What to do when your cat's behavior is out of the box
It is not uncommon for cats to stop using their litter boxes at some point in their lives. It is important to determine the reason before it becomes an established unwanted behavior.
First, take Fluffy to your veterinarian for a complete physical exam. There are several possible medical reasons that can cause her to stop using her litter box and these should all be ruled out. A urinary tract infection, constipation, diarrhea, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney stones and cystitis are some examples that can be remedied with treatment and result in a natural return to the litter box.
Cats with kidney problems or arthritis may require some adaptations to make the litter box more user-friendly.
Once medical conditions have been ruled out, here are some of the most common reasons cats might not be using their litter boxes.
Is the box easy for Fluffy to get in and out of? Cats prefer larger boxes with sides that aren't too high. Older or overweight cats may need litter boxes with shorter sides for ease of use.
Some cats are not interested in going inside covered boxes or using boxes with liners. The newer automatic-cleaning boxes can be scary for some cats.
If you recently changed the kind of litter used, she may not approve. Some cats don't seem to mind what type of litter fills their boxes. Others develop a preference for their favorite litter as kittens and will resist (or reject) change. Regardless of the type of litter, most cats prefer just an inch or two in the box.
Make sure the litter box is cleaned often. Cats are very finicky when it comes to cleanliness and may look elsewhere instead of using a dirty box. Scoop at least once every day and completely dump and clean the box at least once every two or three weeks with a mild, unscented soap.
Have you recently added another feline family member? Solve the problem by giving each cat their own litter box. Sometimes cats who have lived together happily for years may develop a conflict that requires that they each have their own box.
Senior felines or cats with arthritis living in a multilevel home may need a litter box on each floor.
If you moved the litter box to a different location, Fluffy might resist (or reject) the move. Cats are creatures of habit. If you must move the litter box, do it gradually. Litter boxes should be situated in a quiet space away from high traffic or noisy areas of the home. Generally, cats don't like to eat where they go potty, so keep litter boxes away from their food and water dishes.
Encourage Fluffy back to the litter box by making inappropriate spots less desirable. First, clean the area with an enzyme cleaner to eliminate the odor. Then block the areas or cover them with an irritating material for her to walk on, like Saran wrap, strips of double-sided tape or aluminum foil.
It is extremely important to address "out of the litter box" behavior as soon as possible. The more cats practice this unwanted behavior, the more likely it will become a habit that's hard to break. It may take a bit of patience, but once you've ruled out health concerns, discovered possible causes and alleviated them, and rendered inappropriate spots undesirable, she should be on her way back to the litter box.
• Diana Stoll is the Practice Manager at Red Barn Animal Hospital with locations in Hampshire and Gilberts. Visit the website at redbarnpetvet.com/, or call (847) 683-4788 (Hampshire) or (847) 426-1000 (Gilberts).