Behavior modification is just as important as drug therapy when you are trying to help your clients keep their cats. Implementing both can help you foster odor – and aggression-free households.
Cats that avoid using their litter box are usually responding to some form of stress. In the wild, cats prefer to be solitary, and will mark off a territory of about an acre that they will defend from intruders. When several cats live in one house, even if they all appear to get along, or when a cat wants to go out but isn’t allowed to, a degree of stress is involved that may trigger urine marking. A thorough history will generally reveal a pattern of elimination involving a specific cause. Withdrawal of free access to food, the addition or subtraction of human residents in the house, or dramatic changes in the arrangement of furnishings are all possible stressors to some cats. Treatment directed at resolving the diagnosed problem has environmental, behavioral, and pharmacologic components. When all three of these components are addressed, problems usually resolve.
To treat feline elimination disorders, follow the same steps used for treating any other behavior problem. First, rule out or treat any underlying medical cause of the problem. While not generally implicated as a primary cause of problem elimination in cats, any potential underlying medical problem must be addressed. Medical problems that can be associated with problem elimination behavior or may complicate its treatment include gastrointestinal disease, endoparasites, bacterial disease, inflammatory disease, anatomical abnormalities, partial or complete obstructions, nutritional disorders such as maldigestion and malabsorption syndromes, metabolic disease, food allergies, or debilitating conditions that preclude easy access to appropriate elimination areas, such as arthritis. Only after other potential causes have been ruled out should you proceed with the premise that an elimination disorder is rooted in behavior. Generally, this step can be quickly and effectively completed.
The second step to treating any marking situation or substrate or location aversion or preference is to remove the odor. All affected areas and layers must be cleaned with a good odor eliminator. This means that, for example, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the pad underneath it, and subfloor all need to be cleaned or replaced. If this is not possible, the client can seal the connecting areas with either physical moisture barriers (e.g. heavy plastic) or chemical moisture barriers ( e.g. epoxy paints) that can be painted on the subfloor. In some cases, floorboards or tiles will need to be replaced. Odor eliminators that have been relatively successful include The Equalizer (EVSCO), K.O.E. (Kennel Odor Eliminator) (Thornell), Elimin-odor (Pfizer), and Anti-Icky Poo (AIP) (Bug-a-Boo Chemical). No odor eliminator can be expected to undo years of repeated assaults. Accordingly, the importance of early treatment for elimination disorders.
After they are cleaned, affected areas should be covered with heavy plastic to change the tactile sensation for the cat and to prevent penetration in the event of further elimination. While floors are being cleaned and sealed, it would be preferable to isolate the cat to an area where controlled tests with litter boxes and different substrates can be conducted. It is critical that the cat can no longer smell where it has been eliminating.
Multiple litter boxes should be placed whenever possible, generally one more than there are cats, unless the clients are inundated with cats. Large numbers of cats may make it impossible to prevent the cats from responding to olfactory stimuli. Because litter boxes can be implicated as turf in social conflicts, it is critical to allot the litter box turf in a manner that will convince the cats to use the boxes appropriately. Litter boxes should be placed in several locations and should be offered in a variety of styles (open, covered, deep, shallow, big, small). Litter needs to be scooped every day, and most litter should be dumped every other day. This is good advice for owners of cats without elimination problems, too, because the cats may be tolerating a litter without liking it. It is unknown if such behavior is a risk factor for developing future elimination problems. Exceptions are with the clumping litters and the litter boxes that have stones and pads that absorb moisture. In the latter case, the pad is discarded daily and the stones are washed weekly. With the clumping litters, the soiled litter clumps can be easily removed while the remaining litter is relatively uncontaminated. Clumping litters need to be dumped every week to every few weeks. Without exception, boxes should be washed weekly. Boxes that are so permeated with sand or scratched that cleaning will not eliminate odor should be discarded.
A variety of litters should be offered in a variety of boxes. Use litters that resemble the inappropriate substances the cat has chose to use. If the cat is using soft substrates such as bedding, towels, or laundry, consider softer litters. No. 3 blasting sand and fine-grade playground sand are inexpensive and soft to the touch. They do not absorb moisture or odor as well as some commercial litters, but they can be dumped multiple times a day at very little expense. Shredded newspaper or paper towels are also relatively inexpensive and soft but do not absorb moisture or scent as well as traditional litters. Yesterday’s News (Canbrands International) is a litter made from recycled newspapers that is formulated to absorb moisture as well but is not as good at absorbing odors as some other litters. Many cats that are very fussy about using soft substrates will use this litter in absence of any others.
Sawdust or wood chips that do not originate from strong-smelling trees (e.g.. Cedar) can be useful additives in litter boxes. Some of the newer clay litters have pine chips added to provide softening. The most successful results appear to be obtained by using recyclable, clumping litters. Clients need to be observant and creative to determine which litter is preferred.
If the problem involves a location preference or aversion, a litter box with a litter that the cat likes can be placed where the cat is eliminating. If the cat starts to use the box, you know you are dealing with a location preference or aversion. If the cat does not use it, the client must go through the sampling procedure outlined here.
Counterconditioning can work for some disorders involving locations. Food dishes can be placed in the affected area. Generally, cats will not eliminate where they are fed. If there are several inappropriate locations, this will not work, but if this is the case a location preference is probably not the problem. Clients can rearrange furniture or move a large plant so that the cat’s favorite spot is covered. Sometimes the cat then shifts its spot. This can indicate that the location wasn’t sufficiently altered, or it can suggest a mixed substrate-location preference.
A cat with a elimination problem can be encouraged to make positive associations with the litter box. This can be done by taking the cat to the litter box frequently and waiting with the cat. If is uses the box, it should be praised. Associate the appropriate elimination behaviors, such as scratching in the box, with giving the cat a food treat or anything that encourages the cat to use its litter box. Cats should not be disturbed or frightened while they are in the litter box. A proprietary powder is available, “Cat Attract”, which, added to the litter box, is supposed to attract cats to use the litter.
Owners will learn to recognize behaviors that precede elimination, such as facial expressions in some cats. If the cat is seen squatting outside the box, the owner should startle the cat so that it stops the appropriate behavior and place it in a situation where an appropriate behavior can be encouraged. If startled within the first 30 to 60 seconds of the complete behavioral sequence (sniffing, turning, and scratching), the cat will be able to learn from the startle. If the cat has already eliminated and is digging, it is fruitless to startle or correct the cat.
Pheromones have also been successfully used to reduce the cat’s urge for territorial marking. These compounds are scents released by cats to communicate with other cats, and only cats can smell them. By artificially supplying the cat with a constant whiff of pheromone, it will feel that its “territory” is already well marked, and not in need of refreshing. Maternal pheromone calms and reassures nursing kittens, and cats recognize these scents throughout life. They help reduce stresses associated with multi-cat interactions, or other stressors such as not being allowed outside. Pheromones are available in products such as Feliway (Ceva) sprays & “plug- in” diffusers, or “natureCalm” (Meridian) pheromone collars.
Cats who have not responded to environmental stimuli are best treated medically with human anti- anxiety medications. These alleviate stress that is making the cat unhappy and uncomfortable. Only once this has been achieved will the cat be able to learn (or re-learn) to use the litter box consistently. Drugs such as amitriptylline, buspirone & Prozac are usually used for a limited time of several months, with or without crate (or “cat-condo”) confinement. It is usually possible to withdraw the medicine gradually after a few months. The drugs rarely have any adverse effects, are not sedative and do not change the cat’s personality.
A cat that is spraying is a frustrating problem to its servants (I mean owners) but it is also a frustrated and unhappy cat in itself. Therefore correcting the problem using behavioral techniques, pheromones, or drugs when necessary is important not only for the sake of getting rid of the smell, but also for the sake of having a happy, well- adjusted cat.
This article is based on an article by Dr Karen Overall, Dip ACVB, published in Veterinary Medicine