The Mind of Your Cat: 10/02

Question: I have two spayed, indoor 6-year-old female cats. They are sisters from the same litter and get along well with each other. They are home alone during the day. When I am home, Dixie is usually wherever I am. However, she does not always use the litter box for feces. Her indiscretions always happen on the carpet and always near a wall or in a corner. The behavior occurs whether or not the boxes are sparkling clean. It may occur as often as several times per week, though weeks may pass without an episode. The defecation usually happens when I am not home, though it does occur when I am there as well. When she has done it, she tries to avoid me. I have tried adding another litter box, changing litter brands, showing her the stool and telling her no, and soaking her with a water bottle. I clean the areas thoroughly and spray a cat repellant. The only thing I havent tried is putting litter boxes all over the house and I do not want to do that. Is there anything else I should try, or should I resign myself to living with this problem?

Answer: It is quite tempting to identify a behavior and then begin to design a treatment plan. Remember, the behavior you have described, defecation outside a litter box, is just a clinical sign. Several behavioral conditions may lead to this clinical sign. Thus, we must establish a diagnosis, and then determine what the appropriate treatment plan would be.

In your letter, you hinted at many factors that can be associated with defecation outside a litter box. First, you mentioned that there are two cats living in the home. Aggression between the cats, whether overt or covert, may trigger defecation outside a litter box. For instance, your second cat may physically prevent Dixie from gaining easy access to or safe exit from her litter box.

Marking behavior, secondary to aggression between cats, may also occur. Although urine marking is the more common form of indoor marking behavior, cats may defecate as well in order to mark an area. Cats typically mark prominent or socially significant areas rather than the corners that Dixie prefers.

Another concern in a two-cat household is that it may be more difficult to keep a litter box clean. If a cat finds a soiled box aversive, she may seek a more suitable location and surface, such as a clean strip of carpet.

Keep a behavioral diary
You mentioned in your letter that the problem defecation occurs primarily when you are away from home and that when you are home, Dixie stays very close to you. Cats that are very attached to people may eliminate outside their litter boxes as a response to being separated from their families. Keeping a behavioral diary would help you track the behavior: Cats suffering from separation anxiety are likely to exhibit an anxiety-based behavior during a majority of departures and rarely if ever when their owners are home.

If there is no evidence of aggression or separation anxiety, then what else could be driving Dixie to defecate outside her box?

Before we continue, it is important that you are sure that Dixie is the only cat responsible. And it is essential that your veterinarian examine Dixie to rule out a medical cause for the behavior. Several conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract, including inflammation, parasites, and allergies, may create discomfort during defecation. Should Dixie experience discomfort while using her box, she might avoid the box in the future.

Litter box preferences
Once Dixie gets a clean bill of health, she may be given a behavioral diagnosis. Based on the information you provided, there is a strong possibility that Dixie has developed a new elimination substrate preference: She prefers carpet to kitty litter.

What can you do to remedy the problem? First, the addition of a box near one of her new elimination areas is strongly advised. The new box is likely to be temporary, but it may allow for more rapid resolution of the problem. In fact, the ideal solution would be for you to set up a pair of litter boxes side by side. Begin to test systematically different box types, litter types, and litter depths. For example, one test might be a hooded box versus an open one. Another test might be shallow versus deep litter. Allow one week for each test, and keep careful notes of Dixies preference. If test results indicate no clear preference, then use the box and litter type that you prefer, but be sure to keep the boxes immaculate. That includes regular scooping and changing of litter as well as washing the boxes with mild soap and water.

Punishment does more harm than good
Finally, please do not punish Dixie. There are many risks to using direct punishment as a tool for behavior modification. If Dixie were punished while close to a box, she
may never use a box again. When you administer the punishment directly, you risk Dixie becoming frightened of you. Since she cannot understand why stool on the floor makes you angry, she may begin to avoid you entirely.

And it would never be appropriate to use punishment after the fact.

Dont be discouraged. If the behavior does not resolve, schedule a visit with a behaviorist. A more in-depth history will be taken so that the diagnosis can be confirmed and a customized treatment plan can be designed.