This week’s blog is specifically for the cat owners amongst you – I’m going to be talking about an issue that crops up with surprising frequency. Namely, regression in litter box training. Picture the scenario:
Your cat is immaculately litter trained; they may well have been for years. But suddenly, it’s all gone wrong. As a cat owner, you’re totally flummoxed. Why has Kitty suddenly forgotten how to use their litter tray? You’re faced with cleaning up wee, or worse, from carpets, bedding, furniture … wherever they choose to leave it. What on earth has gone wrong?
Believe it or not, this is a far more common problem than you may think and we’re often asked about it in the practice. And, I would add, a visit to the Vet is exactly the right place to start. Don’t ever think you’re bothering us unnecessarily with issues like this because, as is the case with any sudden behavioural change in animals, there may be a health reason behind it. Animals, frustratingly, can’t tell us when there’s something wrong – so we have to be sensitive to non-verbal clues and interpret these to get to the bottom of the problem.
Sudden changes in a cat’s toileting habits can be symptomatic of a number of health issues such as sterile cystitis, UTI (urinary tract infection), kidney problems, diarrhoea, constipation or inflammatory bowel disease, to name but a few. The majority of these problems can be easily treated with the right medication but it is imperative that they’re caught early to prevent the problem escalating, so it’s vital that you get your cat to a vet as soon as you notice that something’s amiss. The reason why a cat may stop using the litter tray if they have a health issue is because the problem may be causing pain when toileting. Kitty will begin to associate that pain and discomfort with the litter box, so they may try toileting elsewhere in case, using cat logic, that helps matters! Even when the health issue has been resolved, you might find your cat has an aversion to the litter tray so you may need to relocate it, change the litter or change the tray to try and break the association. Be patient and understanding during this process and don’t reprimand your cat for toileting in the wrong place. It may take some time but you will be able to ‘retrain’ Kitty.
A health issue is the first thing we need to rule out, but if your furry feline friend has been checked over and given the all clear, we still need to get to the bottom of what’s caused this sudden breakdown in their relationship with the litter tray! So, now it’s time to do a little more investigation. Stress can be another factor that affects your cat’s behaviour. Has anything changed in the house that may have unsettled Kitty? A new baby, another cat, any other pets? Changes to your daily routine such as a new job? Even things like building work, renovations or redecoration that have caused changes in the house or the way rooms are used may have made Kitty feel a bit out of sorts and put them off using the tray in its usual location. Have you recently acquired a new appliance that’s quite noisy (such as a fan, dehumidifier or washing machine) located near to the tray? Cats feel vulnerable when toileting so they tend to like a nice, quiet, ‘safe’ location to do their business. If you can identify a factor that may be causing increased stress around the litter tray for your cat, then think about what you can do about it. Could you move the litter tray to a new location? If they’re urinating or defaecating in a different part of the house, try moving their litter box to their new ‘chosen’ location instead.
If it’s something that’s not as easy to fix (such as a new job, pet, or a baby in the house), your cat may need a little time to get used to the new situation. While they do so, make sure they’re getting plenty of fuss if they want it, or space and peace if they don’t. Cats may act aloof but they do generally like your time, attention and reassurance to make them feel safe and happy at home. Keep as much of their routine as possible the same (such as feeding them at the same time) and carve out some time in your day for playtime, too.
It could be as simple as the fact that the litter is new! Have you changed brands recently? If so, your little creature of habit may be objecting to something about the new litter – the texture or smell could be putting them off, in which case it’s worth sticking with what they know if that’s what works for them!
Perhaps their refusal to use the litter tray is a comment on its cleanliness? If you’ve been really busy and haven’t been emptying it as often as usual, Kitty may be turning their nose up (literally). Cats are very clean animals so they can be put off using a litter tray that’s not up to their high standards! The RSPCA recommends spot cleaning your cat’s litter tray daily and fully changing it at least once per week (more often if required) to maintain optimum, cat-standard cleanliness and hygiene.
If you’re a multi-cat household, there could be some territorial issues at play around the litter box. Cats don’t particularly like to share their ‘bathrooms’! In fact, behaviourists recommend having one more litter tray than you have cats, to minimise competition and stress around toileting. If one cat has suddenly stopped using the litter tray but another is continuing, you could try introducing another tray in a separate area to reduce conflict. Perhaps a more dominant cat has ‘threatened’ or cornered another while they’re using the litter tray? They’ll feel like a child being bullied in the school toilets, and that’s not nice at all! If this is the case, they may have developed negative associations with using the tray. This can be overcome in time, by providing their own separate tray in a quiet location where they can feel safe and private while they go about their business.
If your cat seems to have chosen a new location to do their business, and it’s not an appropriate area for you to relocate their litter tray to (a child’s bedroom, for example) you need to try and put them off going there. Firstly, clean the area thoroughly with enzymatic cleaner so there’s no trace of the smell of urine (as any remaining traces of the smell will attract Kitty to keep using the location). Next, you need to make the place an unattractive toilet (I don’t mean covering the area with graffiti!). Cats don’t like to toilet where they eat (quite understandably!) so, if it’s an option, move Kitty’s food bowl to where their new make-shift loo is. That’ll soon put them off! If this isn’t an option, you could try covering the area with tin foil. They won’t like the sound it makes when they wee on the foil so that will make their new toileting zone unfavourable, too. Tempting as it may be when you’re feeling frustrated, don’t tell Kitty off for doing their business in the wrong place – this will only add to their anxiety around toileting.
So, in summary, if your cat suddenly stops using their litter tray firstly you need to eliminate any health-related issues. If there’s no medical cause, it’s a case of ‘think like a cat’ and try to work out what has changed that may have put Kitty off using their litter tray. It’s a process of elimination (no pun intended) really but, with time, patience and perseverance you will be able to get Kitty back on track (or on the litter). If you’re struggling, a cat behaviourist may be able to help.