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Outside the Box: Feline House Soiling

cat on toilet

Rachel Landesfeind, DVM

Perhaps the most frustrating part of pet ownership is that we cannot ask our pets questions. Well we can ask, but we are unlikely to get a useful response. For instance, I’d love to know why my dog Gracie licks the living room couch to the point of drenching it.  Or why my poodle mix lies on the end of my bed and growls at the floor. Is she angry at it? Has it wronged her somehow?  Would she have preferred a darker finish?  I’ve asked her, but she’s not talking. Dogs and cats are maddeningly tight-lipped when it comes to Q & A sessions.

We can live with most of these little mysteries, but there are some problems that can become deal-breakers if left unsolved.  If you’re a cat owner, you probably know what I’m talking about. You may have even shouted these very words: “why can’t you just use the freaking litter box???” (most versions contain more expletives, but this is a family-friendly article so I’ll let you use your imagination). Well, yelling won’t help, but if you learn how to ask the right questions, you can get an answer. This article will explore the most common reasons for feline house soiling and various ways to correct the problem.

Medical Reasons

Before attempting any of the other suggestions discussed here, it’s important to make sure your cat is not soiling the house due to an illness. Any illness could potentially cause a cat to urinate outside of the box, but the most common cause is idiopathic cystitis, an inflammatory condition of the bladder that makes cats feel like they always need to urinate. Symptoms include frequent spotty urination, difficulty urinating, and sometimes bloody urine.  Other common conditions that might cause increased urination are kidney disease, diabetes, an overactive thyroid or a urinary tract infection.  Your vet will probably want to obtain a urine sample and possibly run some blood work to evaluate your cat for these conditions, so before you try anything else, see your veterinarian to make sure Fluffy is healthy.

Marking Behavior

Once you’ve ruled out a medical reason, the next step is to determine if Fluffy is exhibiting  marking behavior or inappropriate elimination. Urine marking, or “spraying,” is a means of communication and may happen in community or social areas, near windows or any other place where your cat can see or interact with other animals. Marking is typically limited to urination and tends to occur on vertical surfaces, your personal belongings, new furniture or recently relocated decor. A cat in the act of spraying is usually standing straight with the tail up, may be treading or clawing the area with the front paws, and generally only produces a small amount of urine at a time.

Most marking behavior stops when cats are spayed or neutered, so if you’ve been putting it off, it’s time to bite the bullet and make the appointment.  If your cat has already been sterilized, take a look at the places where he or she is marking and consider the possible triggers. Is it near a door or window where other cats are visible? Is it in a communal area where the culprit interacts with housemates? Perhaps it’s limited to the new couch or your laundry basket. The trigger may not always be obvious, so if you’re not sure, write down the places and times of marking to try to determine a pattern.

Once you’ve determined the location and likely cause of marking, it is vital to clean up the urine thoroughly. Enzymatic cleaners are generally the best option as they are the most successful at neutralizing urine odor.  Next, determine if the trigger can be removed or avoided. If Fluffy is urinating on the window sill, try blocking her view out the window. If the marking is in a communal area for multiple cats, add environmental enrichment like cat towers, toys, and additional hiding places so there is not as much competition for resources. Synthetic pheromones like Feliway® are also useful for calming the marking instinct.

If all of the above fails, your veterinarian may want to consider anti-anxiety drug therapy. But remember, there is no “magical pill” that will fix marking behavior all by itself. Medication will not be successful if the source of the problem is ignored, so the above modifications are still essential.

                It is important to note that although urine marking is annoying, it is a normal behavior and should never be punished.

Inappropriate Elimination

Inappropriate elimination can involve urinating or defecating, and typically occurs on a horizontal surface. When a cat is urinating inappropriately, he or she will be in a squatting position and will completely empty the bladder. In other words, the cat is exhibiting normal elimination habits in an inappropriate place. The two main reasons for inappropriate elimination are litter box aversion and litter box preference.

Litter Box Aversion

Cats are very particular about their “toilets.” Something that seems insignificant to us might be a big deal to Fluffy. Consider the location of the box: is it in a loud or frightening area, like near a noisy appliance? Is it too busy for adequate privacy? Some cats don’t like  food or water to be kept too close to the litter box. Many cats are displeased with a box that isn’t cleaned often enough. Cats are fastidious, just think of how much time Fluffy spends grooming herself each day. If there’s already waste in the box, Fluffy might not want to go back in there again until it’s removed.

In multi-cat households, more often than not the problem is the number of litter boxes. Cats don’t like to share. If you have multiple cats, the rule of thumb is to have one litter box per cat plus one extra box, and spread them around the house. You might be thinking, “but I don’t want to put more boxes out, it’s just more litter to scoop.” Well, either way, you’ll be cleaning up after your cat. Would you rather scoop out an extra box or scrub pee out of the carpet when Fluffy won’t share the toilet with Mittens?

Litter Box Preference

The next step in getting Fluffy to use her litter box is to make sure the box is appealing. Put it in a quiet, private place away from food and water sources. Most cats seem to prefer unlined, uncovered boxes with soft, unscented litter, but your cat might be different. You may need to try several types of boxes and/or litter before you find the right combination for Fluffy’s delicate sensibilities.  There are a couple of ways to figure this out, but be forewarned that it will take time and patience.

One method of determining litter box preference is to place two boxes side-by-side, identical except for one difference, like litter type or box depth. After about a week, Fluffy will probably be using one box more often than the other. Keep that box and compare it to another box with a new difference, like a cover. You can repeat these single-change comparisons until you figure out the ideal combination for Fluffy. Alternatively, you could provide all types of litter and box combinations at once and see which one Fluffy likes best. Given the wide variety of selections on the market, this is impractical for most households that don’t have an entire room available to devote to litter boxes.

Litter box problems are frustrating, but they don’t have to be deal-breakers. Your cat has a valid reason for her toilet habits, and she’ll tell you what they are if you just ask her in the right way. And then you’ll be free to focus on other unanswered questions, like why she prefers the bathroom sink to the $150 velvet bed you bought her. While you’re at it, maybe you can figure out why my rat terrier is suddenly terrified of the bedroom ceiling fan, because he’s not giving me anything.



Pets and Holiday Hazards

Rachel Landesfeind, DVM

As the holidays approach, most pet owners are too busy worrying about pumpkin pie, stuffing, and how to keep Aunt Edna away from the eggnog to think much about how the festivities will affect their pets. However, the holidays are a very busy time for veterinarians because they can pose some pretty serious health risks to animals. Nobody wants to spend a holiday at the vet’s office, so here are a few common hazards to avoid.

Everyone has heard that poinsettias are highly toxic to dogs and cats. In reality, the true poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a mild gastrointestinal irritant that rarely causes major illness. Holly and mistletoe also have a bad reputation, but although mistletoe can cause heart problems if ingested in large amounts, these plants generally just cause GI upset.

The major plant of concern is the lily. True lilies (Lilium and Hemerocallis species) are extremely toxic and even a small taste of any part of the plant can cause fatal kidney failure in cats. While lilies have not been reported to cause kidney damage in dogs, they do cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested.

Quick tip: Many “lilies” such as calla and peace lilies are not true lilies and do not have the same potential to cause renal failure, but they can lead to oral and GI irritation if ingested.

Remember that the above information is just a guideline. If your pet has eaten a plant and you are not sure whether it is toxic, it’s always safer to call your vet for advice.

Christmas trees and other decorations are more than just a fun new place for Fido to lift his leg. Decorations such as glass ornaments can cause serious oral and gastrointestinal damage if chewed and/or swallowed. Tinsel looks pretty on the tree and might make Fido’s poop easier to find with a flashlight, but if it doesn’t pass through his system it can cause major damage to his intestines. Linear foreign body obstructions from tinsel or ribbon can be difficult to diagnose since they aren’t always obvious on routine x-rays. By the time the problem is discovered, there is often significant GI damage

Quick tip: if you see any kind of string or ribbon poking out of your pet’s rear end, DO NOT PULL ON IT. The string may be longer than you think, and yanking on it could cut into your pet’s intestines and make matters worse. Let your vet decide how the object should be removed.

In addition to ornaments, beware of exposed electrical cords –cats and dogs think these are fabulous chew toys and could suffer a potentially fatal electrical shock if they bite through the cord. Even if you don’t think electrical cords would interest your pet, it’s safer to keep them hidden and out of reach.

People food is the number one reason for post-holiday vet visits. We’ve all been there: you’re enjoying a succulent turkey with creamy mashed potatoes and Grandma’s famous gravy. It tastes so good, and it must smell like heaven to Scrappy, and she’s giving you her most heart-melting gaze… what’s the harm in letting her have a few bites? You’ll find out a few hours later when her intestines liquefy and you’re roused from your tryptophan-induced coma to clean up the horrific results.

Sometimes those results are more than just a little vomiting and diarrhea. Fatty foods can cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) or hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (which is exactly what it sounds like; vomiting and bloody diarrhea). These can require expensive diagnostics, hospitalization and can even be fatal if serious enough.

Scrappy will probably give you her biggest brown-eyed stare during dessert too, but don’t take the bait. Any sweet or fatty treat could cause stomach upset, but the most notorious culprit is chocolate. The amount of chocolate required to cause toxicity has a lot to do with the type of chocolate and the size of the pet. For example, unsweetened baking chocolate is more than five times as toxic as milk chocolate, but only a few ounces of milk chocolate could kill a small dog.

Enjoying a postprandial cup of coffee? Don’t leave it unattended. Coffee is toxic for the same reason as chocolate. Unfortunately, many dogs love coffee and will happily drink your espresso if you leave it within reach. If you think your pet has ingested chocolate or coffee, call your vet right away.

Quick tip: We suggest you avoid the temptation to share food with your pets, but if you desperately want to give Scrappy something from the table, stick with raw carrots. They won’t cause GI problems, and most dogs love them.

As the holidays approach, the weather gets colder… it’s a frigid 72 degrees outside! OK, so in southern California we don’t really have to worry about our engines freezing up, but ethylene glycol antifreeze is so dangerous that it warrants a mention, especially since many of us travel to the mountains during winter. Ethylene glycol is extremely toxic to the kidneys and ingestion can be fatal without aggressive treatment. It also tastes sweet, which makes it appealing to animals. If you use antifreeze, make sure it hasn’t leaked or spilled anywhere where your pet might find it.

If you’re planning a holiday getaway to the snow, remember that many people use antifreeze in their plumbing to keep it from freezing up. Dogs think toilet water is delicious, so make sure you flush the toilets free of any residual antifreeze before you let Fido anywhere near the bathroom.

If you even suspect that your pet may have ingested antifreeze, call your vet immediately.

Quick tip: Propylene glycol is a safer alternative to ethylene glycol and is available at most automotive supply stores.

This is supposed to be a joyous and festive season, but every year thousands of pets get injured or sick because of holiday hazards. Hopefully with these tips, you won’t end up spending Christmas Eve at the emergency vet. And that’s a good thing, because the stuffing is ready. And Aunt Edna found the eggnog.

Previous Article: Itching and Allergies


Itching and Allergies

Rachel Landesfeind, DVM

It’s a beautiful morning on Mount Rushmore. You’re roller skating on Thomas Jefferson’s nose with Johnny Depp, Ringo Starr and your late uncle Bernie. Johnny is about to execute a perfect triple-axel when suddenly everything starts shaking and you sit up in bed. Is it an earthquake?! No, it’s Buttercup, scratching like a maniac and shaking the bed. AGAIN. That’s the third time this week! You can banish her from the bedroom and go back to sleep, but that won’t solve her problem.

In Southern California, the number-one reason for veterinary visits is an itchy pet. Unfortunately there are so many causes for itching that the problem is often not immediately apparent. It can be difficult to determine the source of the irritation, which gets frustrating for owners and vets alike. Not to mention poor Buttercup, who gets carsick on the way to the vet and is STILL itchy.

This article will touch on the most common reasons for itching in pets, but cannot cover them all by any means. The following is meant as a guideline and not as a diagnosis or treatment plan for your pet. If your pet is scratching, your best course of action is to seek veterinary care before attempting any treatment yourself.
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