The Litter Box - An Unusual Case History

Last December a Bay Area veterinary hospital referred one of their clients to Perfect Paws because of an unusual elimination problem their client's cat was experiencing. I thought you all might be interested in what happened. Most savvy pet owners realize the dangers and temptations their pets may be exposed to during the holiday season. We all know the health hazards and risks that Christmas tree decorations can pose for pets. Cats especially cannot resist glittering strands of tinsel. Here's a story with a different twist that happened last year at this time to an unsuspecting cat owner. I've changed the cat and owner names to maintain their anonymity.

The Problem
Rex, a healthy, 5 year old, male, neutered cat developed an unusual litter box problem. Instead of neatly digging a hole, eliminating and covering his waste as he had done all his life, he suddenly began defecating all over the kitchen. After almost an hour of questioning Alice, the owner, here is what we discovered. Rex was not just leaving little piles in the kitchen; he was actually defecating "on the run." Little trails of feces were spread all over the kitchen floor. When Alice observed Rex defecating, he seemed to be in a wild panic, actually running away from his bowel movements. Prior to this behavior, he routinely had 2 stools a days, one in the morning and one in the evening. He had never missed his litter box before. The litter box was located in a small room adjacent to the kitchen. Alice also kept her cat on a regular feeding schedule, once in the morning and once in the evening. Although Rex was still eating his regular meals, he was now only defecating every other day.

The Diagnosis
Alice finally recalled the event that immediately preceded the problem. She was so distraught over the daily kitchen cleaning that she had forgotten what happened the day before Rex started this unusual habit. She recounted that the night before her cat stopped using his litter box, she heard him howling pathetically in the kitchen. When she rushed to see what the problem was, she found Rex racing about the kitchen with a little strand of decorative tinsel and feces protruding from his rectum. She caught him, pulled the tinsel out and everything seemed to be fine. What she did not realize was that her cat was traumatized enough to have developed a superstition about the litter box and even the act of defecating. Rex was so fearful of defecating that he held his stool as long as he could therefore causing him to defecate only every other day instead of his usual twice daily. When he did finally eliminate, he defecated "on the run" to escape the trailing tinsel as he did when the tinsel was stuck inside him. Interestingly, he continued to use the litter box to urinate. The avoidance was limited to the act of defecating.

The Treatment
I told Alice to take her cat to his veterinarian to make sure there were no blockages or problems with his digestive system as a consequence of ingesting the tinsel or resulting constipation. She was also to explain our findings and inquire whether the veterinarian would approve of the use of a mild laxative. The veterinarian found Rex to be perfectly fine and prescribed the laxative that Alice would use along with helping Rex overcome his fears about the litter box and the act of defecating. Reconditioning Rex was quick and easy. I explained to Alice that she had to change the environment and routine enough to help her cat forget about the frightening event. She was to purchase an entirely different litter box and place it in another room that was small enough to prevent Rex from running around. She chose the guest bathroom. She was to lock herself and Rex in this room daily until the "act" happened. At the moment Rex began to defecate, she was to talk soothingly to him and them immediately reward him with his favorite food treat. Fortunately, this was almost another one-time learning process. Alice only had to do this twice and Rex was again happily and regularly defecating in his litter box.

The Cat Training Application
Obviously, pet owners must use caution when decorating their homes for the holidays. Alice is one cat owner who will never decorate her tree with tinsel again. But there is more to learn from this. Animals are superstitious. We can capitalize on this principle to train our cats to avoid items we don't want them to touch - from Christmas trees to furniture to trash cans and laundry baskets. If the animal associates an unpleasant, but not harmful experience with an item, the cat will avoid it. Our book, From the Cat's Point of View, contains chapters that explain and illustrate safe but effective booby traps you can use to train your cat to stay away from these places.

The Litter Box - An Unusual Case History

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