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Ask Amy: Cat Poop Problems

How Can I Stop Cat Pooping Outside the Box?

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Cat in box

Cats suffering from separation anxiety often poop inappropriately.

Photo Credit: © Amy Shojai, CABC

Question: How Can I Stop Cat Pooping Outside the Box?

Jini lives with two cats, Barack and Woodstock, neutered 11-month-old cats adopted from the same rescue. They usually get along although Barack can be aggressive toward Woodstock. But for the past two months, Barack has had several instances of inappropriate defecation. His last check up was a month ago and pronounced him in excellent health.

"Twice I found feces on the floor after Barack had been chasing Woodstock and I thought he literally scared (it) out of Woodstock," writes Jini. Right after a vet visit, Barack defecated on Jini's bedroom floor (and tried to cover it with a rug) while she and Woodstock were in the cats' room (her office). She's managed to curb Barack's chasing behavior, got rid of covered litter boxes. Jini now has three Biddy Boxes, two side-by-side in her office and the third in the corner of the downstairs living room. "Now Barack defecates within feet of (the downstairs box), sometime between when I leave for work and return. When I come home, all is fine. I go out and he does it when I was gone."

She cleans boxes twice a day, and empties/cleans/replaces litter monthly. She's used Feliway in the living room and the cat's room/her office for the past two weeks. When out of the apartment, the cats have access of the downstairs and office only.

"They are fed twice a day, together. Each has and stays at his own bowl. In the morning they race from my bedroom to their room and pee side by side in the boxes. I play with them for at least 30 min at night and make sure I have lap time with Barack. In the morning I try and give them at least 15 minutes cuddle time before getting up. Barack lies next to me and sucks on himself while Woodstock props himself on my chest or arm and licks my face," says Jini. "When I was home last week Fri - Sun, no defecating. Soon as I got back to work, it's been every day. Any help would be greatly appreciated. I love these guys so much!

Amy's Answer

Inappropriate cat defecation can have several causes, both health related and environmental. Veterinarians and behavior specialists look at the cat's physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct to help figure out what's going on and find solutions. Think of this as the H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers.

H=Health

Parasites can be one reason cats avoid the box. Uncomfortable bowel movements from diarrhea or constipation may prompt the cat to associate his toilet with the discomfort, and so find a different place to "go." Since at the time of writing, Barack had a clean bill of health from the veterinarian, a health issue would not be high on my list.

I=Instinct

Cats insist on a clean bathroom. From Jini's description it appears that she's meticulous about keep the litter boxes clean. Cats also can have preferences about location of the box, it's conformation, and the type of filler that's inside. Finally, cats often want to have a different facility for solid and liquid waste, and sometimes don't want to "go" after another cat. The 1+1 rule (one litter box per cat, plus one) is a great rule of "paw" and Jini has addressed that with three boxes in different locations. Finally, some cats do use feces to mark territory-they tend to leave the waste uncovered. Read more about the most common litter box problems here.

S=Stress

This can be a huge Pandora's box of unknown stressors. Too many cats, not enough space, the cats fighting, outdoor cats or wild animals causing disruption, and many other issues raise the stress level. Different cats be more or less susceptible to stress, too. It's important to take steps to reduce the cat's anxiety and stress when this is an issue.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

Jini has already done so much right! This is a tough case. But I agree with her statement that Barack has insecurity issues. Certainly that increases the likelihood of stress playing a major role in his poor potty habits. Another hint is Barack's habit of self-suckling (sort of like sucking his thumb). Kittens that leave Mom-cat too early may retain this self-comforting behavior as they become adults.

Barack also appears to do fine when Jini is home. He leaves deposits when she's at work. This points very strongly toward feline separation anxiety. Such cats use self-scent to calm themselves and are more likely to use feces and target the bedroom where owner scent is the strongest. Since Jini leaves the bedroom door shut when gone, Barack can't use this location-other than the single time after being stress following the vet visit. Rather than marking behavior which he'd leave uncovered, he tried to use the rug to cover up, correct?

  • Refer to the tips in the feline separation anxiety article to help desensitize Barack to your departures and absences. Basically you'll repeat over and over (and over!) the "triggers" that get the kitty upset about you leaving-like picking up car keys, or putting on your coat. Also provide a treat-filled toy to keep him occupied during the first 15 minutes of your absence.
  • It could be that Barack also has some objection to the location of the downstairs litter box. The Biddy Box high-side and larger design work very well for high-aim urination, but it won't work if he never gets into the box. You say he's defecating nearby. Sometimes cats feel trapped when in facilities in the corner of a room. Try moving the box to the center of a wall to see if that helps.
  • Feliway works wonders in a number of kitty angst cases, especially those having to do with territorial issues. If you've not seen a benefit, though, you may wish to try another pheromone product I've recently heard positive reviews about. Sentry HC Good Behavior Pheromone Collar for Cats uses pheromones that mother cats produce while nursing that tell kittens "don't be afraid, you're safe." This works with adult cats, too, and the product is designed for separation anxiety and is said to last up to a month. (Compare Prices) Some cats develop drooling from wearing the collar, so try this for the first time when you're home to observe.

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