House soiling accounts for about 50% of all cat behavior problems. For many cats, a simple house soiling problem is the equivalent of a terminal illness. Few owners will tolerate the cat’s urinating on the bedding or defecating in the closet very many times before they get rid of the cat. A majority of cats with litter box problems are ultimately euthanized.
There are a variety of reasons that a cat might stop using its litter box. The most common reason is that it was never really housetrained in the first place. Since the cat readily used its box on the onset, the owner assumed that the cat did not require training. Consequently, the cat received no instruction. The cat had no idea that its owner was pleased each time it deposited feces or urine in the box because the owner never bothered to tell the cat. Neither was the cat aware that the owner would be terribly dismayed if it deposited its waste elsewhere.
Given time, the cat’s behavior begins to drift, and eventually it makes a mistake. Often a change in the cat’s environment may precipitate the first mistake. The litter box may be dirty or in an inappropriate place. There may have been social changes, such as a new cat in the neighborhood or children home on vacation. It may be something as simple as the owners stepping in cat feces and treading it through the house.
Luckily, most house soiling problems are self-limiting and will clear up within a couple of weeks or months. Cats are extremely fastidious. If the problem was initially caused by some environmental change, once the cat has adapted to the change it reverts to its normally clean toilet habits.
The owner may speed up this process with a couple of simple measures. Simply confining the cat to a single room with a sleeping/resting area at one end and a litter box at the other will generally resolve the problem in a couple of weeks. Resolution will be even quicker with an active, reward-oriented, retraining program.
The first rule of any therapeutic program is to not make matters worse than they are already. Often what starts as a relatively simple problem, caused by a gradual drift in behavior or precipitated by some environmental change becomes compounded by the owner’s reaction. Not only do most owners ignore the cat’s appropriate behavior but when things begin to drift, “retraining” is often restricted to punishing mistakes.
Not Rewarding Appropriate Behavior
Perhaps the most common mistake is that the owner never really house-trained the cat in the first place. If provided with easy access to a regularly cleaned litter box, most kittens/cats temporarily house-train themselves. Cats like to bury their feces if they have the opportunity to do so.
Compared with other animals, a cat is a low-maintenance pet, but not a no-maintenance pet. The cat is a sophisticated, extremely complex and intriguing animal. A cat may be compared with the soft purring engine of a Saab Turbo. The engine is immensely complicated, and there is ‘no way’ the average owner can comprehend, let alone solve, major problems. The average owner can, however, perform basic input/output maintenance; topping up gas, oil and water and checking for leaks. Indeed, owners must perform these routine checks if they are to avoid a major mechanical failure. The same principle applies to cats. The owner must maintain routine training, otherwise the cat will eventually “develop a leak” and soil the house.
The owner must not take the cat’s good behavior for granted. Whether it is a kitten (that does not yet know any better), an adult cat that is perfectly well behaved, or an adult cat that had a house-soiling problem, the owner must arrange to be there when the cat needs to eliminate, so that he/she may reward it for choosing an appropriate spot.
Punishment-oriented ‘Training’ Program
It is a human failing to take things for granted when life runs smoothly and to complain when things start to go downhill. Many owners fail to teach the cat what is expected or to reward the cat for doing what is right but practically fall over themselves to punish the cat whenever it makes a mistake. Even if it were possible to catch the cat in the act every time it soils the house, it is crazy to punish the cat for performing a necessary physiological function. A more effective and humane approach is simply teaching the cat the appropriate place to eliminate.
A punishment-oriented training program is really quite ineffective. The owner will catch the cat when it is misbehaving only a small number of times. Since cats are nocturnal, they often eliminate at night. Moreover, after the cat has been punished a few times, it quickly learns that it is unwise to eliminate in the presence of its owner. At this stage, it is unlikely that the owner will ever catch the cat misbehaving, and the effectiveness of the punishment-oriented training program is reduced to zero.
Rather than learning that the site of elimination was inappropriate, the cat has become terrified to eliminate in the presence of its owner. Retraining is now more difficult. In order for the owner to teach the cat to redirect its behavior to an appropriate setting, he/she must rebuild the cat’s confidence. The owner must help the cat “bring the problem out of the closet” so that it develops the courage to eliminate in the owner’s presence. The owner must reassure the cat that: 1. Elimination is OK and 2. Elimination in the litter box is a breathtakingly awesome and overwhelmingly wonderful occurrence. That should do the trick!
A punishment-oriented training program often exacerbates an otherwise comparatively simple behavior problem. In order for a punishment technique to be effective, the cat must be punished for each and every instance of misbehavior. However, this is practically impossible in most domestic settings. Since it is the owner who administers the punishment, the cat quickly learns that it is free to eliminate indiscriminately at times when the owner is absent or asleep. In effect, the owner has created an owner-absent house-soiling problem. This is much more difficult to cure and most likely the cat will be subjected to further inappropriate (delayed) punishment.
Punishing a cat long after it has soiled the house is the single most common form of animal abuse. Delayed punishments never solve the problem. They invariably make a bad situation worse. If the owner punishes the cat when he/she finds a damp patch of carpet or a pile of feces under the bed, the cat has absolutely no idea why it is being punished. Rather than associating the punishment with the ‘crime’ that may have occurred minutes, hours, or days earlier, the cat associates the punishment with its owner. Since the reasons for punishment are unclear, from the cat’s point of view, its owner is predisposed to unprovoked, unreasonable and irrational outbursts of violence. Not surprisingly, many cats will run and hide whenever their owner approaches. People often ask why cats are independent and aloof. One interpretation is that they have good reason to be wary of their owners.
Delayed punishments are ineffective. The owner can repeatedly chase the cat, grab it and mash its nose in piles of fecal matter and the cat will continue to soil the house in the owner’s absence. If delayed punishments do not work, why do owners do it? Most owners are angry and punish their cats long after the “crime” as a frustrated attempt to solve the problems that they have created. Certainly the owner should vent his/her anger and frustration, but there is no reason to abuse the cat’s psyche and the owner-cat relationship in the process.
Until the cat can be trusted, the owner should reduce the likelihood that the cat will have the opportunity to soil the house when the owner is absent or cannot pay attention to the cat. The most important aspect of housetraining is for the owner to be present at times when the cat wants to use its litter box. For this to be possible, the owner must understand and accommodate to the cat’s schedule. If the owner is present when the cat uses its litter box, he/she may help direct the proceedings and praise the cat each time, i.e., to communicate that it is doing the right thing.
Prevent Misbehavior in Owner’s Absence
Until the cat is fully housetrained, it should not be allowed to have the run of the house. Each time the owner allows the cat to make a mistake, the behavior becomes further ingrained as a habit. If the owner leaves the house for any length of time, the cat should be confined to a single room, preferably one with non-porous floors, such as a kitchen, bathroom, utility room, basement or garage. The cat should be provided with a bowl of water and a warm place to sleep at one end of the room and a clean litter box with fresh litter at the other end.
Until the house soiling problem has been cured, it is not advisable to give the cat an ad lib food supply. Irregular eating habits produce irregular bowel movements. Also, if the cat overeats, it will probably have loose stools or diarrhea. If the cat has a regular eating schedule, it will soon develop a corresponding elimination schedule.
Sometimes a passive confinement procedure alone may alleviate the problem. However, it should not be regarded as a panacea; rather, it is a means to confine the problem to a small, protected area. Long-term confinement is a temporary measure until the problem is solved.
Know Animal’s Needs – Provide Appropriate Outlet
In order for housetraining to proceed smoothly, the cat requires regular access to an appropriate place for elimination. Most people supply the cat with a litter box. This alone may not be sufficient. The cat requires fresh litter in a clean box that is placed in an easily accessible and appropriate place. Cat urine has a strong smell of ammonia. The cat will be inhibited from using the box if it smells of its own urine. Similarly, it will not want to use a box that is scattered with fecal deposits. The owner should not skimp on these essential requirements and force the cat to improvise (‘misbehave’).
The litter box must be cleaned daily. The old litter should be discarded and replaced with fresh litter. The litter box should be thoroughly rinsed with water. Adding little vinegar or lemon juice to the water will help to neutralize the odor of the cat’s urine. Do not use a cleaner that contains ammonia; this will make the box smell worse to the cat. It is not sufficient to simply remove the feces and periodically add new litter. If the cost of daily replacement of the litter is too expensive, then use a cheaper litter, such as sand, sawdust, soil or shredded newspaper. It is better to provide cheap, clean litter each day, rather than expensive, deodorized litter that is only changed every couple of days. Fancy, high-tech boxes with covers and chlorophyll litter are for human noses, not the cat’s nose. Many owners use thee as an excuse for not changing the litter. A clean litter box does not smell and so there is no need for deodorized litter and litter box covers.
Make sure the litter box is in an appropriate place. Cats do not like to soil the area too close to their sleeping or eating areas, so try to locate the box some distance away. However, do not place the box in an area that is inaccessible. For example, if the litter box is placed in the bathroom, make sure that the door cannot swing shut and prevent the cat from getting to its box. Remember, if the cat is new to the home, it may go into hiding for a few days and may not be too keen on investigating the rest of the house, so place the litter box fairly close to its hiding place. This measure is especially important if other cats are present in the house. (See booklet on Social Problems.)
For an inside/outside cat, if it is expected to eliminate outdoors, then obviously it requires regular, unhindered access. The owner should be aware that many factors may inhibit a cat from going outdoors. The cat may not relish getting its feet wet in the rain. There may be a new cat in the neighborhood, or a roaming dog. It is a good idea to place a litter box next to the cat door. It is possible that an additional factor is inhibiting the cat from using its litter box. Consequently, it is a good idea to put down an extra one in a different location. Similarly, if there is more than one cat in the house, as a rule of thumb, have a separate litter box for each cat plus one extra.
Reinforce Appropriate Behavior
The most important aspect of housetraining is rewarding the cat for doing the right thing in the right place. In order to reward the cat for eliminating in its litter box, or outside, the owner must be present when the cat eliminates. The owner should be able to get a good idea of when the cat normally urinates and/or defecates, since most animals adhere to a fairly predictable schedule. (It is possible to set a watch depending on what a herd of dairy cows is dong at any given time of day.) If the owner keeps a kitty urination/defecation diary, he/she will soon see a pattern emerging.
A major problem for some owners is that the cat is normally nocturnal and therefore is inclined to urinate and defecate during the night. In some ways, the ease of housetraining depends on the extent of socialization between cat and owner and to what degree the cat accommodates to the owner’s life style. It is worthwhile to shift the cat’s activity schedule by playing with the cat for extended periods throughout the day and early evening. If the cat is active during the daytime, it will be more likely to sleep at night. (See booklet on Hyperactivity.)
Most cats, (especially kittens), will want to eliminate immediately after waking. In addition, they will usually defecate and sometimes urinated within half an hour or so after eating and after exercise. In order to help the owner predict when the cat will need to eliminate, it should be fed at regular times. If the cat’s edible input is provided on a regular schedule, the output will follow likewise. Feed the cat twice a day: a light meal in the morning and the main meal in the evening. (A young kitten requires three meals a day.)
Before feeding the cat, spend ten to fifteen minutes playing with it. Put down the food, allow the cat fifteen minutes to eat, and then clear up any leftovers. After the cat has eaten, it is time for another gentle play session. Every now and again, call it to its litter box and scratch the litter to get the cat interested. Similarly, throughout the day, whenever the cat has been asleep for over two hours (one hour for kittens) wake it up and call it to the litter box. Praise the cat as it begins to eliminate. Once it has finished, gently stroke the kitty for a few minutes and take the time to tell it that it has just done A MOST WONDERFUL AND GLORIOUS thing.
If the owner is unable to keep an eye on the cat, or if the cat is still making mistakes after one week of housetraining, it is advisable to implement a crate training program. The purpose of crate training is the exact opposite of the confinement technique described earlier. The purpose of long-term confinement to a single room is to restrict potential mistakes to one small area that may be protected. The purpose of short-term confinement to a traveling crater is to inhibit the cat from eliminating, so that it will be more likely to need to eliminate when released. Each time the cat is released, the owner may encourage it to use its litter box and then praise it for doing so. The owner must never leave the cat in the crate for too long. If the cat is forced to soil its sleeping area, the house soiling problem will rapidly worsen.
Whenever the owner is at home, the cat should be put in an airline-traveling crate that is just large enough for the cat to lie down comfortably. If the blanket is placed inside and the crate is placed in a warm location, most cats will enter willingly. If not, the owner should set aside a morning to gently and gradually accustom the cat to its crate. The owner may use a food treat to lure the cat into the crate. Once inside, the cat may be given a number of treats. The cat should be allowed to enter and exit a few times before it is shut inside. The cat should be praised and rewarded each time that it enters and for the time that it remains inside. It should be ignored when it leaves. At first, the cat should only be shut inside for short periods. It should be praised and rewarded all the time that it is confined and ignored when it is released. In no time at all, the cat will indicate in its own inimitable feline way that it enjoys relaxing in the crate. The owner may confine the cat for progressively longer periods and gradually thin out the praise and rewards.
Cats do not like to soil their sleeping quarter. When a cat is confined to a small area it is strongly inhibited from eliminating. Consequently, it is highly likely that the cat will want to eliminate when released from the crate. Every two hours (every hour for kittens), the cat should be released from the crate and called to its litter box. The owner may carry the cat, if it is not trained, but he/she should still repeat the words, “Go to your litter box, good kitty, go to your litter box.” If the litter box is in a small room, the owner should go inside, shut the door and put the cat in its box. The cat should be allowed a few minutes to do its business. If it does nothing, the owner should simply put it back in the crate for another two hours. If, however, the cat does eliminate in the litter box, it should be praised gently but profusely. Thereafter, it is fairly safe to let the cat have the run of the house for the next couple of hours before putting it back in the crate again.
The cat should be confined to a crate only when the owner is at home because it should be taken out every one or two hours. For working owners, it is best to start crate training on a weekend. At night, the crate may be placed in or near the owner’s bedroom. The cat quickly gets the idea, and after a few days it will be possible to confine the cat for three- to four-hour periods.
Some owners think that confinement is inhumane. If the owner introduces the crate as a prison, this may well be. However, most cats like small, enclosed spaces, and if the owner takes the time to introduce the crate as a personal den, it quickly becomes an enjoyable and favorite sleeping spot. In addition, most cats welcome the extra friendly attention that they receive from the owners during the training period. The affection is a pleasant change from recent interactions, which have consisted of the owner shouting and screaming and grabbing the cat by the scruff and mashing its nose into piles of fecal matter.
A relatively simple house soiling problem is often the equivalent of a terminal illness for many cats. Most owners will allow their cat to urinate and/or defecate around the house just so many times before they get rid of it. This treatment is inhumane- to make lame excuses for not teaching a pet the rules of the house and then to condemn it for not adhering to rules that it did not even know existed. Few people want to adopt a cat that does not use its litter box. Crate training is the easiest and most effective way to quickly housetrain a cat. If the owner follows the instructions above, usually it only takes a few days to a week. Crate training is a temporary measure to reeducate the cat so that it may enjoy the full run of its house once more.
Reprimand Inappropriate Behavior
If the owner adopts and adheres to the above reward-oriented housetraining regime, it is seldom necessary to chastise the cat for making mistakes. Once the owner has taught the cat that he/she is overjoyed each time that it uses its litter box, most house soiling problems are quickly resolved. Given the opportunity, most cats would much rather urinate and defecate in a clean area where they can dig a hole and cover up their waste products.
If it ever becomes necessary to chastise the cat when caught in the act, this should be limited to an instructive reprimand: “Kitty! LITTER BOX” or “Kitty! OUTSIDE! OUTSIDE!” From the tone and/or volume of the reprimand, the cat knows that it is making a mistake, and from the instruction it knows what it should be doing. Then the owner should do every thing possible to lure the cat to its litter box. The owner should not shout too loud, otherwise the cat will simply run and hide. If the owner cannot get the cat to approach its litter box, then the reprimand was excessive.
Cats should never be physically punished, even if they are caught in the act. Cats react extremely badly to physical abuse. Either they run and hide and will not emerge for several days, which means that they are likely to eliminate in their hiding place (in a closet or under the bed), or they run and urinate on the owner’s bed or clothing. It is not known for certain why cats do this. Suffice it to say that it is a common reaction to extreme punishment.
In addition to urinating out of physiological necessity, many cats use urine to mark their territory. This behavior is called urine spraying. Instead of squatting and urinating in a big puddle, the cat will raise its tail and squirt the urine back towards the object that it is trying to mark. Both males and females spray urine although the behavior is much more common in tomcats. The easiest form of treatment is to castrate the cat. This procedure will eliminate spraying behavior in 90% of tomcats. If castration is not effective, long-term progestagen therapy usually does the trick.