Felines are truly amazing creatures!! We are frequently asked how difficult it is to litter box-train a young kitten. Our answer is that kittens really litter box train themselves!! When raised in a secure, loving home environment, kittens learn by watching their mother use her litter box, and she also encourages her young kittens to use a litter box once they have started the weaning process and are beginning to eat solid foods. Up until that time, the mother cat takes care of keeping her kittens clean. When starting young kittens off with a litter box, be sure the first box is small enough for the kittens to easily climb in and out, and use only a small amount of plain clay litter (non clumping, as most young kittens go through a stage of eating and munching on their litter) at first. It is a natural instinct for cats to bury and be extremely clean in all their elimination habits — in fact, cats in the wild will bury their feces and urine to help ensure their survival by not leaving their scent which might attract predators. Wild cats will also sometimes leave their feces purposefully to define the perimeters of their territory and as a warning to potential intruders. The point is, felines always have a reason for what they do with their urine and fecal eliminations, and they also have several other ways to “mark” their territory – “marking territory ” is one of the most important ways in which cats communicate with other cats and with humans.
For house cats who suddenly start eliminating inappropriately in the home, the very first thing to rule out is any medical cause. FUS (Feline Urological Syndrome), which can include such conditions as cystitis, blockage of the urethra, and urethritis, can all cause your kitty great pain when urinating or trying to urinate. This can lead to your kitty associating that pain with the litter box, and simply refusing to use it. Taking your kitty in to your vet for a checkup and testing for FUS is a must before looking any further for the sudden change in your kitty’s litter box habits.
It is also important to realize that cats can use their urine, feces and their scratching marks as a means of “marking” what they consider to be “their” territory. Cats “mark” in a variety of interesting ways, and it is thought that felines have developed their communication system by marking as a means to greatly reduce the amount of actual face-to-face confrontation between cats and thereby increase their chances for survival. There is also another form of communicating by marking from cats – marking by head rubbing.
MARKING BY HEAD RUBBING
Have you ever noticed that your kitty may enjoy rubbing his face onto your leg or face?? Or, how your kitty may rub his face against your furniture, table legs, or cabinets?? Normally, this type of marking is done by a feline to express contentment, and mimics the friendly, comforting type of marking that cats will do in their nest in the wild. People are usually marked by cats with their forehead, while furniture and other inanimate objects are marked by the sides of their cheeks and their chins. Cats are most likely to rub someone that they know, and if a cat is not quite comfortable coming up to someone, they may end up rubbing against a nearby table, slowly working their way up to actually head rubbing the newcomer. This type of communication by marking is usually enjoyed by both the feline and their human family.
MARKING BY SCRATCHING
Many people do not realize that cats also can use scratching as a method of marking, or communicating. Felines actually have sweat glands in their paw pads, and when they scratch against furniture, fences, and other vertical objects, they are actually rubbing their own scent from those glands onto the object to mark their territory. The vertical scratch marks also leave a visible mark for other cats to see as well as smell, and the cat will reach up and scratch downward as an indication of how big he is. The higher the markings, the bigger the animal (translates to tougher the competition!) will seem to another cat. Where a cat chooses to scratch is going to be determined in part by whether the cat is a vertical or a horizontal scratcher. Horizontal scratchers will tend to prefer chair cushions, carpets, rugs, and other flat surfaces. Felines usually scratch in rather predictable places – favorites are commonly used entrances and exits to the home; the main front door entrance; favorite sleeping areas; and any boundary that they feel is being “challenged” in some way.
Cats also scratch to groom their claws, and remove old skin and claw sheaths. Usually, cats who scratch primarily for this reason will scratch in the same spot, vs. cats who scratch in numerous locations, and especially near doors and windows. This latter behavior is much more likely to be that of a feline marking territory. One of the best solutions for cats who scratch in the home is to provide them with a good, sturdy, tall piece of cat furniture, preferably one that provides a variety of vertical scratching surfaces such as carpet, wood and sisal rope. You will want to be sure that the posts of the cat furniture do allow your cat to stretch fully for scratching. You may also want to provide some cat toys with horizontal scratching surfaces. By observing your feline carefully for several days, you can probably determine the best locations in your home for placing the cat furniture and the special horizontal scratching toys.
URINE MARKING AND SPRAYING
Okay, here is one of the most troublesome forms of marking that cats can do. Remember, if your kitty should suddenly stop using his litter box, the first thing to do is take him in to your vet for a checkup to rule out FUS (Feline Urological Syndrome). FUS is an extremely common cause of inappropriate litter box behavior in cats.
T here is a major difference between urine “marking” and urine “spraying” in cats. Both are done deliberately by a cat, and are used to deliver a specific message, usually a message intended for other cats long after the sender is gone. Urine spraying is done by a cat backing up against a vertical surface such as a wall or curtain drapes, and spraying their urine against the surface while in a standing position. Urine marking is done with a cat in a squatting position, causing the urine to squirt onto a horizontal surface. The reason cat urine has such a powerful odor is that there is a fatty ingredient in the cat’s urine which allows it to cling to surfaces and objects, and also causes the strong smell. Un-neutered male tom cats have urine that is especially pungent and unpleasant. Contrary to popular belief, BOTH male and female cats can spray and mark with their urine.
W hen dealing with a cat who is spraying or marking by urine, and you’ve ruled out any medical reason for this behavior, your next step is to try to figure out the cause of the behavior. Stress is one of the leading causes for naturally fastidiously clean cats to start marking or spraying with their urine. By marking their home/territory with their own scent, this creates a sense of comfort and security to the cat. Some very common causes of stress for a cat may include smelling or seeing outdoor animals such as other visiting cats, or even birds, skunks, squirrels, dogs, or any other outdoor and/or unfamiliar animals. Moving to a new house, or changes with the home such as redecorating, home renovations or construction, the addition or loss of new family members (including babies and other pets) – even changes in your work schedule or daily habits can all be extremely stressful to a cat. Felines like their world to be very consistent, and changes within their world may cause them to feel their territory is being challenged or is in jeopardy.
U rine marking is frequently done by whole males and whole females to attract a mate. Having your male kitty neutered or your female kitty spayed should take care of this problem. If your cat sees a visiting outdoor cat through the window, he may spray on the window sills or even on the curtains to the window. Sometimes, a cat will urinate on anything new that comes in to the home, such as suitcases, shopping bags, etc., that have a new smell. Cats who are highly territorial may feel the need to mark this new smell with their own smell. Cats can also mark or spray in hostility or defiance over a stranger coming in to the home and “over-staying” (in the cat’s opinion). The cat may jump onto the bed after a visitor has been there to mark over that person’s smell.
If you have a cat that is already fixed yet is still spraying, this may be a sign of the cat feeling overcrowded (especially in a multi-cat home), and/or having an aggressive behavior towards other cats. Even if all your cats seemingly get along well together, it is important to remember that spraying and marking are done very deliberately by cats, and ALWAYS for a very specific reason – they are trying to communicate that something is wrong (from THEIR perspective).
This is a much less common form of marking than urine marking. Sometimes, if a cat feels a need to be noticed, it might leave a pile of feces exposed to try to achieve that. There is a strong odor associated with the feces, which the cat identifies as its own smell. If the feces are left next to a litter box, it is probably a signal to you that something is wrong with the litter box itself … from the cat’s point of view … (i.e., box isn’t clean enough; location is wrong; litter type is not to the cat’s liking; litter box type is not to the cat’s liking). If the cat is using fecal marking to express displeasure (such as protesting a new boyfriend that the cat doesn’t like, etc.), it will usually leave the feces close to the area of protest (such as the bed in which the boyfriend last slept, etc.). Fecal marking is more likely to occur with cats that spend all or part of their time outdoors, and with cats who have previously lived as strays.
SOLUTIONS TO INAPPROPRIATE MARKING BEHAVIORS
If your kitty is marking by urine or feces, here are some things to consider and try. First of all, rule out any medical problems. Next, be sure your cat is fixed. Keep things as simple and stress-free as possible in your home for your kitty. Try to ensure that your cat feels that he can predict what will happen each day. When you must make changes at home, be sure to do them gradually, and provide a lot of time and support to your cat while going through these changes. In serious cases, there are anti-anxiety medications that can be prescribed for cats. We prefer the use of the natural pheromone spray called “Feliway” which you can get from your vet, or from local pet and feed stores, which can be very calming to cats and reduce their urge to spray and mark. The newer plug-in version (see the “Comfort Zone” picture and link at bottom of page) is even easier and more effective; one plug-in lasts 30 days.
Do NOT declaw your kitty!! De-clawing can lead to other behavior problems such as inappropriate marking and emotional insecurities. Make sure you clean all urine-sprayed areas with an odor neutralizer, and/or a chemical enzyme product which naturally breaks down the urine molecules completely. If you don’t do this, the problem will never be solved because the odor from that area will trigger the cat to spray there again each time he passes by. Do NOT use cleaning products with ammonia – ammonia will only intensify the urine odor and encourage your cat to return to that area and mark again. Take a good honest look at the facilities you have to ensure that you do not have an overcrowded environment for your cat. You can increase the amount of “territory” for your cats by adding additional tall cat stands. Cats definitely consider vertical space part of their territory, and several tall cat stands can greatly increase the amount of territory for cats in a small apartment or home. Another way to increase “territory” for your cats is to build some add-on protected enclosures, extension windows, etc.
You may want to take a good look at your litter box. The box needs to be as attractive as possible TO THE CAT. For large cats, do not use a litter box with a swinging lid – large cats will often prefer to keep their heads and shoulders outside the door of a hooded litter box while using the box. Some cats prefer open boxes; some prefer the privacy of a box with a lid. Do not use a huge litter box for a small kitten or cat; and do not use a small box for a large cat!! Common sense will go a long way – try to think from your cat’s point of view. If you have a multi-level home, there should be a box on each level. Remember too that some cats prefer to defecate in one box, and urinate in another. The litter box should be cleaned daily, and the entire contents should be replaced once a week or more frequently. You should not have more than two cats per box, and if you are having litter box behavior problems, switch immediately to one box per cat. Plastic litter liners can make your job easier, and help keep odors from penetrating into the plastic litter box.
The location of the litterbox is important – your cat will want some privacy, yet will not want to feel vulnerable when he is inside the box. Especially in a multi-cat household, this is very important to consider, as a dominant cat may take the opportunity to threaten or attack a submissive cat when she is trying to use the litterbox. And remember to make all changes gradually — cats are creatures of habit!! If you have recently changed the litter material itself, the inappropriate elimination behavior could be your cat resisting the new litter. Try reintroducing the material formerly used to see if this helps. Often, just providing a variety of types and sizes of litter boxes, in a variety of locations throughout your home, with a variety of litter materials, will stop the negative behavior. Once you find out which boxes/locations/litter material your cat prefers, you can gradually remove the others.
For serious offenders, you may need to isolate them in a small area for awhile, such as a bathroom. Since cats naturally dislike urinating or defecating near their food and water dishes, your kitty will most likely use her litter box in this small area simply to avoid contaminating her food and water. Be sure to keep the box extremely clean and praise her when she does use her litter box. After she has gotten used to using her box again, you can gradually increase the amount of area you give her.
NEVER punish your cat!! Speaking in harsh tones or using physical punishment can cause your cat to avoid you, which will not solve the problem. For sensitive cats, make sure that you also provide some quality time for the cat to be alone just with you. This is especially important in overcrowded situations. This special time together can include grooming and/or maybe taking a nap together or having your cat sleep on your lap and be close. Consistently providing this intimate one-on-one time and show of affection on your part, you can greatly reduce your cat’s level of stress and sense of competitiveness with other members of the family.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
It’s important to remember that cats ALWAYS have a reason that makes sense to them for their behaviors. The difficult part for we mere humans is sometimes to discover what those reasons are. In our own many years of experience as a Bengal and Savannah cat breeder with a multiple-cat household, we’ve discovered some truly amazing products that sometimes can be exactly what may be needed to provide a good solution.
There is a special kind of litter called “Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract” litter, which comes with the creator’s own system of steps for re-training a cat back to consistent good litterbox habits. We’re not sure exactly why it works; the litter contains some special herbs which do seem to attract the cat to want to use the litter.