Max's House

Behavior Topics By

Internationally known specialist in domestic animal behavior

Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, DACVB
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Director of Behavior Services, VCA South Shore Animal Hospital, So. Weymouth, MA
Clin. Asst. Prof., Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine
National Consultant, Antech Laboratories


From a young age, cats have a strong instinct to void in sand or soil. Typically, cats dig to prepare a shallow hole. More digging follows to cover their waste. Cats exhibit a wide range of normal behavior relating to elimination. Some normal cats do not cover waste, whereas others dig enthusiastically before and after voiding. Cats often prefer a specific litter box location and type of litter. To encourage kittens to use the litter, gently place the kitten in the pan soon after each meal. If the kitten has had an "accident" outside the box, simply place the mess in the box to help the kitten make the desired association. Punishment is never necessary, as kittens usually learn quickly. Avoid disturbing your cat while it is using the box, and never punish it for any reason when it is near the box.

The Litter Box and Litter Material

Choosing a Litter Box

Many types of litter boxes and litter material are available to cat owners. Litter boxes or pans are generally rectangular plastic containers. The box size should be large enough to comfortably accommodate an adult cat. The sides of the pan should be low enough to allow easy access by a kitten or an ailing or aging cat. (For these cats, you may consider replacing a standard litter pan with any other suitable container.)

Covered litter boxes are available in a variety of styles and may substantially reduce odors. Some litter covers have charcoal filters that further reduce odor.  You can purchase a litter pan without a cover, but ask whether a cover may be added later, just in case. Covered boxes reduce odors by decreasing the circulation of air that carries odors emanating from the box. It is important to keep all boxes fastidiously clean, even if you cannot smell them. Odors trapped in a covered box can deter the cat's use, so be sure to change all boxes frequently.

A standard covered box requires the cat to step into an opening in the cover's front. Other models require the cat to enter and exit through an elevated and inclined opening. The top portion of a covered box can also be removed and placed upside down as an alternative litter pan for cats that tend to void over the edges or are unsteady because of age or illness. The best type of litter box is the one that your cat will use.

Choosing Litter Filler

Cats are not born with an instinct to eliminate on unnatural litter filler. Their natural choice is sand or soil. A wide variety of litter filler is marketed to attract the cat owner. In choosing a litter filler, consider first and foremost what your cat prefers.

Some cats may have no preference, whereas others are surprisingly choosy. It is probably best to begin with a product that is basic and simple. The dust or scent of perfumed or deodorizing filler materials may be disturbing to some cats. Others may prefer fine, sand-like filler or even shredded newspaper. It may be helpful to try two or three different types in several litter boxes simultaneously to see which material the cat prefers.

If you decide to try a new brand, your cat might adjust more smoothly if the old and new litters are mixed for a time.

Care of Litter Boxes

The most important factor in encouraging litter box use is cleanliness. Cats are very clean animals that avoid foul-smelling and damp places. Consider not what you think is clean, but what your cat considers acceptable. Change the litter completely and frequently at regular intervals, using the manufacturer's recommendation as a guideline. Each cat has its own tolerance of litter box contamination and may avoid using the box if it is too dirty. As a rule of thumb, provide one litter pan for every cat in your household. If you have more than one litter box, you may find that some are used more than others. This may reflect your cats' preference for location or dissatisfaction with litter hygiene, suggesting that you should reconsider box placement or change the litter more often. Cats in multi-cat households often share litter boxes, but some are less tolerant of soiled boxes. Though you may have several boxes in your home, you must keep them clean to ensure their regular use.

Litter Box Location

Cats prefer to eliminate in boxes that are placed in a quiet location, such as a corner away from busy areas. Place the litter pan well away from a food dish or water bowl. It is also important to never block access to the litter box. Consider placing an additional box at a different location in case access to the other box is blocked. It is also prudent to provide more than enough litter boxes in case you are slow to keep them as clean as your cat may require.


Inappropriate Urination

A cat's failure to urinate appropriately in the litter box may have several causes.

• A dirty litter box may cause a cat to avoid the box. Individual cats have different levels of tolerance to an unclean litter box. One cat may faithfully use a box that is only cleaned once or twice a week, whereas another cat may avoid a box that has been used just once.

• A negative experience associated with the litter box could also deter its use. Do not scold or startle a cat in the vicinity of its litter box.

Inappropriate urination can also be a form of territorial marking. Urine marking outside of the litter box, accomplished in either a crouching or standing position, occurs in sexually intact or neutered male and female cats.

Urine marking in the standing position is called spraying. It is performed by males and females. Some cats mark with urine in one position only, whereas others use both positions.

Cats that have been neutered at the appropriate age and that have never roamed outdoors or even seen another cat may begin to urinate outside the litter box. A sexually intact tom or female in heat that has begun to urinate inappropriately should be neutered without delay. The hormonal influences related to reproduction may motivate urine marking. Once these are no longer in circulation following neutering, the behavior is likely to stop, provided it is not allowed to continue for too long. Neutering alone, however, may not be enough to return behavior to normal if marking (or inappropriate elimination in general) is longstanding (roughly, more than several weeks). Also, neutering does not guarantee a cat will never urinate inappropriately. Given enough social stress or predisposing circumstances, any cat might begin to void outside its litter box.

Environmental Influences

The longer inappropriate urination is allowed to continue, the more enduring the pattern may become and the more difficult it may be to resolve. This behavior is self-reinforcing, increasing the likelihood that the cat will do it again. Inappropriate urination may continue because of environmental factors that have little or nothing to do with the initial cause, which may never be determined.

Urine contains odors that identify the individual and mark a cat's territory. The location of food, water, and safe places to rest are linked to a cat's sense of security within its territory. If these are disturbed or if a sensitive cat is distressed for any reason, it may reaffirm its territorial claim and relieve anxiety by urine marking.

Litter training is further complicated in households with more than one cat. An easily offended cat may avoid a box that has been used by a housemate, whereas another may be attracted to void in the box to cover the odors left by others. Territorial conflict between cats in multi-cat homes may cause problems relating to use of the litter box. One cat may wait near the litter box to ambush another cat when it attempts to use the box. An increased level of anxiety could lead to inappropriate elimination.

As a guideline, provide one litter box for every cat in your household. Choose a variety of locations in quiet corners of your home to see which box attracts the most use. A cat that is harassed by others, even in play, should have an alternative box to use.

A cat can develop preferences for a certain target surface, such as carpeting, and eventually mark similar surfaces throughout your home. Certain sounds or even certain times of day may trigger marking. The problem can rapidly become complex. Regardless of the initial trigger, inappropriate elimination may reappear in times of stress because the act immediately relieves anxiety.

Physical Influences

It is always important to investigate a possible medical problem associated with inappropriate urination. Among the more common conditions are cystitis (infection of the urinary bladder), kidney disease, and diabetes mellitus. Virtually any illness may cause inappropriate urination. See your veterinarian on a regular basis so that physical problems can be detected early. Consult your veterinarian early when you detect a problem.

Inappropriate Defecation

Many of the reasons why cats fail to urinate in the litter box also apply to inappropriate defecation.

Defecation also functions in territorial marking and relief of anxiety. Inappropriate defecation may stem from a dirty litter box, medical problems, stress, anxiety, and even fear. A cat may display its displeasure by depositing urine or stool in inappropriate areas.

Inappropriate defecation and urination should not be viewed as intentional acts of malice or revenge. The same solutions apply to both types of elimination.

Moving the Litter Box

Most cats prefer a quiet, out-of-the-way place for urination and defecation. Too much noise or activity nearby can discourage a cat from using the litter box and drive it to another location of its own choosing. Moving the litter box to a new location can also upset certain cats. If the litter box must be moved, do it gradually.

Move the box a few inches each day toward the new location, even if this is slightly inconvenient for you. Place another box at the new location. When your cat discovers the new designated location and uses the box there, it is probably safe to remove the transitional one.

Another method is to place several additional boxes in various new places and observe which of these your cat prefers. Your cat's individual preference of location is your best guide.

Failure to Cover Waste

The instinct to bury urine and stool is strong in most cats. Most cats dig in the litter box to prepare

an indentation before voiding. They then cover stool and urine deposits with litter. Digging associated with defecation may be more pronounced.

Some cats enthusiastically cover their waste, whereas others may never do so. If your cat does not cover its urine or stool, this is no cause to worry. A cat that does not bury its urine or stool is not abnormal.

Soiled Hair in Long-Haired Breeds

Long-haired cats, such as Persians or Himalayans, are more prone to urine or stool soiling the hairs around the anus, tail, thighs, and even the paws. Segments of stool may adhere to their long hair and later fall off or be removed by the cat during grooming. Cats remove adhered feces by pulling out the soiled hair or by rubbing against the floor.

Punishment for fecal soiling is not effective and only confuses your pet and makes it more anxious. Instead, a professional groomer or veterinary technician can carefully trim the long hair beneath the tail, around the anus and genitals, and at the back of the thighs. This makes maintenance grooming much easier.

Elimination in Houseplant Pots

Cats have a natural instinct to void and dig in soil or sand. The litter box is a human invention and an artificial substitute. It is surprising that more cats do not eliminate in potted plants! To discourage your cat from eliminating inappropriately in your houseplant pots, devise ways to prevent access.

• Suspend plants or place them on an elevated surface or in a room that is off limits to
   your cat.

• If it is inconvenient to isolate the plant, cover the soil with wire mesh or aluminum foil
. Leave this cover in place as long as your cat shows any interest in returning there.

• Above all, keep the litter box especially clean so your cat has no reason to avoid it.



It is virtually impossible to predict how one pet will respond to another

There are many factors to consider when introducing pets for the first time. The species, breed, size, gender, age, individual temperament, and health status of each pet all contribute to their initial encounter and eventual coexistence. With so many factors to consider, it is virtually impossible to predict how one pet will respond to another.

Not all dogs and cats are destined to be antagonists. Not every sexually intact (uncastrated) male will reject a new male in its territory. If you already have a dog (or cat), adding a second dog (or cat) of the opposite sex does not guarantee they will get along.

Sometimes the most unlikely pets become instant and lifelong companions. Sometimes the intolerance of one or both is immediate and enduring. Often the initial period of conflict evolves over time toward a minimum of mutual tolerance. Also, once-stable relationships can degenerate for a variety of reasons.

Here are some general guidelines for introducing a new pet to resident pets:

• Take your time. A gradual process of discovery and investigation is best.

• Spend extra "quality time" alone with each pet during the transition period. Reassure
   your resident pet and establish bonds with the new pet.

• Watch for impending fights. A smaller pet is in more danger from injury by a larger pet
   than the reverse. A doe attack is more likely to severely injure a cat than a cat's attack
   on a dog.

• Give a frightened animal an avenue of escape. Fights can result in intentional or
   unintentional injury of anyone preventing retreat or blocking the path to safety.

• Consider your own safety before interfering with aroused or fighting animals. Proceed
   with caution, but recognize that you could be injured.

Introducing a New Cat to a Resident Cat

Cats that have been exposed to other cats while growing up may adjust more readily to a new housemate. The best way to avoid conflict between cats is to carefully prepare for the first encounter. The resident cat may adjust to the newly introduced cat without confrontation if they are first required to share your home but at different times of day, and are not immediately introduced.

Phase 1

• For the first few days, keep the new cat confined to one room. Provide fresh food,
   water, and litter daily. Make frequent visits to spend time playing, feeding, petting, and
   generally interacting with the new cat during its isolation. Give it time to adjust to this
   one location, where it is guaranteed emotional and physical security. This will also
   help you establish a positive relationship with your new pet without distraction.

• Meanwhile, your resident cat will sense traces of the intruder on your clothing and skin
. The new pet's odor and sounds will alert your resident cat to its presence. During this
   period, spend extra time with your resident cat, engaging in favorite activities in an
   effort to relieve any anxiety and minimize tension.

• Feeding tends to relieve an animal's feelings of anxiety and may help it adjust to the
   household changes. Place your resident cat's food dish near the door to the room
   where the new cat is kept confined. Gradually move the confined cat's food dish closer
   to the inside of the door. Feed them at about the same time so that they are separated
   only by the closed door. Move to the next step when neither cat exhibits any growling,
   hissing, or spitting when it senses the other is nearby.

Confine your resident cat, with its own food, water, and litter box, to a favorite location
. Your own bedroom may be convenient; most resident cats feel comfortable there
   because it is associated so strongly with you.

• Allow your new cat to explore your home for brief periods. Accompany it on its patrol to
   extend the comfort of your presence beyond the room where it had been isolated.

• Allow the new pet out of confinement for longer and longer periods several times each
  day. When both cats appear comfortable (the new one will assume positions of rest,
   for example, or groom itself more than it actively explores your home), proceed to the
   next step.

(Note: It may take several weeks to reach this point. Even if it takes only a few days, delay the next step for an additional week. Keep separate litter boxes for now. With continued progress, you may decide to gradually move one or both litter boxes to another location. It is advisable to maintain one litter box for each cat, even though each cat will likely use both boxes.)

Phase II

Arrange to be present when both cats roam freely throughout your home for the first
  time. This should be planned to coincide with regular mealtimes. Follow the new cat so
  that you will be present when they first see each other. Some hesitation and hissing are
  to be expected from either or both individuals.

• Feed the cats in each other's presence, placing their food dishes at a comfortable
  distance. Wait only a few minutes after they have eaten to confine the cats to their
  quarters until the next scheduled mealtime. If either or both cats seem so disturbed that
  they do not eat in the other's presence, remove the food bowls and confine each to its
  own safe place. Try again when both cats are calm.

• If a second attempt fails, remove their food and confine them again. Wait until each
  has regained its composure to feed it. Try again the next day.

• As things settle down, allow them to spend progressively longer periods together after
  they have eaten each meal.

• Move their food dishes gradually closer to each other at successive meals. If problems
  occur at any time during the introduction process, return to the preceding step as
  outlined above. Be patient. Some cats are less sociable toward others and less willing
  to share their territory.


Medication If Necessary

If the cats are consistently aggressive toward each other, it may be necessary to sedate one or both cats. Psychoactive medication should be prescribed by your veterinarian and used only if necessary and for a short time. Both cats are likely to experience some anxiety during the transition period, though one cat will likely react more strongly than the other. Unless there is a medical reason not to use medication or one cat seems completely unbothered by the other, both cats are likely to benefit from medication.


With time, most cats learn to accept others in the household. Should your cats be exceptions, however, three options remain:

(1) Keep one cat confined for part of the day, while the other roams freely.

(2) Keep one cat permanently confined to one part of your home, while the other is kept exclusively in the other. You can always try another introduction later.

(3) Find another home for the new cat you had hoped to adopt.


The information contained within the above article is copyrighted by Dr. Stefanie Schwartz and may not be reproduced in any form without express permission from the author. Max's House in no way claims ownership of the above information.

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