Katherine Ayres, PhD
Eva came to us at 3 months after being a “stray at large” in Lynnwood, WA. She was sweet, extremely social, fun to play with and of course had a healthy obsession of watching birds out the window making that amusing chatter noise. Her litter box habits for the most part were good. We had her using a flushable litter made from plant material. I liked that it wasn’t clay based and flushing made it convenient. However, occasionally Eva would poop outside her box if we left a towel on the floor or there was a particularly fuzzy rug, but these instances were rare and she was young so I didn’t think much of it. Then, when she was about one year old, she started pooping outside the box pretty regularly, but never peeing outside the box.
A subleter had recently moved in, and for some reason Eva kept pooping in his room. Some people suggested that she was “upset” that a new person moved in and was trying to make a point. I often hear this rationale that cats are eliminating in places because they are “mad” or to get back at someone. There is something about cats that makes humans think that they are spiteful, but many times if a cat changes their litter box behavior, it is a health issue. Through research, I had learned this so I took Eva to the vet to have her checked out. She was perfectly healthy so in this case, health was not the problem.
No, this was a behavior issue of some kind so it was both frustrating and intriguing to me at the same time. Growing up with cats, I had never had a cat with this issue. Usually the cat is spraying or peeing outside the litter box. So I started experimenting. I had read that sometimes cats like to pee in one box and poop in another so sometimes you need two litter boxes per cat. So I put another litter box in the area of the room she was pooping in. Nope, she just pooped next to it. I tried a bigger box, a covered box, three boxes. I tried putting a carpet upside down so the rough underside would be aversive with the litter box on top. This somewhat worked but the aversive carpet wasn’t big enough to cover the whole room so eventually she found an uncovered spot to go.
A break through came when my boyfriend and I went on vacation, and left Eva with a friend for about a week. The whole time we were gone I worried Eva would be “mad” that we left her and poop all over their house. But to my surprise, Eva used the litter box at this strange place no problem! But, when she came home to us, she started the inappropriate pooping again. In a state of desperation, I called the friend who she had stayed with. “What litter do you use?” She said she used clumping litter from the bulk box at the pet store. Then a light bulb went off. I decided that instead of making Eva use a certain litter or box, I would let her tell me what she liked. So I got four different boxes and three different types of litter and put them all out in the same area as her litter box at the time. Every few days I would vary which litter was in each type of box. It quickly became apparent that Eva exclusively used whichever box had the clumping litter. After months of frustration and worry and more frustration, problem solved. Eva is picky about the texture of her litter.
I thought back to when she was a kitten. She would occasionally poop in towels left on the floor or on soft rugs. The subleters’ room was the only room with carpet in the house. Eva would spend very little time digging in her box and would jump out quickly after she was finished and shake her paws off. These were all signs that she did not like her litter. Now, with the new litter, she spends a good five minutes digging around before and after she does anything.
Are cats spiteful? It’s questionable whether feline brains are even capable of complicated emotions like “spite”. It seems a simpler explanation is that sometimes cats just go in places that feel good and/or safe to them. Once I gave Eva choices, she showed me what she wanted. So if you are having inappropriate elimination problems and you know it’s NOT a health issue, try putting out different kinds of litter boxes and litter combinations in various areas of the house and see if there is a pattern for what your cat likes peeing and pooping in separately (remember Eva had no problem peeing in the old litter).
What if you really want your cat to keep using a certain type of litter? Another tactic is to put whatever your cat likes (a towel or soft carpet) in a litter box, then if the cat eliminates on the towel in the box, slowly introduce litter on top of the towel over time and eventually take the towel away. This has been successful in some litter aversion situations so it could also be worth a try.
Last, you can up the ante for any litter box issues by being ready with treats when the cat successfully uses the box. Eva’s litter box was located in the bathroom, so I kept some high value treats in the bathroom ready to go. If I heard her using the box, I would sit and wait quietly with the treats ready in my hand. After she used the box successfully and stepped out of the box, I would immediately give her a treat. I think this sealed the deal for the princess. Eva has now gone over a year with absolutely no inappropriate elimination of any kind!