As with all behavior problems, the key to intervention lies in understanding the cat's perspective, which can be discerned
by watching for correlated behavioral patterns. If we identify potential risk factors and assess these with clients at every
appointment, we are likely to make considerable progress in addressing the cat's needs.
Factors that contribute to inappropriate elimination preferences and aversions include:
- Frequently dirty litter or litter boxes
- Litter boxes that are too small and discourage active digging and exploration
- Litter boxes that are too high for cats to enter readily
- Styles (e.g., covered) and placement (e.g., in closets) that allow the cat using the litter box to be trapped by a child,
another cat, a dog, etc.
- Placement of boxes in locations the cat can't reach because of pain (e.g., arthritis), access or social factors (e.g., being
chased by a puppy)
- Odor entrapment by lids of covered boxes placed in areas without adequate ventilation
- Illness of another cat in the household that causes changes in bladder and bowel function.
Factors that contribute to marking behaviors generally are based on stressors such as:
- Addition or loss of another pet in the household
- Change in the composition of the human household
- Change in the stress level of the household (e.g., illness, job change)
- Visitation by an outside cat
- Illness or change of relationships between cats in the household (e.g., concomitant with social maturity)
- True intercat aggression.
Potential medical complications
If the cat is eliminating in a pattern that doesn't seem to be associated with how something feels or where it's located,
and the social environment appears to contain minimal stressors, a medical problem may be involved. The most common medical
conditions associated with elimination are feline lower urinary tract signs or disease, bacterial cystitis, urethral obstruction,
diabetes mellitus, cognitive dysfunction, hyperthyroidism, lower motor neuron disease, enteritis or colitis and parasitemia.
The standard work-up for inappropriate urination includes a physical examination, complete blood count, serum chemistry profile,
urinalysis with culture and thyroid profile (if the cat is older than 6 years). For complaints involving defection, fecal
flotation and direct smear should be included.
Aging can cause cats to change their litter box usage. In addition to an increasing probability of bladder and bowel disorders,
aging can cause mobility changes. For example, doors that were easy for young cats to open may be difficult for older cats.
Stairs may now be an impediment for litter box access. For cats with hip or shoulder pain, litter boxes may have prohibitively
high walls requiring they be re-engineered or replaced with short boxes or baking sheets. If long-haired cats develop balance
problems, their hair may need to be washed or trimmed so they don't develop an aversion to litter. In short, a little forethought
can provide much needed help for life-stage changes that affect feline patients.
Next month, I'll address treatment options and recommendations for clients with cats experiencing elimination issues.
Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior
(ACVB) and is board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.