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5 Things to Know About Litter Box Behavior

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When it comes to your cat’s sacred places, few areas claim more importance than the litter box. Often, it’s where signs of discontent or failing health start to appear. Understanding the basics behind your cat’s litter box behavior can make you a better cat parent, and help you identify when potential problems are afoot. Ashley Rossman, DVM, of Glen Oak Dog & Cat Hospital gives us the 411 on litter boxes, including what’s normal and what should be a cause for concern.

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1. What causes cats to stop using the litter box?

Just like humans, cats have their own unique personalities. No two cats are exactly alike. However, every cat parent should be concerned when their cat stops using their litter box. Be proactive when your cat engages in this type of behavior. Reasons can vary from behavioral issues to serious medical problems. They may be experiencing pain, feel stressed or anxious, or feel a need to urinate more frequently. [In addition to avoiding the box] cats can become reclusive, anti-social, hide, have a decreased appetite, or stop eating. Cats can also be emotional and stop using the litter box because they are angry and making a statement.
2. Are male or female cats more likely to avoid the litter box?
Both genders can engage in this behavior. That being said, unaltered males are more likely to spray and not use the litter box than unaltered females. Having your male cat neutered reduces the amount of testosterone and other hormones, and thus reduces his desire to mark his territory. He will be much more likely to use the litter box and only the litter box.
3. How often should I clean my cat’s litter box?
Keeping your cat’s litter box clean is essential to their wellness. Cats are very fastidious animals with an acute sense of smell. Most cats are very picky about their litter boxes and require them to be frequently cleaned. If the litter box is not cleaned daily, cats will avoid using it. For multiple cats, provide one litter box per cat.
4. The brand of cat litter I have been buying for years is no longer available. How do I go about changing my cat’s brand of litter?
A cat may stop using his or her litter box if the consistency or odor of the litter is different than what’s familiar. If your brand of litter is no longer sold in your area, I suggest you make two separate brands of litter available to your cat. Keep the existing litter box with the current brand, and place a second litter box alongside it with the new brand. Being curious animals by nature, offering a new litter brand as an alternative will entice your cat to try it on their own. When your cat begins using the new litter, the old litter brand can be removed. While some cats are particular about their litter, most adapt well to change and simply replacing the old litter with the new litter is perfectly acceptable.
5. What are the health conditions that cause cats to stop using their litter box?
There are many medical conditions that can cause a cat to stop using their litter box. The most common conditions are urinary tract infections, bladder stones, cystitis, feline lower urinary tract disease, cancer of the bladder, and anxiety/ behavior issues. Joint pain may also be a factor when cats stop using the litter box. Much like their human counterparts, cats develop arthritis and degenerative joint disease as they grow older. This can affect their ability to use the litter box. Litter boxes designed with a low step-in height can help accommodate their physical limitations. The litter box should be placed in a location that is easily accessible from the floor level and at all times of the day and night.
An abrupt change in your cat’s behavior may be indicative of a serious health problem. You should always consult a veterinarian when your cat refrains from using their litter box.

Ashley Rossman, DVM is a licensed veterinarian and a partner at Glen Oak Dog & Cat Hospital in Glenview, Illinois.

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