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Little Litter Problem (Feline)

Hi John,

My family has a five-year-old neutered male cat named Dusty.  For about four and half years we’ve never had a problem but over the last few months things have changed. Dusty is refusing to use his litter box.  We’ve had numerous tests done (fecal, urine and x-rays) without much to indicate why he stopped.  Then a couple a weeks ago my brother noticed Dusty struggling without success to pee.  We rushed him to the vet and he underwent surgery for a blocked urinary tract.  When he came home he seemed to be interested in using the box again and we figured his problem was due to a lack of control as a result of his urinary problems. However, he’s back to avoiding the litter box again even though we have a box available on every level of the house.  I think he’s developed a phobia about the litter box as he seems anxious around it and leaps out as soon as he can after I tried placing him in one.  My brother thinks it’s strictly physical and that we just haven’t pinpointed the exact cause. Or perhaps he might be suffering side effects from the medication he’s on post-surgery? We love this cat dearly, is there anything we can do to train this cat to use his litter box again.



Hi Alison,

It could be medication side effects, the same or even a different physical issue or behavioural in that he’s connected the litter box with pain. It’s hard enough to tell what going on physically and mentally with dogs because they can’t talk but even if cats could I think they’d cling to their privacy with the eccentricity of a reincarnated Howard Hughes. They hate giving information away.

Litter box problems are probably the most common early warning signs that a cat owner has their cat is seriously distressed. The problem is pinpointing the problem. Your cat’s veterinarian will have a list of the usual suspects based on the cat’s age and medical history but all too often they’re left with not much more then, “We’ll just have to wait and see as yours must have been after all the testing failed to turn anything up.

It’s not normally a part of the yearly physical for pets but I believe every pet should have blood work included every year, particularly when they’re healthy so that in times like this the veterinarian has a great baseline to compare to and so narrow down diagnosis possibilities and having identified the ailment have a shot at early intervention.

When it’s not a physical issue it’s almost always cleanliness. After a while some cats see their litter box like they’re a crime scene investigator with black lights for eyeballs. I always recommend throwing away all litter boxes and replacing with new and it’s amazing how often that gets things on track. Cleaning alone rarely works.

It won’t be conclusive, but one way to test if this is a behaviour problem is to try a different litter in an object the cat is less likely to connect with the traditional litter box. Something without sides for instance. You could try just a large piece of cardboard with litter on it. Messy I know, but if your cat starts to use the area you can start introducing something with a slight edge, like a cookie sheet and later a regular tray.

Pawsitively yours,

John [email protected]

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