Strategies for Shelter Staff
Litter Box Issues

light bulb icon stop sign icon Excessive urination or absence of urination is not normal and can be life-threatening. Have the cat checked immediately by a veterinarian.

Most undesirable behaviours associated with the litter box can be alleviated by modifying the litter box and the environment in which it is placed. You are modifying the cat’s behaviour by creating an environment that is more attractive for elimination.
Litter Box Problem or Urine Spraying/Communication Problem? (Adapted from the ASPCA)

We need to determine whether a cat has a litter box problem or is urine marking. Cats who urine mark also use their litter boxes for voiding, so urine in the litter box does not rule out marking outside the box. Cats “spray” or mark with their urine when they deposit their urine on prominent objects in order to communicate with other cats, define territory or, if intact, when looking for a mate. Other inappropriate elimination, such as going beside the box, or in another room, can be caused by stress, aversion to the litter box or a medical problem.

Indications characteristic of urine marking:
  • Urine marks are usually deposited on vertical surfaces. Marking on a vertical surface is known as spraying
  • The cat typically backs up to the vertical object (like the side of a chair, a wall or a stereo speaker), stands with an erect posture and tail extended straight up in the air, twitches his tail and sometimes his entire body, begins treading with his front paws and sprays urine onto the surface
  • Typically only involves urine
  • The amount of urine a cat sprays when he’s urine marking is usually less than the amount he would void during regular elimination in his box
  • Urine sprayed will form a thin line
  • The urine smells pungent to people because it contains extra chemicals intended to communicate a message to other cats
Indications characteristic of other elimination problems:
  • Indiscriminate urination is usually done on horizontal surfaces
  • Will typically form a puddle, from bladder being fully released
  • Will usually squat for normal urination
  • May urinate or defecate outside the box
  • When a cat indiscriminately urinates there may be an underlying medical cause or the conditions in the litter box may be unappealing
  • Even if the box is kept clean there may be something about the set-up that’s not appealing
  • There could also be something going on in the environment causing stress to the cat or making him feel as if it’s not safe to use the litter box
What to do for successful litter box use in the shelter:
  • Enough space for posturing: This is necessary for the cat to assume a comfortable position over the litter box, and accommodate his whole body, to allow for successful elimination in the box. This can be very difficult for the cat if the litter box is too small, or is placed without enough surrounding space
  • The majority of cats prefer large boxes that they can enter easily. Shallow plastic sweater storage containers make excellent litter boxes
  • Cats like their litter boxes located in a quiet but not “cornered” location. They like to be able to see people or other animals approaching, and they like to have multiple escape routes in case they want to leave their boxes quickly. Avoid covered litter boxes as they only have one escape route
  • All cats like clean litter boxes, so fully change and clean the cat’s litter box at least once a day, and regularly scoop throughout the day
  • Most cats like a shallow bed of litter. Provide one to two inches of litter rather than three to four inches
  • There should be ample separation between food/water dishes and litter boxes, at least two feet. Ideally, double compartment housing provides complete separation of resting, feeding and the litter box; for more information see Individual Cat Housing Requirements.

stop sign iconWhat NOT to do: Never punish the cat for inappropriate elimination. This will not solve the problem but may have a negative impact on the cat. The cat’s inappropriate elimination behaviour is a message to you that something is preventing the cat from using its litter box in a normal fashion.

Communal Room Requirements: Sufficient resources (e.g., food, water, bedding, litter boxes, toys) and their appropriate distribution throughout the space must be provided to prevent competition or resource guarding and ensure access by all animals. There should be at least one litter box for each cat, plus one extra. See Communal Room Set-up for more information.

Meowing and Yowling (Adapted from the ASPCA)

Why do cats normally meow?

  • To greet people. A cat can be expected to meow in greeting when you come in and when you speak to her.
  • To solicit attention. Cats enjoy social contact with people, and some will be quite vocal in their requests for attention. The cat may want to be stroked, played with or simply talked to
  • To ask for food. Most cats like to eat, and they can be quite demanding around mealtimes. Some cats learn to meow whenever anyone enters the room or enclosure, just in case food might be forthcoming

kitten in cage

What to do to address excessive meowing or yowling: Excessive meowing or yowling indicates the cat is experiencing a high level of stress. Cats who are left alone for long periods of time each day may be more likely to meow for attention, which is very typical in shelter cats. Implementing Stress Reduction and Enrichment Strategies are imperative for the well being of these cats.

A cat that meows a lot and does not respond to stress reduction and enrichment interventions should be checked thoroughly by a veterinarian to ensure a medical condition is not the cause of the cat’s distress.

stop sign iconWhat NOT to do: Do not ignore the cat when she meows. In most instances, it’s safest to assume that something is wrong: she may not have access to her litter box, her water bowl may be empty, she may be frustrated from being confined, or something in her environment is causing anxiety or stress. Always make sure that all her needs are met before assuming that she’s just being demanding by meowing at you.

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