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Debunking Myths about Cats and Litter
There is little more frustrating than
a cat not using his litter box. Shelters report that litter box
problems are the number one reason owners give up their pets. Improper
elimination does not have to be a death sentence. This article
discusses various causes and options for correcting the problem. This
is not an exhaustive discussion, however, merely an overview. And it
only discusses problems related to urination outside the litter box,
not defecation which may need to be approached differently.
First and foremost is the all
important question—“is the source of the problem medical or
behavioral?” All too often a medical problem is mislabeled behavioral
and so not only are the proper steps not taken to remedy the
situation, but the cat continues to suffer with pain or chronic
Most litter box issues can be traced
back to a medical problem. Believe this fact, know it—and you are on
your way to a solution. Medical problems that cause inappropriate
elimination cannot be diagnosed through a phone consultation with your
vet or simply with an office exam. For a proper diagnosis, your vet
needs to collect a urine sample and run an analysis of the sample.
Some medical conditions may not be uncovered with a urinalysis, but
certainly, this should be the first step.
Myth #1: I know the problem isn’t medical because sometimes my cat
does use the litter box.
Logically, it might seem that a cat
isn’t sick if sometimes she uses the litter box and other times she
does not. This must indicate a behavioral choice—right?
Wrong—intermittent litter box use is actually a classic sign of an
underlying medical problem. Out in the wild, burying waste is a
survival technique to avoid detection by predators. Driven by
instinct, it is natural for a cat to eliminate in a litter box.
A conflict occurs when the cat starts
associating with the litter box with the pain or discomfort caused by
a medical condition. Many medical issue cause increased pain when a
cat tries to urinate. If so, she may start to avoid the litter box,
thinking the box itself is the source of the discomfort. In this
conflict between pain and instinct, the pain may not be strong enough
to always deter litter box use—leading to intermittent use. Or maybe
it is a question of timing—since the litter box is associated with
pain, if she happens upon a soft place on the carpet or in the laundry
basket she may simply utilize the new spot that does not have a
history of causing pain.
Myth #2: It can’t be a medical problem—my cat has been eliminating
outside the litter box on and off for years.
Some medical conditions do not cause
constant pain. Urinary crystals, bladder stones and interstitial
cystitis are some of the more common conditions that can cause flare
ups of discomfort leading to improper elimination. Even the most
attentive of owners may dismiss an occasional transgression outside
the litter box as an accident instead of a potential medical problem.
Some medical issues worsen with time, so an occasional elimination
outside the box could turn into a more frequent problem. It may seem
that your cat’s behavioral problem is just getting worse, but it’s
more likely a medical problem that has deteriorated over time. Give
your cat the benefit of the doubt—take him to the vet for a urinalysis
and any necessary follow up tests.
Myth #3: My vet analyzed a urine sample and didn’t find anything, so
the problem is behavioral, not medical.
Not every medical problem will
manifest in a cat’s urine. Usually urinary crystals will show up in an
afflicted cat’s urine, but not always. Sometimes the crystals
accumulate in the bladder, never passing into the urine. In these
cases, a sludge or stone forms in the bladder causing irritation and
pain during urination. Ultrasound is the best diagnostic for
identifying this condition, but some stones can be seen by x-ray.
Kidney disease can also lead to
improper elimination. Some medical conditions causing a cat to go to
the bathroom outside of his litter box are not even directly related
to a problem with the urinary tract system. Diabetes, constipation,
and arthritis are examples of conditions that may manifest in the
early stages with improper elimination. In these situations, blood
tests, x-rays or other diagnostics may be necessary to properly
identify the medical cause of the unwanted behavior.
While it is true that elimination
outside the litter box is likely a warning of an underlying medical
condition, don’t assume that if your cat continues to faithfully use
his litter box that he is healthy. There are other clues that should
alert you to a potential medical problem. Frequently urinating in
small amounts, going in and out of the litter box without using it,
and crying out in pain when trying to urinate—these are all signs of
serious medical conditions calling for immediate vet attention.
Catching these problems early can be the difference between a minor
problem and a chronic or even life threatening situation.