Scratching and litter box issues are the most common cat behaviors that confuse and frustrate their hoomans.
During this My Lovely Feline Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks talks about these behaviors and also shares how to tell if litter box problems are medically or behaviorally-driven.
My Lovely Feline content contributor Liz Italia also shared her insights on how to curb unpleasant behaviors. Let’s look at some important takeaways and a Q&A from the discussion.
Cats & Scratching - Dr. Brooks’ Personal Experience
Dr. Brooks shared a personal experience she had with her two cats. She got them as kittens and took them with her to vet school, but never trained them what was appropriate to scratch. They’d scratch her furniture but she was unconcerned and didn’t care. Then she got married and realized her husband did care.
It became a huge issue because Dr. Brooks hadn’t trained them to do the appropriate behaviors. They were old enough that their routines were set, and retraining wouldn’t be an easy task.
Once she lived in a stable and safe environment, Dr. Brooks made the decision to let the cats be outdoor cats. She felt like she failed them, but she also didn’t feel like she had options, and declawing them wasn’t something she wanted to do.
Being a vet, Dr. Brooks has performed and seen declaws. Earlier in her career, she worked at a clinic where declaws were included in the spay/neuter package. There weren’t conversations with owners about what was actually involved, which was removing part of the toe.
She felt terrible every time she had to do it. Some cats did fine, while others had lingering pain, arthritis, litter box issues, and aggressive issues (typically abandoning swatting for biting).
There has been a shift in veterinary medicine and public opinion away from declawing. Many countries consider it animal mutilation. A number of provinces in Canada, one state and a handful of cities in the U.S. have made it illegal. There is a growing number of states with declawing legislation in the works.
Keep in mind that although scratching is a reason people surrender their cats, going outside the litter box is a more common reason, and declawing may swap one behavioral frustration for another.
If there’s a medical reason why a claw needs to be removed, go to a vet who uses the laser method because there are less surgical complications. Although the laser decreases the chances for other medical and behavioral issues, it doesn’t completely remove the possibility of other problems.
For people who have guilt around declawing a cat previously, Dr. Brooks and Liz advise to let go. Dr. Brooks explained it’s the veterinarian community’s responsibility to inform and educate owners, and they didn’t always do that in the past.
Teach Cats to Scratch Appropriate Objects
Cats release endorphins, release stress, and remove dead pieces of nail through scratching, making it a natural, normal, and healthy cat activity. Here are a few tips to get your cat to scratch the right things:
- Start when they are young
- Get a scratching post appropriate for the cat’s size
- For adults, a large, sturdy scratching post so the cat can stretch completely
- Opt for a variety of horizontal and vertical options until you learn what your cat likes
- Try different materials like corrugated box, rope, etc.
- Place scratchers in the social areas of the home, not in the corner
- Put catnip, Feliway pheromone spray, or treats on scratchers
- Feed cat on or by the scratchers and play with them by the scratchers too
- Cut your cat’s nails on a regular basis
If you catch your cat scratching furniture, carpets, curtains, or anything else they aren’t supposed to:
- Pick up your cat and place them by the scratcher
- Put double-sided tape on the area - just remember you’ll have to replace it frequently
- Don’t spray your cat with water because they won’t understand why you’re spraying them; plus, although the object they’re scratching is an issue, the behavior of scratching is normal so you’re just confusing them
- Some people find nail caps effective
The good news is once your cat starts scratching appropriate places, other cats will do the same thing. The pheromones released during scratching communicate to other cats that an object is okay to scratch. They’ll also want to add their scent to it.
As far as medical conditions around claws, check paws and nails often, especially on older cats. They have a tendency to grow thicker nails and run the risk of their nails growing into their paw pads if the nails aren’t trimmed on a regular basis. This can be very painful and puts them at risk for infection.
Cats Urinating Outside the Box
There’s a long list of reasons why cats pee outside of the box. If it’s the first time your cat has done it, take them to the vet to rule out anything medical, like a urinary tract infection (UTI), urinary crystals, bladder stones, or even other medical conditions that cause increased urination like kidney disease, liver disease, thyroid disease, and diabetes.
Inflamed Bladder From Stress
One medical condition that’s also tied to behavior: feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) or an inflamed bladder. The main cause is believed to be stress, but it can also be caused by a cat not drinking enough water or having a defective bladder lining.
Symptoms of FIC include:
- Peeing in small amounts
- Peeing without warning (sudden urge and the cat can’t make it to the box)
- Going in and out of the litter box
- Running to the corner of the room to pee
- Straining to pee or only a few drops come out
These cats feel an urge to go and don’t always make it to the litter box in time. They can also be in pain and pee in different places. It’s a medical condition but it’s more common in cats that are in a stressful situation, like going to the vet, moving, or having a baby. Male cats with cystitis are predisposed to UTIs and blockages.
Although there isn’t a cure, it can be managed, and it’s very important to decrease the cat’s stress and provide environmental enrichment. Some treatments include prescription diets, canned food, pain meds, meds that decrease the spasm in the urethra, and joint supplements.
Once you’ve ruled out medical reasons for urinating outside the box, it’s time to look at behavioral reasons. As one of the top reasons cats are surrendered in shelters, it’s so important to try to help a cat feel confident and secure enough to go in the litter box.
Many times, a cat goes outside of the box because they feel the need to mark their territory or they don’t like the 1) litter box 2) litter 3) location of the box 4) cleanliness of the box.
If your cat is going outside the box, here are some things to try:
- Commit to enrichment, including 20-30 minutes of playtime a day
- Provide affection and one-on-one attention, especially in a multi-cat household
- Spread litter boxes throughout the home or apartment; The number of boxes typically follows the rule 1 per cat +1, but always consider the cat’s size, how much they use it and how often you clean it when selecting the quantity of boxes
- Multiple litter boxes in one room is still viewed as one big box by your cat
- Senior cats like to be able to turnaround completely so make sure you get a big enough box for them
- Try different types of litter
- Senior, long-haired, and declawed cats tend to be very picky about their litter
- Use Feliway pheromone spray or diffusers, or try a calming collar to help your cat feel more secure
If a cat is having major problems going outside the box, try to reset them by setting the cat up with everything they need in a bathroom or small room for about a week. See if they use the box. If they do, you can open up the house to them and hopefully they’ve reset.
Typically, if a cat is peeing vertically (even females), that is behavioral and territory marking. When a cat is peeing horizontally, like squatting and emptying their bladder, it’s more likely to be medical.
When all else fails, consult a cat behaviorist for help.
I have two cats that are two years old. Recently, my female cat has been throwing up a lot and I’m trying to figure out what the source of that is even though nothing has changed. Do you have any suggestions?
Dr. Brooks: Vomiting in cats is very common. It could be a new development of food allergies, which can happen at any time. The food manufacturer might also change a very small thing and not say it on the bag, which is very frustrating. If she’s overgrooming, it could be because of hairballs. You could try a sensitive stomach food or start giving her Pepcid daily. Split a 10mg tablet in half and mix it in her food.
Liz: Keep an eye on her stool. If you ever see balls of mucus in the stool, that can be a sign of IBD. Another thing to keep in mind is that the food manufacturers can make a small adjustment to their food and isn’t regulated like veterinary diets, so they don’t have to tell you.
That little change could be enough to irritate the cat. Additionally, some cats can be sensitive to corn because they don’t get it in the wild. Maybe looking for a food without corn would help. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to ask your vet to deworm the cat the next time they’re in for a visit.
I have four male cats who grew up together. One of the male cats is 4-5 years old and kind of a loner and very aloof. He doesn’t like to hang with the other cats. They don’t fight, just some hissing now and then. I keep worrying if I made him aloof by bringing other cats into the house. Do some cats just like to be loners?
Liz: In my experience, yes. There are different estimates about when the brain matures. Some say 2-4 years and others 3-5 years. People will say their cat wasn’t a certain way before, but they’re referring to when their cat was kitten or young adult which is different.
Now, your cat is getting settled into a routine of who he is, and he may very well be a solitary cat who likes to be on his own. In the wild, they may have other cats they hang with at a centralized location, but they do a lot of solitary activities, like hunting. It’s possible he’s like that.
If you don’t see anything medically concerning, I wouldn’t worry about it, but I would try to spend some time with him because he’d probably benefit from one-on-one attention from you. Whether that’s play or brushing him, whatever he’ll tolerate. Sometimes cohabitating is the best we can hope for. If he doesn’t seem like he’s depressed or stressed I would let him be.
Dr. Brooks: I’d second all of that. If it turns into a situation where the cats are bullying him or preventing him from going to the litter box, recognize that and get another litter box and make sure he has spaces where he can be alone.
We Still Love Cats
Scratching furniture and peeing outside the litter box are definitely understandable reasons to be frustrated with your cat, but remember, there are always reasons behind their behaviors.
Once you figure out the “Why?” you can move on to a solution, and you’ll undoubtedly grow and even stronger bond with your kitty.