Dear Sinéad and Siouxsie,
I have an elderly kitty, Cinder, who is 18 years old. This winter she developed a very bad habit that I'm not sure how to deal with. Cinder has started to defecate outside of her litter box. She usually uses our carpets or dirty laundry that the kids have left on the floor. We keep her litter box very clean and it is in an area that is very accessible. She uses the litter box to urinate, she just won't go Number 2 there. My husband is ready to send her packing and frankly, though I love her dearly, I'm getting tired of cleaning up the mess. What can I do?
Sinéad: Oh, please don't throw Cinder away! That's so sad! She's just a poor old grandma cat, and if you throw her away, it'll be the death of her for sure. I cried for hours just thinking about it.
Siouxsie: We do have some ideas that might help you with this problem, and we hope you'll try them and tell your husband to stop being such a ....
JaneA: Siouxsie, watch your language; this is a family column.
Siouxsie: I was going to say "big blue meanie"! What did you think I was going to say?
JaneA: Sure you were.
Sinéad: Anyway! The first thing you need to understand is that 18 is a very old age for a cat. Most cats don't live longer than 14 or so (and generally live much shorter lives if they're allowed outdoors), so you've got a real grand dame on your hands. We believe that in human years, Cinder would be approximately 96 years old. With that in mind, you can certainly understand how Cinder might be suffering from certain age-related problems. You wouldn't throw your mother out on the street if she started having accidents or engaging in other such "inconvenient" behavior, would you?
Siouxsie: Old cats, like some old people, get kind of set in their ways, and even the most minor disturbance or change in routine can cause a major upset for them. Older cats don't handle stress as well as they did when they were younger, and so stress can make them start acting out. It also makes it much harder for an old cat to deal with being moved to a new home or sent to an animal shelter.
Sinéad: Also, old cats are not very adoptable, because people don't want to pay an adoption fee and fall in love with a kitty, only to have it die in a short amount of time. So if you send her to the animal shelter, you're basically sentencing her to death, either from the stress or, if the shelter isn't a no-kill one, from being put down because nobody wanted her.
Siouxsie: Of course, Miss Wimpy-Pants isn't trying to guilt trip you or anything!
Sinéad: Wimpy-Pants, huh? Listen up, Flabby-Flanks .
JaneA: Ladies, please!
Siouxsie: So now that we've made the argument for hanging on to Cinder, here are some suggestions on how you could deal with the inappropriate pooping.
Sinéad: First of all, think back to when the behavior started. Did anything change in your house? Did you change your brand of cat litter, the food she eats, the laundry detergent you use, or anything like that? Did you rearrange the furniture? Did you paint? Did someone move out of or into your home (human or animal)? Does someone in your house have a new job or work schedule? Has a new animal moved into your neighborhood? You'd be surprised what kind of tiny things can upset an old cat who's used to a routine. If you have changed something, you might think about going back to the food, furniture arrangement, etc., she was used to, if that is a possibility.
Siouxsie: Second, look at the places where Cinder poops. Do they share certain characteristics? Are they all in dark places? Are they in spots that have other strong scents? Dirty laundry, for example, would carry a strong scent, and if you have a dog that "had an accident" on the carpet where Cinder does her business, she may be trying to mark over the remnants of that odor. Cats do have very sensitive noses, you know.
Sinéad: It's also possible that, since it takes longer to defecate than it does to urinate, that she's using other locations because there's something about the litter box that she doesn't like. If the box is in an open area, she may feel too vulnerable, or if it's too closed in, she may have trouble maintaining the "poop squat" (which, by the way, is different from the "pee squat") because her joints are aching or something.
Siouxsie: I advise against covered litter boxes, too. First of all, when the box is covered, you humans have a tendency to forget to clean it if you can't see it, and it can get really gross in there before you finally get around to cleaning the box. Second, if something falls on it while we're inside, it's going to spook us, and we're not going to want to use the cat box again. Finally, if you're using smelly cat litter and forget to clean the box, a covered litter box becomes a kitty gas chamber....and could you blame us for not wanting to use the gas chamber to do our business?
Sinéad: Urinating and defecating are both territory-marking behaviors in cats. Urinating is the usual choice, because it requires a lot less effort than defecating. But some cats have been known to use feces as territory markers. If the feces are in a certain part of the house-along one wall, in a particular room or rooms, by a specific window-there may be a territorial component involved in her behavior. Is there some reason Cinder may feel a need to defend a territory in your house? If so, perhaps you can resolve that issue and Cinder will feel more at ease.
Siouxsie: Meanwhile, here are a few practical things you can do to help Cinder remember to do her business in appropriate places.
Sinéad: First of all, you said that Cinder often does her business on dirty clothes that the kids have left on the floor. The obvious solution to this problem is to have the kids put their dirty laundry in a hamper with a closable top-or even in a laundry basket in a closet with a door Cinder can't open.
Siouxsie: There may be something about the size or position of your cat box that's making it hard for Cinder to use it for her No. 2's. As I mentioned, arthritis and stiffness can be problems for older cats, so if the box is too high or the litter is too deep, it may be uncomfortable for Cinder to hold her "poop squat" in the cat box. Try adding another litter box that's bigger and has shallower sides, and also try pouring in just an inch or so of litter. You might try a softer, sandier litter, too. Our mama used to use recycled pine pellets, and Sinéad didn't like them because they hurt her paws, so she pooped in the shower stall
Sinéad: Siouxsie! Stop embarrassing me!
Siouxsie: As I was saying, when Mama changed to small, soft clay litter, we both liked it better and Sinéad stopped pooping in the shower stall.
Sinéad: As a courtesy to your senior citizen cat, consider adding a second litter box upstairs if your house has two floors. Old cats sometimes get that "gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now" feeling, too. At least that's what our Kitty Grandma Shaughnessy tells us. She's 15, so she should know.
Siouxsie: If one of her favorite pooping spots is in a discreet corner or out of the flow of traffic, place an extra litter box on top of the spot where Cinder usually does her business. This will encourage her to poop in the box, not on the floor.
Sinéad: Mama tells us there are products you can buy that neutralize pet odors. We recommend buying one of these products and using it on the carpets and other places where Cinder has been doing her business. Once you've cleaned these areas, try rearranging your furniture so that some solid object is right on top of her pooping spot. Even an area rug would help, because area rugs are easier to clean than carpets!
Siouxsie: This is all general advice on how to stop the behavior, but it's really important that you take Cinder to her veterinarian and have her checked out to make sure that her pooping problem isn't caused by some kind of disease or something. Since she is an old cat, it's possible that she may have some sort of health problem that she's trying to make you aware of.
Sinéad: That's right. Behavior problems are sometimes caused by physical illness. Any time your cat friend suddenly starts exhibiting problem behaviors, take him or her to the vet and make sure the problem isn't physical, or "organic," as they say in the vet world.
Siouxsie: And don't forget to think about changes that happened around the time the problem behavior started. Even minor changes can create havoc in your cat friend's life.
Sinéad: Make sure you give Cinder lots of love and affection. It's really important not to start acting cold toward her because of her behavior problem. That will only stress her out more because she'll start thinking you don't like her. Cats like to act tough, but most of us domestic cats are real softies at heart.
Siouxsie: Speak for yourself!
Sinéad: To all of you out there: Whatever you do, please try not to get rid of a cat just because it's having behavior problems, especially if it's an old cat. Old cats need your love and support more than ever as they near the end of their lives. It's important for cat caretakers to be aware of the physical changes taking place in their senior cats and accommodate those changes to make life easier and less hazardous. Don't let your fear of your own mortality make you push your old cat away just when she needs your comfort and love. When your cat friend does pass over, you'll be glad that you were able to give her the care she needed and lovingly accommodate her physical and behavioral issues.
JaneA: I agree with Sinéad. The girls' Kitty Great Grandma, Iris, lived to be almost 19 years old. She was blind in one eye and had gotten quite forgetful about many things in her old age-including her toilet habits on occasion-but she wasn't in pain, so we decided to let her die naturally. On an autumn night in 1999, Iris died peacefully by my mother's side. The whole family was glad she was with the people she loved when she passed over.
Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at firstname.lastname@example.org. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.