Ask Dr. K: Prefers Fabric Over Litter

Kitten will only use litter if no fabric is available

Q: My stepdaughter is having a problem with her 7-month-old kitten who is inappropriately eliminating outside of her litterbox when any material/fabric is around. She prefers the fabric to pee on. She eliminates in the box when there isn’t any fabric around.

This kitten was living at a construction site and was approximately 3 months old when she found by a construction worker who took her to a vet clinic. My stepdaughter worked at the clinic and adopted her. Soon afterward, the kitten developed a bladder infection. After it cleared up, the kitten was spayed.

We took her to the veterinarian recently to see if an illness was causing her to inappropriately urinate outside of the box. No medical condition was found.  My stepdaughter has tried different litters and Feliway to see if the kitten would start using the litterbox when fabric was present. It hasn’t worked. What would be the next step?

A: Thank you for getting in touch, and I am sorry to hear of this kitty’s problem. If a medical issue has been ruled out, it is possible that, for whatever reason, she has developed what is called an elimination substrate preference for fabric. This may have occurred when she had her bout of urinary tract infection and/or when she was hospitalized for her spay. In some cases, cats can develop aversions to eliminating on particular surfaces, and I presume that she has not developed an aversion to her litter, as it sounds like she will eliminate in her box if she doesn’t have her presumptive preferred substrate for elimination (i.e., fabric). I presume the she is defecating in the litterbox regularly.

Basic things like making sure that the litterbox is cleaned daily, has not been moved to a place that she doesn’t prefer (i.e., too out in the open where she may feel vulnerable), and provides easy access via sides that are not too high are good ideas. Minimizing stress by avoiding the introduction of new pets, new people in the home, and construction noise to the extent that you can is also a good idea, as is making sure that any fabric she has soiled is well cleaned to remove the scent of her urine.

If she has developed a preference for urinating on fabric, the first very important step is to deny her access to any fabric outside of the litterbox. I know that this sounds simple, but it is very important, as allowing her to eliminate on fabric outside the box at all will only reinforce the problem and make it more difficult to address. If you need to isolate her to do this, that is reasonable.

In some cases, cats that develop a preference for fabric will do better with litter that is softer and finer. You can also try placing a small piece of the fabric in the litterbox and cover it with some litter to prompt her to urinate there. If this works, gradual increase the amount of litter that covers the fabric over time until you ultimately remove the fabric.

If you catch her in the act of urinating outside the litterbox, immediately stopping her and placing her in the litter box may be helpful, but do not scold or admonish her. Whenever she urinates appropriately in the litterbox, praise her with kind words and perhaps a food treat.

These are reasonable things to try, but consultation with a veterinary behaviorist may help if they are not successful. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications can be a useful adjunct to behavioral modification in addressing inappropriate elimination, but these are often more successful at addressing urine spraying. Best of luck, and please send an update when you can.