When I was in veterinary school, I rotated through the behavior service. It’s an elective, and interestingly enough not a particularly popular one; more’s the pity for that. What percentage of relinquishments come on the tail end of a behavior issue that wasn’t properly handled? (Answer: A whole lot.)
Vets tend to avoid behavior stuff for a multitude of reasons:
- It’s time consuming to work through a behavioral issue.
- It’s complicated. Changing behavior isn’t nearly as simple as prescribing some ear medications.
- It’s frustrating to put so much time and effort into something with no guarantee of results.
When a client presents a dog with a behavior problem to me, I give them general advice and then steer them to a trainer with more experience and expertise. Deflect! But when the patient is a cat, that is much harder to do.
Cats are Extra-Special
When it comes to felines, inappropriate elimination is by the far the biggest behavioral complaint we see. Veterinarians are often the first ones frustrated owners consult when their cat is peeing or pooping all over the house, and our ability to help all too often runs the gamut from non-existent to middling to apathetic.
Back to the behavior service: At the time, the clinicians were participating in a clinical trial to address a variety of antidepressants to help pets with marking issues. I watched the veterinarian delve into the interview process, and the overriding sense I got was this: Geez, this is complicated.
First, we have to rule out medical causes of inappropriate elimination: diabetes, renal failure, and cystitis, to name just a few.
Then, you have to differentiate marking behavior from inappropriate elimination (elimination outside the box, but without specific indicators of marking.)
Then, well, god speed. Here’s the 15 pound manual, have fun. Get a blacklight, clean the house, change the litterboxes, inject carpet pads with enzymatic cleaners, use upside down sticky mats, use Feliway, use citrus candles, do litterbox trials, get 15 litterboxes, give up your job, resign yourself to being a crazy cat person, rinse, repeat.
As we laid out the course of attack for the poor souls taking part in the clinical trial, you could see the defeat in their eyes as they realized just how much work this was going to be. The process of getting inside a cat’s head and trying to figure out exactly what their issue is is just about as complicated as you would imagine. It pretty much stinks (har har.)
I get it more than I want to
Perhaps in an effort to make me more empathetic, the universe has gifted me with a pee-er of my very own.
Apollo has really ramped up his marking behavior this past year. He has marked just about every room in the house. The baseboards are actually warping a bit from either the pee, the vigorous scrubbing, or both. I have tried just about every tool I can think of short of Prozac (which is next on the list), but I have to admit, yes, this does put a dent in our bond.
Yes, taking on a cat is a responsibility. No, I’m not going to get rid of him. But I understand why people do. I don’t condone it, but I understand. It’s humiliating to have someone over and be greeted by the unmistakeable whiff of cat urine by the front door, one of his favorite places to squat. It’s disheartening to not be able to get a handle on a behavior that is ruining your home.
So I understand the frustration. I’m right there with you. I’ll be talking more about it, for sure.
A new resource! Hooray!
In the meantime, I was really happy to hear that my friend Caroline has launched a new site solely dedicated to litterbox issues: The Happy Litterbox. No two cats are the same when it comes to this, which is the agony and the challenge when trying to prescribe a solution.
Her site aims to help by being a resource for frustrated owners everywhere with a central place to come for tips, tricks, and advice.
The key is getting to people early, and helping them through some of the easier-to-address issues before they lose it out of frustration and dump their cat at the shelter. So thanks Caroline, I’ll be reading along. I look forward to the day I can tell you Apollo is over his rude indiscretions and our own litterbox is happy once again.
Deb Mendez says
Just in case… have you checked the outside of the front door? When our insiders started marking the front door (on the inside) it took me way too long to realize one of the ferals was spraying near the front door and mine were answerng back. We always use the garage and did not notice the outside smell. Once we enzymed the outside of the front door — the inside spraying stopped! Thank goodness!
Dr. V says
I’m pretty sure the local feral population has something to do with it- there are tons here, and he never marked our previous homes. I’ve power washed the front and tried the coyote urine crystals (barf) but maybe dousing it in enzymes would help too.
The cat I had before my current one had an inappropriate elimination issue. It wasn’t a health problem, and we never could solve it! Her favorite place to go was in the bathroom (how ironic), so we resorted to leaving the bathroom door closed. This resulted in an even bigger issue of mold in the bathroom from the door always being closed, hence the room never completely drying out after showers. Yet we had that cat for 17 years until she passed away from a heart issue. So I do understand why people give up cats out of frustration too. Hate it, but understand it.
Our autistic cat Gus was so bad that I wound up putting him into a large kennel for parts of the day because the house just couldn’t take it anymore and I was losing my natural good humor as well!
I felt TERRIBLE about doing it.
Gus… LOVED his kennel and he’s been a much happier cat now that he has his own little universe. He feels safe and secure in it and doesn’t really want to leave it.
I never would have guessed that it was making him happy.
I luckily have two cats that prefer to share a letterbox!? We started with two but they only used one. Only there was one apartment we lived on that the letterbox was out of sight out of mind and the smart cat would pee on our bed when we let it go too long. We learned out lesson quick.
The only other issue I’m having is scratching our new hand woven rug. I’ve got 5 scratch mats around the rug and only one cat is using them!! My husband is getting very frustrated. I don’t think he realizes how much more trouble kids will be one day:)
The Learning Vet says
Thanks for the link to The Happy Litterbox! I started checking it out–looks great! Will definitely be visiting it again. As a veterinarian who enjoys seeing behavior cases, I wrote a blog post on my new blog about some of the frustrations that inevitably come with the territory (as you alluded to). Feel free to check it out!
I didn’t know The Happy Litterbox was out there! I just started a cat’s-only newsletter and am looking for resources to give readers. This will be a great one…thank you!
This is awesome. As I consider adding another cat to our home, I am glad to know there are resources out there, if few. Most of the people I talk to about cat training just laugh and shake their heads saying “you don’t train a cat.” But what if my newly adopted friend has a behaviour problem? So I am glad some people are thinking of this need. Hopefully, it won’t be necessary, but you never know…
My best friend is a dog behaviorist. I have learned so much from her and find dog behavior so interesting. Cats on the hand, I have no idea where to start so it is nice to know about The Happy Literbox for clients that come up with cat issues. Thanks!!
Just throwing this out there: Do inside/outside cats have as many litterbox problems? I know kitties should be kept inside (and in many cases have to) but am wondering if clients who have inside/outside cats experience inappropriate elimination issues? (I know there must be some, but proportionately as many?).
Dr. V says
I do think when you are talking marking, it helps since they are able to mark outside. Yes. Those people rarely complain of elimination issues, but obviously other problems may come up. It’s a personal decision, I think.
I know saying your cat is indoor/outdoor is akin to saying you drown puppies in some circles, but I would much rather have an owner let a cat go outside an hour or two a day (as long as they know the risks, have them up to date on vaccines are aren’t declawed) versus euthanizing them or giving them to a shelter, which is a common outcome.
We adopted a declawed cat three years ago, into our home where the other two have claws. She happened to come to us that way, and we love her dearly, but oh, the peeing issues. I am very anti-declaw, but if people are going to insist on doing it (or adopt previously declawed cats), they should make sure there is a balance of power in the claw & defense department. Our vet was great with behavioral suggestions, and our cat is on Prozac, but for a time we even took her to a veterinary behaviorist to see if that would help. The only useful thing that we could find was to put a bell on one of our other two cats who would sometimes hide and stalk her. This prevented surprise attacks, to help calm her down, but I can’t say that it completely stopped the outside-the-box messes. It might be worth a try for your readers who have cats that don’t get along very well.
This makes me feel VERY lucky to have the cat I have – early neuter which I think helps with the marking stuff. Q does go mental if his littermaid isn’t working (we’ve had a few jams w/ certain brands of litter) and he’ll come get me to report an issue with his commode. Q occasionally misses the litterbox with his #2 – but his box is down in the basement on a concrete floor – in the grand scheme of things it’s no big deal – and it means he’s basically self-sufficient in the litter-box department for an entire week.
He scratches on the exposed 2x4s in the unfinished basement (after ignoring his expensive carpeted kitty tree). I do object to his putting his dead mice into the littermaid – nothing like opening the flap to empty the receptacle and finding a deceased mouse-face staring at you.
Hawk aka BrownDog says
Hi Dr V,
My Humans said that I don’t have a cat to play with ’cause Papa is allergic to their dander…but after reading your post…I KNOW THE TRUTH!
Y’all come by now,
Hawk aka BrownDog
As you know, we’ve had problems with Dakota peeing anywhere she damn well wants to since she was about a year old. It got worse when we got Miles and no amount of effort would change it. When Miles passed she got better about using her litter box, but only intermittently. Since then we’ve found out – finally! – that she’s had crystals in her urine so we’ve changed some of the ways we approach her litter box. She’s also very particular about where it is. It can’t be hidden away as apparently she’s an exhibitionist. The issue we’re currently struggling with is that while she now pees in her box, she shits everywhere else. We can’t win, but we love her dearly so I’ve invested in a good carpet cleaner.