The first step in dealing with a new behavior problem in a formerly well-mannered pet is to rule out that it might be a medical problem. In few instances is this rule more applicable than when a cat stops using the litter box.
There are a handful of medical problems that drive cats from the litter box. One of the most common is a bladder infection or inflammation that makes urinating painful. Diabetes and hyperthyroidism can increase the production of urine to the point where it's too hard for a cat to hold it long enough to get to the litter box, and the creaks and aches that come with advancing age may make the trip to the litter box difficult.
Recognizing these underlying problems is the first step in solving litter-box problems, but treating them may not be the end of the undesirable behavior. In the case of infections, especially, cats come to associate discomfort with the litter box and will have to be gently convinced to resume its use.
Before you do that with your recovering cat -- and for a healthy cat who was never trained properly -- you have to make sure you're holding up your end of the bargain. Here are a few other reasons why cats abandon the litter box:
-- CLEANLINESS. Would you want to use a dirty bathroom? Neither does your cat. If you're cleaning weekly, every other week or when you can't stand looking at it any more, it's no surprise your pet is contemplating going elsewhere. Scoop daily, and change the litter and scrub the box on a regular basis.
-- LOCATION. Litter boxes in high-traffic, high-noise areas such as kitchens or primary bathrooms should be reconsidered. A guest bathroom is probably one of the better choices, but any quiet, out-of-the-way place your cat is comfortable with will do. One reader tip I love: Put the litter box in the bathtub, if you're fortunate enough to have one you never use. It's an area that's private and easy to keep clean.
Hooded litter boxes are another possibility. Some cats love them, although for cats with asthma, they aren't advised. Another consideration: In multiple-cat households, you may need a litter box in a different part of the house for each cat, because some cats simply won't share.
-- FILLER. Once you've dealt with cleanliness and location, experiment with filler. According to "CatWatch," a monthly newsletter put out by the Cornell Feline Health Center, cats prefer clumping litter to other varieties, which means cats who may avoid a box with other litters may use clumping varieties without problems. Some cats don't like perfumed litter, finding the smell as offensive as a dirty box. You'll have to experiment; your cat's opinion is the only one that counts here.
No matter whether your cat has never been properly trained or is recovering from an illness, you'll have to limit your cat's area in the house to convince him to use the litter box, starting in that small bathroom and gradually increasing the space available to him as his success streak continues. Never punish a cat for going outside the litter box, even if you catch him in the act. Cats learn best through positive reinforcement, and if you punish your cat, you'll have him avoiding not the bad behavior, but you. Praise him for using the litter box in his small area with words, caresses and treats.
Clean up accidents promptly and thoroughly, and put foil or plastic carpet runners with the pointed side up over problem areas to discourage revisits.
Proper care, patience and a positive attitude are key in solving pet problems. With these tools, most cats will become reliable litter-box users again.
Pets on the Web: For an increasing number of people, reptiles and amphibians are the only pets to share their lives with. Melissa Kaplan is one of those people, and her Herp Care site (http://www.sonic.net/(tilde)melissk) is one of the finest examples of generosity on the Internet. The site contains more than 180 of her well-researched and well-written articles on reptiles, amphibians and insect pets. Of special interest: a "mini-page" for educators. Kaplan quotes dolphin advocate Rick O'Barry, "Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar," and reminds her readers that we are all educators, in the end.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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