to the vet for a check-up.   If there is no sign of blood or crystals in the urine, if the pH level is normal, if the kidney blood work values seem normal, if glucose, protein, or blood do not appear in the urine, then assume the cat doesn't like the litter, or that the boxes are not scooped often enough or washed on a regular basis, or that more boxes are needed.

Second, work on any issues with the litter boxes.
Clean the boxes with soap and water and when dry, add fresh litter.
Always scoop the boxes 3 or more times a day.  For example, in the a.m., in the afternoon, around dinner, and at bedtime.  A box that is full of mess will not leave room for a cat to sit and go.  And cats also do not like stinky boxes.

If you only have one box, use two. If you have two boxes, use three. There should be one box for each cat plus an extra one.  Use large boxes more than smaller ones.

Boxes should be placed on every floor and maybe in more than one room on each floor. Make sure the cat can always get to the box uninterrupted and can go in peace and quiet. 

 Use the fine grain of clay litter and not the old fashioned large grain clay litter. Put that litter in one box.   Then test other types of litter such as pine, wheat, or corn to see which one your cat will use and put that in a different box.  Sometimes, when a cat is afraid to use a litter box, they will associate that litter with whatever fear they feel.  A different type of litter won't have the same connotations.  We tested wheat and found Jimmy was willing to use that when he wouldn't use the clay.   We currently use Wheat, unscented Fresh Step, Clump and Seal regular (do not use "light weight" as it doesn't work well), Precious Cat and Cat Attract.  

As a side note, you'll want to use litter that is dust free or almost dust free.  All of the above are dust free except Fresh Step.  We use it sparingly in one box per floor.  When we had half the boxes in the basement filled with Fresh Step, there was dust all over the basement and even on the first floor above.  You can smell/taste it when you sniff items and when you clean.  

 Try a litter without a scent or with a slight scent. Sometimes litters are too heavily scented and not even you will want to come near the box.  

Be careful with litter additives that keep down the smell. These could irritate noses or bladders and may scare off the cat.  

Don't use plastic liners.  They might interfere with the comfort or scratching ability of the cat and will be ripped eventually so the box will still be dirty. 

Develop a routine with your cat regarding when to use the litter box.  Watch your cat for signs that it needs to go. Does it begin to scratch or sniff around rooms?  Does it begin to pace or cry? Learn the signals your cat may be giving that indicate it needs to use the litter box.

How often does your cat use the litter box and when?  First thing in the morning; after meals; what time in the evening?  See if you are able to discover when your cat needs to go and take the cat to the litter box and develop a routine around those times.  Try to get the cat to go in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. 

Gently place the cat in a clean litter box once each day and when it jumps out of the box (which it probably will) pet it, praise it, and give it a treat.  This will help the cat associate something good with the litter box. When the cat does use the litter box, give it a treat, praise it and pet it.

Use cat treats with your litter box routine.  The cat may have developed a negative feeling about going in a box and treats can be a way to create a positive atmosphere.  Toss or place a treat near the litter box and see if your cat will eat the treat.  Gently tell your cat to “use the litter box” and see if that eventually works to entice the cat. The process may take a few treats and a few minutes but eventually your cat may catch on. 

There are many cleansers that will remove urine odors from floors, walls, and objects.   Many websites say that when cleaning up urine, never to use an ammonia based cleanser because urine has ammonia and such a cleanser will only attract a cat to urinate in that spot again.   One website said that since cats detest citrus smells, to clean with a citrus scented cleanser.   I have found that simple soap and water-be it dish detergent or any detergent based household cleanser-works well at getting rid of most urine odors.  I would carefully soak up any wet urine (when urine dries it can be difficult to find but you will still smell it) and then carefully clean the area with a good detergent, being sure not to spread the contamination to unaffected areas or objects.   Then I would clean the area with kitchen bleach spray if the area could take the bleach.  

Often, once cleaned, an area needs to be cleaned again with something to get into crevices and kill off the remaining urine residue or else, if the cats can smell it, they will come back to that spot again.   Bleach will kill what causes the odor and will seep into cracks and crevices (such as crevices in floor tile, behind baseboards, under baseboards, down into windowsills, hard to reach to clean areas, etc.) have trapped the urine, getting rid of the residue which could attract a cat to urinate there again.  The cleansers we use are Method Grapefruit spray, Murphys Oil Soap (it smells like orange), Palmolive dish detergent, and Earth Friendly Orange Plus liquid cleanser, as well as kitchen spray bleach where possible.   Kitchen bleach spray or bathroom bleach spray in a spray bottle is faster and easier to use than trying to mix your own bleach and water combination but it's up to the user.  Remember that paint, wood trim, fabrics, etc. will be fade from the effects of bleach.  Use it carefully but sometimes it's the only thing that will get rid of all of the urine that the cleaners has missed.  Sometimes peroxide has worked well.  We used it on a difficult spot on the wood floor where the cats kept urinating.  First the area was carefully cleaned then doused with peroxide and left to sit for a few hours.   In other instances, after carefully cleaning, baking soda worked well as when the cats urinated on the brick fireplace.  Bleach worked to get into the crevices but the cats kept urinating there anyway.  After carefully cleaning the area again, I wet the brick, doused it with baking soda, and put baking soda on the floor beneath and left it a week.  The cat's didn't touch it and after I vacuumed up the baking soda, they never bothered the fireplace again.  It did leave a white residue that did take a couple years to fade but it was worth it.  But the best method to eliminate urine odor residue has always been bleach after carefully cleaning the affected area first with a detergent.  

There are a variety of cleansers and sprays that are made specifically as pet odor eliminators and are meant to get rid of urine smells.  I have used them where I couldn't use bleach, or in the cat carrier (because it's safer than bleach).  Some smell like bad cologne and work well at dissuading a cat from urinating in an area if sprayed where the cat would urinate.  The Arm and Hammer  Pet Odor Eliminator spray at that time did stink like bad cologne and dissuaded urinating in certain areas.   Nature's Miracle (found mostly at pet stores) I believe is peroxide based and works very well to eliminate odors, is safe to use in the cat carrier, works well to get into crevices if you don't want to run the risk of using bleach. 

You must clean the urine marked area thoroughly.  In fact, if your cat has gone out of the box around the house or “marked” it, you will need to do a thorough cleaning of the house in order to make sure you have removed urine smells that could continue to attract the cat.  I washed all the walls around the house, from the floor or base board up the wall about eighteen inches because when cats spray, they tend to stand and urine will go up the wall and come down and run behind baseboards or trim, or through cracks in floors, cracks in tile, tile grout, bricks and crevices, etc.  I would wipe the bottoms of and the legs of and underneath the legs of every piece of furniture.  I would wash all the blankets or bedding whenever a room had become contaminated.   Anything that could we washed, went into the washer.  I found that if I wiped with a damp rag the furniture, backs of chairs and the couch, seats, pillows, that if urine was present, the water would activate the smell.  I would use fabric safe cleanser such as Method spray (I prefer grapefruit) to clean the furniture.  If the odor remains, use an upholster cleaner.

If an object, furniture, floor, or wall keeps getting hit, it’s because it’s not free of urine.  You’ve missed something nearby or have not fully removed the urine smell.  Clean again and around the spot.  If your cat keeps hitting an object, remove the object.  If your cat keeps hitting an area, put an object there to block access and see if Feliway or a smelly urine cleanser or something will keep the cat away.  If your furniture keeps getting hit in the same spot, remove the furniture if possible.  If not, clean it and then cover it with plastic and over that place a couple layers of blankets.  Check from time to time to make sure the furniture is drying and that the urine smell is disappearing.  If the cat stops hitting that piece of furniture after you've cleaned and covered it, then you'll know that the smell was covered and that's why the cat no longer is hitting the couch which means you'll need to make sure to continue to carefully clean the couch until the smell is gone.  We have used all of these methods and they worked.  For some reason, removing an object that gets hit despite carefully cleaning it, prevents the cat from hitting that area again.  But in another case, the cat kept hitting the area so we finally put a litter box there (in a bedroom) and covered the floor and walls with bedpads  from Target (using painters tape on the wall and white duct tape on the pad taped to the painters tape.)  That worked well.  And in other cases, placing cardboard boxes for the cats to sit on decreased and then prevented the cats from urinating in another spot.  Find what works best for you. 

 To improve your chances of cleaning, don't move anything that is contaminated or you may spread the contamination.  First, try to prevent the urine from running if it is still fresh by soaking up the urine with paper towels.  Don’t wipe it up or you may spread it.  Then carefully pick up and clean any objects and place them away from the mess until the area is entirely cleaned.

Don’t carry wet paper towels or other towels through the house or you might drip urine around the house. Place these in a garbage bag and then into the garbage container/washer.

Use more than one fabric washcloth or towel to clean with soap and water.  You can’t use only one fabric towel because a towel with urine on it will spread the urine to other areas and the result will be that the urine smell will still be present.  Place the dirty fabric cloths into a bag and then dump them into the washer and clean them immediately to prevent the spread of the smell of urine.  

If furniture is near where the cat urinated, furniture may have urine on it or under the feet of the object so clean carefully.   Anything that can we washed in a washer or dishwasher should be at this time and moved without spreading the urine throughout the house.

 Feliway hormone spray is a spray or plug-in diffuser which distributes a pheromone that is supposed to calm cats.  We used it initially with Jimmy and lately around the litter boxes for Bette.  It has a limited success rate in our house. We have never been able to use it alone to solve any litter box avoidance issues. We found it worked best when it was sprayed around areas of the house where Jimmy kept urinating.  It seemed to dissuade him from urinating in those spots.   If sprayed lightly around boxes, it seems to help calm cats so that they feel more comfortable to use the boxes. 

 If a cat connects an area or object with food, the cat may eventually not urinate in that spot.  Try feeding a cat treats in affected areas.  We would toss treats in corners, on furniture, around areas where Jimmy and Myrna would urinate. We continue to use this behavioral method even though they now both use the litter box.  We do that because when a behavioral technique works, you must keep up with it to continue encouraging good behavior.   

 Finally, you may need medication to calm a cat. Medication will be given maybe once or twice a day.  You may give a pill or you may need a compounded liquid version so that you can adjust the dose as needed.  Despite seeing a reduction in urinating out of the box with the various cleaning and behavioral techniques, we found that Jimmy still needed medicine to use the litter box.  We eventually settled on Prozac.
There are a variety of medications that cats can use.  Discuss your options with your vet.  Be aware that you may need to try one medication and then another. The cat may need the medication for a short time before the problem is resolved or may need to take a medication for the rest of its life.  The dose may need to be adjusted up or down before you find a dose that works for the cat.  

Buprenex or buprenorphine is a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory agent which is good for either HCM cats or for those with cystitis.  Valium is a good anti-anxiety medication and is safe for HCM cats and can usually be well tolerated by cats.  Blood work is needed to check for liver and kidney function as Valium is known to cause liver damage or failure in some cats.  Prozac can be used safely by most cats except those with heart disease (and maybe other illnesses so always discuss your options with the vet.)  Studies have shown that Prozac cures the majority of the cats and decreases the majority of the issues as compared with other medications.  Jimmy did have severe urine retention and could not urinate for almost 24 hours at a time and developed a rather ballooned bladder.  We eventually solved the problem by decreasing his dose and gradually increasing the dose to his current level of .130mg.  In order to adjust the medication as needed, we use a compounded liquid version we purchase from a local compounding pharmacy.  Google “compounding pharmacy” for a pharmacy near you if you need a medication compounded.  Or try an online compounding pharmacy called Road RunnerClomicalm (or Elavil) is less effective than Prozac but some vets choose to prescribe that first.  Studies found it only helped about half the cats and only solved half of the incidents.  Amitriptyline is another med that vets will prescribe before Prozac.  We tried Amitriptyline with Jimmy first but it led to severe urine retention and it only seemed to decrease his tendency to urinate out of the box by about a third.

Curing a cat of marking, finding out the cause and the cure, can take time.  It doesn’t help to hit or yell at the cat, to spray it with water, or to use any physical punishment.  That only exacerbates the problem and increases fear in the cat about using the litter box.  Take the time to find out what works best for your cat.  Keep up the behavioral and cleaning techniques.  It may take a year as it did with Jimmy but it was well worth it.  We love him very much.  Good luck!

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