About a month ago, I was told by the head of a rescue group that I volunteer for that there was a cat she thought I could help. She is about 3 years old, declawed, sweet but a little fussy and has litter box issues. Her name is Lucy.

A lot of cats will go through periods in their lives when they alter their litter box behavior – usually to their humans’ horror and frustration.  But Lucy almost paid the ultimate price for peeing outside the box. The humans who had pledged to love and protect her in what she thought was her forever home had taken her to a vet clinic and asked to have her euthanized.

Luckily, the doctor did not agree to this rash request. First, he ordered a urinalysis. But Lucy did not show any signs of disease that would contribute to a change in urination behavior. Next, he asked to have Lucy’s guardianship signed over to him. He told the people that he thought he knew of an organization that could help Lucy. He told them that she would be loved and cared for until her behavior was modified and she was adopted by a new family. This is how Lucy ended up with me.

While peeing outside the box may seem like a common problem, in order to help a cat, it’s necessary to interpret specific patterns, location and any associated behaviors. So, since I’ve had a lot of luck diagnosing and retraining cats with litter box issues and I also have a guest bathroom that is perfect for a single cat, especially one that might want to pee on the floor – tile is so much easier to clean than carpet or wood floors – we arranged a time when Lucy would move to my house.

Nobody knew exactly what her litter box problems were at that point. Her former humans had been nonspecific and possibly exaggeratory to best mask their choice to wish Lucy a permanent goodbye. I didn’t have any information from the clinic because she wasn’t there very long. And for the couple of days before she came to my house, she was in a foster home with a lot of other cats who were sharing litter boxes.

So, without any preconceived ideas, Lucy and I were going to start from the diagnostic beginnings. I was ready to deal with any or all of the following problems:

1)      Litter: Declawed cats are often very picky about litter because it feels very uncomfortable on their overly sensitive paws. It was possible that Lucy was inappropriately urinating because the litter hurt her or got caught between her paw pads and she didn’t want to get in the box. I already use very soft litter at my house – specifically, Tidy Cat Immediate Action (with the blue lid). But if I didn’t, I would have purchased very fine, soft, clumpable litter for Lucy’s little paws.

2)      Location: Lucy could have been inappropriately urinating because of where her box was placed. It could have been too noisy, too dark, too close to her food or just too much in the midst of busy people traffic. At my house, Lucy would have her very own litter box in the quiet corner of a bathroom.

3)      Cleanliness: Most cats want their box scooped at least once each day. Remember that they are mostly tidy little mammals and the box is their toilet. Would you want to repeatedly use an unflushed toilet? Lucy’s humans may have been lazy about this and she preferred urinating on a clean floor than in a dirty box. But at my house she had a clean box with fresh litter and it would remain that way.

When I first brought Lucy home, I took her in her new furnished apartment (AKA the guest bathroom) and let her out of her carrier. She gave me a questioning look – one with which I would soon be very familiar – and let out a scratchy alto-pitched mew – with which I would also soon be very familiar.

I sat down on the floor near the litter box and waited for her to come to me. I did all of my regular litter box introduction tricks:

1)      Sit on the floor and invite the kitty to hang out with you near the box. You shouldn’t have to force them to get close to it. This could start the process with bad associations.

2)      Scratch in the litter with your own hand just like a cat would. The sound and action should be interesting to the cat. It should get her attention right away and let her know what she’s supposed to do. And this isn’t gross, I swear. The litter is clean. And you are going to wash your hands, aren’t you?

3)      If she hasn’t already stepped into the box on her own, you can encourage her to walk through the box by holding an interactive toy (i.e. feather wand) on the other side. Kitty should try to get to the “bird” as the crow flies (shortest distance between two points). So, make sure that path is through the box.

4)      When she gets in the box, reward and praise! If you’re clicker training, click and give her a treat. If not, just give her a treat. “Good kitty!” and “smart kitty!” a few times goes a long way. So, does scratching around her happy scent glands (neck and cheek).

Lucy was an immediate litter box expert! She got in, walked around, scratched a bit then got back out without even trailing any litter. She didn’t use it at first. But her obvious familiarity with the concept was an excellent sign of good things to come.

Sometime while I was asleep that first night, Lucy used the litter box for both urine and feces elimination. When I told her, “good girl! Smart girl!” she replied with a couple of agreeable raspy mews, some loud purring and head butting. In fact, in her month at my house, Lucy never once even came close to incorrect litter box behavior. If the truth be told, she might have the best litter box behavior of any cat I’ve ever known. She is regular (every night), tidy (doesn’t trail or kick litter around) and somehow nothing she leaves in the litter box even smells bad.

I would like to say that all of this is the result of my feline expertise. But it’s more likely that Lucy had a few “out of the box” episodes because of one of the aforementioned reasons (litter, location, cleanliness) and her humans just weren’t willing to admit their own mistakes.

Thankfully, Lucy didn’t have to pay the ultimate price for these humans’ mistakes. But according to “Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters (Salman, Hutchinson, & Ruch-Gallie) in the Journal Of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2000, soils house was the #1 reason cats were relinquished by owners to shelters. And with just a clean box, in a desirable location and comfortable litter, how many of those cats would still be in their homes… and how many would not have been euthanized in shelters?

Lucy’s adventure does not end here… Stay tuned for more fun tales about Lucy and other fabulous felines.

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