Anyone who has ever owned one knows that cats can be, well, particular.
"Cats are about the pickiest animals I've ever met," said Nadine Conner of All Paws Pet Center, who, with veterinarian Christen Skaer, held a seminar in April on kitty litter box issues.
Cats' preferences — for a covered or uncovered box, for unscoopable vs. scoopable litter, for a quiet place to eliminate away from other cats — can lead to refusal to use a litter box, a problem for many cat owners. It's the No. 1 reason cats are relinquished to shelters, Skaer said.
About 25 people showed up at Skaer Veterinary Clinic for advice on how to get their cats to eliminate in the litter box — and only in the litter box.
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"A lot of these problems can be fixed," said Skaer, admitting she has a cat with an elimination problem at home. "But it takes hard work. There's no magic bullet."
Elimination problems in cats may have medical causes, such as inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract infections or diabetes — especially if the cat's habits change suddenly, Skaer said.
"It's really important to rule out medical issues first," she said.
Out of those medical issues, behavioral problems can arise, Skaer said. A cat that experiences pain when using the litter box may associate the box with the discomfort and avoid the box, she said.
So it's important, Skaer and Conner said, to offer your cat a variety of litter boxes in different styles and sizes, looking for one that suits its fancy.
"Some hate covered boxes; some hate open. Some hate one with a door," Skaer said.
"Every cat is an individual. You have to figure out what your cat is disliking about the situation."
The No. 1 rule, Conner said, is to have a litter box for each cat in the house — plus one.
"You've got eight cats? Sorry. You've got to have nine litter boxes," she said.
The second rule, Conner said, is to keep the litter boxes clean. That means scooping every day.
The cats "are digging in it. They want it to at least be clean," she said.
Wash the box once a week, Conner said, using soap and hot water but no harsh cleansers like bleach, ammonia or anything with a citrus smell.
"Those are smells cats don't like," Conner said.
Next you should think about what type of litter you are using, she said.
Clay, pine-scented, dust-free, pellets? Try different kinds in different litter boxes, searching for the kind your cat likes best, she said.
Many of her customers report having success with a new kitty litter called Cat Attract, Conner said. It contains scented herbs that "make the cat want to pee on it," she said.
The product is guaranteed to work if the instructions are followed, Conner said, which include having a litter box for each cat, plus one, and scooping every day.
Cat Attract is expensive, she said, "but it's still cheaper than new carpet."
Where the litter boxes are placed can also make a difference, especially in multicat households, where elimination problems can be brought on by stress, Skaer and Conner said.
"Increase the amount of space your kitty has," Skaer said. "Create places where she can get away."
A litter box should not be placed near where the cat is fed, Conner said. Like people, "Most cats don't like to go potty where they eat," she said.
And if a cat is using the litter box in a laundry room and the washing machine makes noise, Skaer said, the cat may be frightened and not want to go back to that box.
Skaer and Conner recommend feeding moist canned cat food and cleaning up any areas where the cat has eliminated, using a urine-neutralizing product like Unique or Nature's Miracle.
In the end, "A lot of it is guesswork," Skaer said. Cat owners only have so many options:
"You can put up with the cat peeing all over, or you can get rid of it. But you want to fix it, so try the different methods."
Karen Martin came to the seminar hoping to find a fix for a problem with a 14-year-old cat that avoids the litter box.
She has been following most of the advice offered — starting with spending $500 at her veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
"We have been to the vet 10 times. I thought I would try something different," she said.
Martin said she has more than one litter box for each of her eight cats —"nine litter boxes, spread through the house" — but thought she would try boxes of different sizes, one of Conner's suggestions.
She also thought she would give Cat Attract litter a try, "maybe mix it in with another litter."
Martin said she was desperate to find a solution to Rusty's problem.
He's a big cat — a 20-pound Maine coon — she said, "so he really makes a mess when he misses."