Dear Dr. Maxwell,

We have a 7-year-old neutered male indoor cat named Bruce. Bruce is a nice cat with one big exception: he refuses to poop in a litter box. He pees in it religiously but will poop on the floor near a litter box. This has been going on since he was a kitten, originally owned by our daughter. Any ideas? I’ve tried open and closed litter boxes and he pees in both, but no luck pooping. I do a daily litter box cleaning so that shouldn’t be an issue.

Roger B., Blacksburg, VA

House soiling is the most common problem among cats for which an animal behaviorist is called. Because there are a variety of medical conditions that result in this problem, all cats should receive a full physical examination by their veterinarian before any behavioral treatment is implemented.

In most cases, this behavior in healthy cats can be categorized as territorial marking/spraying, avoidance of the litter box, or preference for some other floor material. Territorial marking with urine or, less commonly, with feces is a natural behavior among cats both wild and domestic, and is highly likely among intact male and female cats. Even among cats who are spayed and neutered, however, some urge to mark territory can persist, particularly under certain environmental conditions or triggers.

For example, many owners find that their cat will begin marking when another cat moves into the house or even into the neighborhood, when new furniture or carpet is brought in, or when a visitor comes to stay. Urine or feces deposits in these cases are often targeted to windows or vents (where outside scents are triggering the marking) or toward the new objects or belongings in the house. We will discuss feline territorial marking in more detail in next month’s column.

In Bruce’s case, territorial marking is less likely to be in play because he is only soiling with feces, the feces are deposited just outside of the box rather than around the house, and the habit has been in place since he was a kitten. We must then consider other reasons why Bruce might be avoiding the box.

Cats are very sensitive to one-trial learning when something painful or startling happens to them. So, for example, if Bruce was defecating in the box as a kitten when he experienced a temporary pain (e.g., if the stool was hard) or was startled by a loud noise, he might have associated that pain or startle with defecating in the box. The next time he felt the need to go, Bruce might have avoided the box and instead defecated outside of it. If the pain was no longer present or there was no repeat of the startling noise, the superstitious behavior would have been confirmed and the rule from Bruce’s perspective would then have been “Pooping in the box hurts (or produces a scary noise) but pooping outside of the box is safe.” Thus, a habit is born.

At this point, seven years later, the habit is well-entrenched and may be difficult to address. One consideration may be to provide a second box, with low walls, right next to the original box and to place inside this second box whatever substance, or surface matter, more closely resembles that on which Bruce is pooping.

For example, if the area outside of the box is carpeted, providing a low box with disposable carpet or other cloth might help him target his feces in that box. If Bruce uses the second box with the floor material in it, a small amount of litter could be added to the box over many months until that box is filled with litter and Bruce is continuing to defecate in it. This might be facilitated best by moving the first box into a narrow area, with the second, newer box in front of it, so that Bruce has to walk across or through the new box to leave the area, with little floor area around to comfortably defecate.

The particular elements of an intervention for any house-soiling case are determined by the layout of the house, the litter box location and the preferred location for soiling. Our goal in a case like Bruce’s is often to assess why the second location might be preferable and then to mimic those preferable qualities with a litter box in an attempt to shift preference to the box.

Dr. Maxwell is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears monthly in Extra, The Roanoke Times. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.

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