Solving Litter Box Problems In Adult Cats

How you can read your adult cat’s clues to manage the litter box blues.

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Your adult cat’s litter box problem may be due to a medical issue. Manuel-F-O/iStock/Thinkstock
Amy Martin

Cat owners love their cats, but let’s face it — it can be incredibly frustrating when our cats do, well, cat things. Unwanted litter box behavior is certainly one of those things. It happens in cats of all ages, and adult cats are no exception.

I know how it feels to desperately want the peeing and pooping outside of the litter box to end. I understand what it feels like to want to cry when you find another pee spot. I know what it feels like to take your cat’s behavior personally. I know what it feels like to lose all hope, and how badly you just want to find solutions. Here’s the good news: There are solutions, and they don’t involve some of the drastic measures (like getting rid of your cat) to which so many people have had to resort.

Adulthood (ages 3 to 10) is perhaps the most complicated period in a cat’s life. Even so, you can learn to contain some of the chaos that often comes with living with an adult cat, and coexist peacefully with one another. I’ve learned more than my fair share of lessons, especially when it comes to litter box issues, and I’m going to share a few of them with you here.

Adult Cat Medical Issues

You may be convinced that your adult cat’s litter box problem is a behavioral issue, but it could very well be a medical one. Eliminating outside of the litter box is your cat’s way of signaling to you that something is wrong. Healthy, happy, content adult cats are less likely to have issues with house soiling.

There are many diseases that can begin to develop in adult cats.

“In adult cats (3 to 10 years of age), we look for things like crystals, stones, or infections,” says Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, owner and medical director of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia. “We also start to look for signs of early metabolic diseases like diabetes or early stage kidney disease.”

While Arguelles noted some of the common medical problems associated with litter box issues in adult cats, there are many more that can be associated with newly developed litter box aversion issues, including the following:

  • Recent declawing (using the litter box may be painful)
  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC)
  • Lower urinary tract disease
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Cancer/Lymphoma
  • Cataracts
  • General illness
  • Pancreatitis/Intestinal disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Kidney disease
  • Dental disease

The first thing to do when your cat (regardless of age) demonstrates unusual or unwanted behavior is to rule out any underlying medical issues. If the veterinarian confirms that your adult cat has a clean bill of health, then you can start to address your cat’s environment, and what might be creating litter box aversion.

Environmental Issues

Litter box aversion makes life chaotic. It’s gross. It’s smelly. It’s incredibly frustrating. But guess what! It’s not something that our cats are doing to deliberately upset us.

The reality is that once medical issues are ruled out, the problem can almost always be traced to something stressful in the cat’s home environment. There can be a variety of environmental factors and stress that can contribute to an adult cat’s aversion to her litter box. These are just a few examples:

  • The cat has not been neutered or spayed
  • Too many cats in a cat’s territory (inside or outside)
  • The use of verbal and/or physical punishment
  • Threatening sights, sound and smells, and people
  • Chronic stress (which is more difficult to recognize because it can develop subtly and over a long period of time)
  • Feline Separation Anxiety
  • Being bullied or ambushed by other cats in the home

Suggestions For Success

What do you do when you are stressed? I dance, sing, exercise and play. Did you know that cats release stress through play and exercise, too? Cats of all ages, especially adults, prefer things in their world to remain the same; they thrive on routine. It helps them to feel secure. Furthermore, studies have shown that a set routine reduces stress in cats. As their guardian, you can help your adult cat to feel secure by providing a routine. Eating, playing, grooming and sleeping routines should happen around the same time each day. I also suggest finding time to play with your cat each day. This fun exercise time will relieve their stress and increase your bond!

Reading The Kitty Clues

Do you have a pen and paper? Then you have the tools to find the clues needed to adjust your cat’s behavior. Cats are creatures of habit, and nothing they do is random. They will repeat behaviors that work for them. Consider using a journal to begin keeping track of these key indicators:

  • When and where you’re finding the soiling
  • How your cat is urinating — horizontally (on the floor) or vertically (on the wall)
  • What they’re soiling on
  • What is happening in, around and outside the cat’s environment

By tracking your adult cat’s behavior you can start to see that your cat is choosing those particular spots, at that particular time, for a very deliberate reason. Here are just a few feline facts that I’ve learned from deciphering my adult cats’ behavioral clues:

  • If the urine or feces is located just outside (near) his litter box, the cat probably doesn’t like the litter box, or the type of litter orlitter mat.
  • If the urine or feces is farther away from her litter box (on the other side of the house), it’s possible that she is not able to physically get to her litter box, or she’s fearful of where the box is located.
  • If your cat stands on the edge of the box, instead of getting into it, it could mean that your cat considers the litter box too dirty for her comfort, doesn’t like the texture or scent of the litter, or that the litter box is too small.
  • All adult cats need a convenient, clean, private and appropriately sized litter box.
  • Most intact cats mark their territory with urine, compared to only 10 percent of spayed/neutered cats.

Arguelles also had these suggestions for success:

  • For cats who have accidents under specific circumstances like loud noises, people, change in general, or even other pets in the house, it’s important to keep the litter box in a calm and quiet area of the house.
  • Try cat pheromone plug-in diffusers around your house to help create a calming environment and make your cat feel more secure.

“Having a space that your cat feels comfortable and protected while using the litter box can make all the difference in the world,” Arguelles says.

Observation, Not Frustration

I encourage you to suspend your anger, disgust and frustration. It’s not just happening to you — it’s happing to your cat, too. It’s crucial that we learn to listen to our adult cat. We do this by observing their behavior — the same behavior that frustrates us so much! I learned to listen to my cats even when I didn’t want to. I learned that my cats were trying to communicate to us that something was wrong.

It’s also very important to understand that the behavioral issues common in adult-aged cats can be some of the most complex and complicated you’re likely to encounter. If your efforts to uncover the issues with your cat’s behavior aren’t meeting with success, find a qualified, force-free behaviorist you can trust. Once you’ve identified the issue(s), either on your own or with the help of a professional, you have to commit to helping your cat overcome the problem.

“It all depends on the human’s follow through with the veterinarian or behaviorist’s recommendations,” Arguelles says. “No matter if the house soiling issue is medical or behavioral, it takes the team of the dedicated owner and the cat to fix these issues wholly. The cat alone can’t do it!”

When we learn to objectively observe our cat’s behavior, we’re able to piece together the cat clues. But if we try to interpret or label our cat’s unwanted behavior, then we take their behavior personally. By objectively looking at the big picture, we are better able to help our cat and to find a solution that works for everyone involved. Your home doesn’t have to be run by cat chaos. You have the tools to coexist peacefully!

Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats