Solving Chronic Litterbox Problems

A feline behavior expert offers tips to help stop inappropriate elimination.

Q: We have two neutered male cats, 9-year-old Murdock and 3-year-old Drake. After owning Drake one year, we moved into a new house and Drake started eliminating on the carpet, the guest bed and the couch. We have tried different litters, liners, no liners, hood on box, no hood on box. We have two boxes, one for each cat. We finally isolated Drake to try to retrain him. Even in his safe room, he eliminated on any carpet-like material.

We have seen three different vets who say there is nothing physically wrong with him. One vet suggested Feliway. He also gave us a prescription for an anti-anxiety medicine. Drake seemed to make progress and stopped eliminating inappropriately in his safe room. We decided to let Drake out of the room. He lasted 2 and a half days, and last night he elminated on the carpet in our bedroom. What can we do?

Feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of Think Like a Cat, says:
A move to a new home is very traumatic for cats because they are territorial creatures of habit. In Drake’s case, because you mentioned he is very attached to you, he may not have handled the sudden move to unfamiliar territory and the stress related to that. Inappropriate elimination is a very complex situation and can have various causes and one of them can be a need to find a safe place. Drake may have been over the top stress-wise and didn’t know what part of the house was his.

You didn’t mention in your post how you handled the move. If the cats, especially Drake, weren’t placed in one room and then gradually introduced to the home, it wouldn’t be unusual for Drake to react this way. From Drake’s point of view, this house is totally unfamiliar and overwhelming.

One other thing you mentioned in your post is that when Drake was starting to do well in his sanctuary room you let him out. It sounds as if you let him out for too long. When I put a cat in a sanctuary room I then gradually let him out for very brief periods of positive interaction so he can get comfortable with the rest of the home. I’d like to see you bring Drake out for some gentle interactive play sessions for fifteen minutes or so, reward him with a meal or a treat, and then place him back in the sanctuary room. It’s better to do lots of short sessions throughout the day rather then risk having him out for several hours and ending up with a elimination episode. As he starts to do better you can gradually increase the time he is out of the room. Don’t be in a rush though and always make sure you are there to supervise.

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