When I adopted a second adult cat a few months ago, I knew I was at risk for having one cat or the other – or both – avoiding the litter box.
Indeed, it wasn't long before I found that one of the cats was skipping the box.
While I was able work out the problem pretty quickly through trial and error, for a couple of weeks I knew I was in good company. That's because failure to use a litter box is the top behavior complaint of cat lovers, sending countless cats to shelters every year. But that doesn't have to be the sad outcome, if you're willing to work on the problem.
The first step in getting a cat to use the box is to make sure there's not a medical condition driving the behavior – and that means a trip to your veterinarian for a complete workup. Urinary tract infections and diseases such as diabetes make consistent litter box use impossible for even the most well- intentioned cat. You cannot hope to get your cat to use the box again until any health issues have been resolved.
If your cat checks out fine, you need to start working to make sure everything about the box is to your cat's liking. The second rule of solving a litter box problem: If the cat isn't happy, no one will be happy.
Here's what to look for.
Cleanliness: Cats are fastidious animals, and if the litter box is dirty, they look elsewhere for a place to go. Clean the box frequently – twice a day is ideal – and make sure it's completely scrubbed clean and aired out on a weekly basis. Having an additional litter box may help, too. In my case, the problem was a matter of two cats that didn't want to share. (And really, who can blame them?)
I followed the rule of thumb: One box per cat, plus one more. I'd always intended to ramp up to three boxes at the time I introduced the second cat, and if I had, I probably would never have had any issues.
Box type and filler: Many choices people make to suit their own tastes conflict with the cat's sense of what's agreeable.
A covered box may seem more pleasing to you, but your cat may think it's pretty rank inside, or scary.
Likewise, scented litters may make you think the box smells fine, but your cat may disagree – not only is the box dirty, it reasons, but it also has this extra "clean" odor the cat can't abide.
Start with the basics: Get a very large box with unscented, clumping-style litter. You don't have to buy an "official" litter box, by the way; large, shallow storage containers and sweater boxes (lids off, of course) make great litter boxes.
Location: Your cat's box should be away from its food and water, in a place it can get to easily and feel safe.
Consider a location from a cat's point of view: Choose a quiet spot where it can see what's coming. A cat doesn't want any surprises while in the box.
With multiple cats, try to spread out the boxes so no cat feels its territory is overrun by the other cat.
Make the area where your cat has had mistakes less attractive by cleaning it thoroughly with a pet-odor neutralizer, available from pet-supply retailers.
Discourage reuse by covering the area with foil, plastic sheeting or plastic carpet runners with the points up.
If you just can't seem to get the problem resolved, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.
These veterinarians are skilled in animal behavioral problem-solving and are able to prescribe medications that may make the difference during the retraining period.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.petconnection.com. Back columns: www.sacbee.com/spadafori.