I have pages of notes from the Western Veterinary Conference, which I will be sifting through over the next week or so to bring you the most valuable bits. For me, the most personally useful seminars were those on kitty problem potty behaviors, which as you know is something we are dealing with here at the casa.
Dr. Sophia Yin is a veterinary behaviorist and wonderful lecturer who I was fortunate enough to learn from this go round at the conference. She broke down this confusing and frustrating issue into comprehensible patterns and offered a systematic approach for owners and veterinarians to address this, one of the number one reasons cats end up in shelters.
Here is the basic outline for the rationale and approach to kitty potty problems. I will go into more detail about the individual steps in future blogs as I implement the steps myself.
First Things First
Any time a cat is exhibiting inappropriate elimination, a trip to the vet is in order to make sure there is not an underlying cause for the behavior. Cats are tricky, and diseases that might not appear to have anything to do with the bladder can lead to a puddle in your favorite shoes.
Here are just some of the most common medical causes of inappropriate elimination:
- bladder crystals and stones
- kidney disease
- arthritis (causing pain getting into and out of the box)
The Two Main Types of Problem Pottying: Marking versus Elimination
Marking is a normal feline behavior, a method of communication if you will. Marking can be exhibited by males and females, spayed and neutered. That being said, the behavior is more common in animals that are not fixed, so if they are intact- fix it!
Marking is usually characterized by small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces, sometimes in a delightful fan pee-pattern all over the bottom 4 inches of your wall like a disgusting fleur-de-lys. While they can mark anywhere, it is common for cats to mark doors, furniture, and walls near windows.
I’ve caught Apollo doing this, and it’s just textbook: he backs up to a wall, tail lifted and twitching. Then, squirt and run.
It’s much easier to visualize on a 500 pound lion.
‘Normal’ elimination, on the other hand, is characterized as larger amounts of urine typically deposited on a horizontal surface, like your bedspread, or your husband’s jacket. Normal peeing and pooping but wrong location. In both cases cats may continue to use the litterbox.
The Two Main Causes of Potty Problems
According to Dr. Yin, the main causes of both potty issues fall into one of two categories: Aversion to the litter box, or anxiety.
Litter Box Aversion
What makes a cat not like the litter box? There can be lots of reasons.
The number one cause is our fault: the box is too dirty. Think about how fastidious the average cat is, then imagine yourself in the typical outhouse at the underfunded state park that hasn’t been emptied in a week, where you can see right down to the pit and all the fetid squalor that lies within. Like people, some cats have a higher tolerance for gross than others, but generally speaking, most of us could be doing a better job.
They may also have an aversion to the litter type. Much like some of us like purple and other prefer red, some love Drakkar and others swear by Poison; we all have our personal tastes. Cats may have a preference for particular litters and box conformations.
Cats may also have an aversion to the box location, either due to a past traumatic experience, pain associated with elimination, or an annoying dog guarding the entrance to the room. In those cases, it is simply easier to choose a nicer location- like your bedroom floor.
I don’t think it’s a big secret that cats are fairly stress-prone. Anything that can provoke anxiety in their little kitty heads can cause them to start eliminating and marking in untoward places.
New people. Old people. Strange pets outside. New furniture inside. Your schedule changing. Your schedule staying the same. The garbage truck. Bad country music (ok, maybe I’m projecting there).
Point is, marking and elimination behaviors may be their way of communicating their insecurity to you.
Here’s the Good News
One of the worst things about having a cat with elimination problems is the general feeling of hopelessness people feel. Isn’t that kind of the message people get? “Oh, that’s just cat behavior, that’s what they do.”
When people are confronted with only two choices: Get used to a house that smells of pee or get rid of the cat, many people opt for the second choice. This is how so many cats wind up in shelters or euthanized.
Dr. Yin was very optimistic in her lecture that with a systematic approach to reducing anxiety, improving litterbox acceptability and replacing bad habits with good ones, there is hope for these cats and their owners.
So let’s see how this works, shall we? On Wednesday Apollo gets his yearly dental, along with bloodwork and a urinalysis. Once I have the all clear on that, I’ll start applying these principles here in the house to see if I can get this marking under control.Photo credits: Bad Kitty, by allygirl520 on Flickr Abandoned, Dirty Bathroom, by StartTheDay on Flickr