Litter Box Dynamics

Litter Box Dynamics. I can’t claim credit for that term. That belongs to Dr. Chew, one of my very good professors at Ohio State. He had a particular interest in the urinary health of cats, and because the litter box is such a big part of the urinary life of a cat, the nature and condition of the litter box is of vital importance to the urinary health and quality-of-life of a cat.

If a week goes by that we at the Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic don’t see a handful of cats come through the door with a complaint of “urinating outside the box” or “inappropriate urination,” it’s a slow week. I’m convinced that these cats know to find us because we see a bunch of them.

There are a variety of reasons that cats will urinate outside of the box:
* urinary tract infection causing inflammation of the bladder
* bladder stones/crystals causing inflammation of the bladder
* Feline Idiopathic Cystitis: something unknown causing inflammation of the bladder
* senility
* bad cat

Believe it or not, the last reason (bad cat) is quite uncommon. Cats with urinary tract infections, diagnosed with a positive culture of the urine, require antibiotic therapy to resolve. Cats with stones and crystals improve when they no longer have stones and crystals. There are some medical solutions to the senile cat. But what about that third reason: Feline Idiopathic Cystitis? (From now on we’ll call it FIC.)

FIC is a condition that requires ruling everything else out first, and this can be a bit of a lengthy process. FIC is also a condition that is not completely understood. But for the purposes of this blog post, I mention it to say that FIC is much more common than anyone used to think, and one of the vital steps that must be taken to give the particular cat relief, and therefore improve the cat’s behavior, is to address the Litter Box Dynamics in the home.

Cat’s have a standard of cleanliness beyond our own. You and I may look at a litter box and say, “What’s wrong with you? Use the box!” The cat may look at the box and say, “There’s no way I’m going in that box. Clean it up!”

Different cats will tolerate different standards of cleanliness, but for the cat that is not urinating in the litter box (and certainly for the cat that is not defecating in the litter box), we must be hyper-vigilant and extremely religious about the Litter Box Dynamics. Here’s what I mean:

  1. The number of litter boxes must equal the number of cats in the home, plus one. At least. The more boxes there are, the less of an “odor-burden” there will be in any of them. The boxes ought to be in different locations. Setting two or more boxes next to each other, in a cat’s mind, is the equivalent of one box. Have at least one on each floor, if possible.
  2. Scoop the litter at least daily. This is more homework for you, but it must be done. The box must be as clean as possible when your cat wants to use it.
  3. Dump out the box, wipe the box with a non-citrus-scented cleaner (Formula 409, Fantastik®) and refill the box with new litter at least twice weekly, if not every other day. Now it seems like I’m piling on the homework, but keep the end goal in sight!
  4. Consider the box type and the litter type. For example: Some kitties don’t want hooded boxes, others won’t go in a non-hooded box. Some cats like clumping litter, others only want a paper-based litter. If something isn’t working after about 2 to 3 weeks, consider something new. Or give your cat options and see what they prefer.

Keep this thought in mind: “Am I giving my cat any excuse in the world to not urinate in the litter box?”

Some cats may think:
* “That box stinks.”
* “I don’t want to walk all the way down stairs to go.”
* “Oh, my gosh, (insert other cat’s name here) is defending the box, I’ll just go somewhere else.”

Remove these excuses from their minds! Once you’ve been vigilant enough to restore appropriate urinary behavior, then you can back off to your level of convenience. It won’t be a mystery if you need to return to some level of the more watchful care of the box. But you’ll find a happy medium, and you and your cat will be able to live in harmony again.

For more information on how you can create a most cat-friendly environment within your home, visit The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Cat Initiative.

If you suspect that your cat is part of the population of felines that require more help than simply attention to Litter Box Dynamics, don’t hesitate to give us a call so we can get to the bottom of the issue.

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