Maddie's Pet Project

Help! My cat keeps doing bad things to my bed

By Mark Robison

Mark Robison

A reader named Arthur wrote:

“I enjoyed your article in RGJ [Our Nevada, “4 things to consider if cat stops using litterbox”] and am dealing with a slightly different problem with my two 14-year-old sister kitties. They have always been very dependable in the usage of their litter boxes and have been indoor cats their whole lives. Within the past few months, one has had occasional diarrhea and at those times has decided that my bed is the place to defecate! As a result, I’ve had to start closing the bedroom door and she returns to the litter box usage. Any ideas as to why and prevention tactics other than closing off the room all day (which I hate doing, since they both like to curl up on the bed throughout the day). Thank you.”

Excellent question. Despite the rareness of this problem, I think that discussing it can help others with cats displaying similar inappropriate litter box behavior.

For an answer, I reached out to Kelley Bollen. She is a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant living in Reno, who has a master’s degree in animal behavior and is the former director of behavior programs for the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Here’s her reply:

“My questions to him would be how often is ‘occasional’? Does that mean once every few months or once or twice a week? If the cat is having frequent bouts of diarrhea, he needs to take her to the vet. There might be something going on medically. Parasites would be the first thing to rule out, but the cat could be having digestive issues like IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] or it might even be more serious.”

I followed up with Arthur, and he said it’s occasional.

IBD – as well as some parasitic infections – can be occasional, worse at some times and better at others. So a vet visit is worth strongly considering.

Looking at other possible causes, Bollen said, “Cats often stop using their boxes when they experience pain in the box. It could be that when the cat has a flare up of whatever is causing the diarrhea, she uses the box once and it’s painful so she goes elsewhere.

“Cats can also develop surface preferences secondary to the initiating cause of the IE [inappropriate elimination]. When a cat develops a surface preference for bedding, it sometimes helps to give her a litter box with a similar substrate in it – old towels would work. I would also use a large plastic container like the kind that goes under the bed for clothing storage instead of a normal size litter box. The box should be left in the bedroom where she is using the bed. Defecating on a towel that can be easily washed is better than on the bed.”

I happened to attend a seminar by Bollen recently at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa during the Saving Nevada’s Pets conference. Her talk was about how animal shelters can help pet owners solve common behavioral problems. An issue similar to Arthur’s came up, and I’d like to expand a little on the advice above about providing “a litter box with a similar substrate in it.”

Bollen had photos of this, which helped the idea sink in a little better for me. The photos showed a cat who had developed a preference for eliminating on soft cloth so an old towel was put in a litter box. After the cat used this for a little while, a towel with a sprinkling of litter on it was used. Then more litter was added atop the towel, and more still, until eventually the towel could be removed and only litter used again. It’s such an obvious solution once you see it.

The lesson I took away from Bollen’s seminar is that a lot of aggravation can be saved if, instead of punishing unwanted behavior, behavior can be understood from the pet’s point of view and then addressed in a way that is supportive rather than fear-inducing.

Good luck, Arthur.

•  Got a pet question? Send questions about cats and dogs to me, and I'll try to answer them in future columns.

Mark Robison is co-executive director of Maddie's Pet Project in Nevada. He lives in Reno. Reach him at mrobison@humanenetwork.org.

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