I Got 99 Problems and a Box Ain’t One

Lion tamer, with raised whip, directs a tiger toward a large litter box. - New Yorker Cartoon  By: Warren Miller

Lion tamer, with raised whip, directs a tiger toward a large litter box. – New Yorker Cartoon
By: Warren Miller

It is always a point of concern when a cat is surrendered with a history of inappropriate elimination in the home. Having a shelter protocol in place to address each animal is beneficial to rule out particular causes. Evaluation of the inappropriate eliminator should always include analysis of the home environment, behavioral causes, and medical causes.

Evaluation of the Home Environment

It is highly recommended that owners surrendering animals with a history of inappropriate elimination fill out a separate surrender form detailing these circumstances in their home. This simple questionnaire can reveal information that may increase your suspicion of either a medical or behavioral cause. Some question to consider include duration of the problem, changes in the home environment, sources of stress, number of pets in the household, etc. Note where the elimination is occurring (vertical surfaces, one other location, the bathroom, everywhere). Other things to consider are the number of boxes available, their location, their substrate, and their cleaning frequency. These questions may help to identify a stress factor that caused the change in behavior or guide you to evaluate another cause.

Medical Evaluation

Cats that have been eliminating outside of the litter box may have a medical reason for doing so (pain, infection, dysfunction, systemic disease, cancer). If an animal is experiencing painful urination, they may associate that pain with being in the litter box. This association may encourage the cat to seek other seemingly more comfortable places to urinate. It has been hypothesized that animals will seek out cool surfaces such as tile or ceramic that may be considered more comfortable or soothing. It is highly beneficial to have these animals evaluated by a veterinarian. When evaluating the inappropriate eliminator, a thorough physical exam should be performed first. Abnormalities may be palpated in the organ in question or pain may be noted that can narrow down potential causes. Urine should be examined for abnormalities as well as a serum chemistry (blood test) to evaluate kidney function, systemic function, and/or infection. Finally, a focused urinary tract ultrasound, if available, should be performed to observe gross abnormalities associated with the organs in question.

Behavioral Evaluation

Behavioral evaluation may be limited in the shelter to observing litter box habits. Have shelter staff monitor where the cat is eliminating consistently. Changes can be attempted in the shelter to see if the cat prefers a different kind of litter or box size.

The Best Offense



Potential adopters should be notified about the history of inappropriate elimination in previous homes/the shelter. Along with this information, supply suggestions as to what cats prefer in terms of the litter box. Most cats prefer non-scented clay litter and uncovered litter boxes. Cats should have a litter box big enough for them to stand and turn around in (approximately 1.5x the size of the cat). Finding an ideal litter box can be difficult for large cats and geriatric animals that may not be able to easily get into or position themselves. In that case, low sided storage bins (such as under the bed plastic storage) can be used as a cheap and well-sized alternative to the litter boxes pet stores supply. Litter boxes should be placed in quiet areas with minimal foot traffic. The ideal number of litter boxes in a home should be the number of cats in the home plus one. The boxes should be cleaned frequently, ideally once per day and washed weekly. Some cats may require even more frequent cleaning. Even if conditions are ideal, some cats may require troubleshooting. Have resources available for owners and adopters that provide strategies for litterbox success.

Keep in mind that we cannot solve every inappropriate eliminator. If all else fails, consider an outdoor home!


Some Resources





Behavior training in shelters

Graduate from a behavior class today!

Graduate from a behavior class today!

There are many methods of animal training available today.  However, some methods prove to be safer and more humane than others. Positive reinforcement training is one method that has proved humane, effective, and also strengthens the bond between animal and owner.

Positive reinforcement training identifies a desirable behavior and reinforces that behavior with reward. Clicker training is one example of positive reinforcement training. In this method, the desirable behavior is immediately associated with the sound of a clicker that is then followed with a reward, typically a delicious treat. Once the animal associates the behavior with reward, a command is introduced that names the behavior. Eventually, the animal associates the cue with the behavior and the animal learns commands. Positive reinforcement training can also be used to get rid of undesired behavior by asking for another behavior when the undesired behavior arises. These “incompatible behaviors” can teach a begging dog to lie down on a specific mat when people are in the kitchen. Positive reinforcement is both an effective and kind method of training to consider when training an animal.

Punishment is not recommended when training animals. Often, punishment follows the negative behavior by some time and the animal may not associate the two events thereby rendering the punishment less effective than reward based training. Although punishment may decrease the expression of undesired behavior, it may also cause other undesirable behaviors to arise. If a dog growls in warning when it is guarding an object and is punished, you may not be teaching the dog to not guard the object as intended. Rather, the dog may learn that it gets punished when it growls. Now the situation has become more dangerous, as the animal may not growl in warning but rather aggressively react when its object is being taken.

Unfortunately, there are many types of trainers working with shelters and in the community, some less progressive than others. While some individuals may have been in the dog training field for many years, experience does not equate to expertise. Whenever possible, it is advisable to use a certified behaviorist who uses techniques which are in alignment with your mission and beliefs. Just because a person is the only individual willing to do the job doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to do so if it will negatively impact the animals and your mission.

When adopting out an animal, adopters should be counseled on any behavioral issues that an animal may have. Resources, including basic training tips and local behavioral services can then be recommended at that time. It is therefore highly recommended to know the resources in your area, both good and bad, so that you know exactly to whom and to what method of training you are referring. Other community members that have behavior questions can also be referred to these resources. 

If you are unfamiliar with how to choose a trainer, or what those letters behind a behaviorist’s name means, then check out this guide by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

So go on and teach your cat to high five, your dog to dance, and your husband to wash the dishes!


Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Clicker Training Your Pet (ASPCA)

Animal Welfare


Merriam-Webster defines welfare as the “state of being happy, healthy, or successful”. Obviously, this definition is geared toward a human perspective. Then what defines animal welfare?  Perhaps the closest we have are a set of principles for basic animal care called the Five Freedoms. The concept of the Five Freedoms originated in a 1965 report to improve care of livestock animals in the UK. The freedoms are as follows; Freedom from Hunger and Thirst, Freedom from Discomfort, Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease, Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour, Freedom from Fear and Distress. These freedoms have served as guidelines for the development of animal care protocols across species. Long term animal housing facilities ranging from laboratory animals to zoo species have also taken from these principles.  The Guidelines for Standards of Care of Shelter Animals was written with these tenets at the basis of each section. Although the five freedoms prescribe what every animal needs to have minimally acceptable welfare, there are no guidelines on how to implement them.


So let’s apply these freedoms to my cat. 1) Freedom from hunger and thirst. Easy, he gets free choice dry and two bowls of water. 2) Freedom from discomfort. Pesco has a number of soft places to sleep many of which are me. However, occasionally I will take him on a five hour car ride home, palpate his abdomen, or attempt to trim his nails, all of which he finds highly disagreeable. 3) Freedom from pain, injury, or disease. Pesco has FIV and dental disease, one of which is being addressed by providing veterinary dental care. 4) Freedom to express normal behavior. Pesco gets to run, stretch, sleep all day, scrape up his litterbox, and scratch his nails on his cardboard. If he tries to scratch the carpet, I chase him around the house. If I’m not home, I’m sure he is quite pleased with himself. 5) Freedom from fear and distress. One phrase: the vacuum cleaner.

I have hopefully used the example of my own cat to highlight the difficulties of maximizing animal welfare. These challenges are quite evident in the shelter setting where we insult animal welfare daily. Noise, cleaning, handling, surgery, even physical examinations can violate 1 or 2 of an animals freedoms but are unavoidable and help maintain the other freedoms that an animal deserves. Animals don’t understand the being uncomfortable to achieve a happy goal. The only understand that they are currently uncomfortable. Maximizing animal welfare can therefore have profound effects on the behavioral and physical health of an animal by minimizing said discomfort. One way that you can maximize animal welfare on a daily basis is to perform daily rounds. Visualizing each animal allows you the opportunity to ask yourself “What does this animal need to move through the shelter?” and “What can I do for this animal right now?”. Even in small shelters where we believe we have a firm grasp on who every animal is and what we think they may need, it is surprising how much can fall through the cracks and how much things can change. Daily rounds enables us to keep track of the animals passing through our doors as well as giving us the immediate opportunity to fulfill their needs.


When I was seven years old my parents let me pick a puppy from the shelter. I practically chose the first puppy I saw and she was my best friend for just short of 16 years. But within a few weeks of her adoption she chewed all of the hair off of a spot on her chest. We brought her to the veterinarian and within a couple minutes of him disappearing to the dreaded “back room” he returned with a small (but enormous by 7 year old standards) bloody bug on a piece of gauze. It was the coolest thing I ever saw and the next day I wanted to be a veterinarian.



The insect

Cuterebra refers to a group of large parasitic flies that undergoes parasitic larval development in rodents or rabbits. As such, adult female flies lay their eggs around the entrances to dens, nests, or along runways used by their host species. However, cats and dogs can become accidental hosts when they brush against the eggs. Eggs in the fur will hatch after being stimulated by the host’s body heat. The insect will then enter into the host either through the mouth, nose, or open wounds. Once inside the host, the larvae will travel to a species specific location in the subcutaneous tissue (space between skin and muscles). The insect will form a breathing hole through the skin, and within 30 days it will mature and exit from the host where it will enter the soil in order to pupate into an adult fly.

Clinical findings

Typical infections manifest as an approximately 1 cm fistulous swelling in the head, neck, or trunk. Cats will aggressively groom the area and it may or may not be painful depending on the presence of secondary infection. Aberrant migrations manifest as abnormal signs in the area of migration which can include the brain, spinal cord, eyes, nasal passages, and or pharynx. Ocular migrations can manifest as chemosis, blepharospasm, uveitis, or blindness. Nasal or pharyngeal migrans can manifest as upper respiratory infection, nasal discharge, or coughing. Neurologic migrans are more often observed in free roaming cats in late summer. Signs can include depression, seizures, lethargy, central blindness and vestibular disease. Neurologic manifestations are often preceded by an episode of violent sneezing weeks to months before signs develop.




To remove the larva, carefully probe and enlarge the breathing hole with a pair of small (e.g. mosquito) hemostats. Covering the bot with lubricant for 10-15 minutes may facilitate bot removal as it encourages the bot to seek air. Do not squeeze the larvae as rupturing it can cause a chronic foreign body reaction or secondary infection. After removal, flush the wound with sterile saline and debride if necessary. The wound should be allowed to heal open, no stitches are required. Antibiotics may be required in severe infections, but after removal of the larvae many animals heal quickly. When the bot cannot be removed, treatment is more challenging. Ivermectin has been used for cats with CNS cuterebriasis, but in some instances progression occurs too quickly.


Cuterebra are fairly common external parasites of domestic animals, especially cats and kittens in summer. Identification and removal of the bot is essential for successful treatment. While most animals present with draining wounds, keep cuterebra in the back of your mind for unusual neurological or ocular cases. Have you seen any interesting cases of cuterebriasis? Post your brags and horror stories below, and we’ll see you next week!

Revisiting feline infectious peritonitis

imageOn July 18-20th, the annual ASPCA Cornell Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference took place in Ithaca, NY. There were many engaging speakers from different aspects of shelter care. One of the speakers was Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, who is the Janet L. Swanson Director of Shelter Medicine at the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University. Dr. Berliner gave the last lecture of the conference, and overview and advances in the identification and development of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

Corona virus is very common among our small animals. Corona can be transmitted fecal to oral, through the saliva, as well as across the placenta. The virus primarily affects the lining of the GI tract, causing self-limiting diarrhea. However, there is potential for the virus to mutate into a highly pathogenic variant. The mutation allows the virus to enter into macrophages, a type of white blood cell, which will have effects on the host based on the severity of the virus and the host’s immune system. Some cats potentially clear the virus, others experience inflammation of blood vessels which leads to fluid build up in the abdomen or chest.

Clinical signs of FIP can include lethargy, anorexia, icterus/jaundice, and a waxing and waning fever. Abdominal masses may be palpated as a result of granuloma formation. Remember to look at the eyes! Blood in the eyes, color changes, inflammation and retinal changes may be some of the earliest signs observed. Neurologic abnormalities may also be observed, but keep in mind major differentials such as lymphoma, heart failure, liver disease, and bacterial peritonitis/pleuritis.

FIP is a disease of younger cats, generally from 6 months to 2 years. Currently, we believe that there is good evidence that the disease has a genetic component, since multiple kittens from one litter can all develop the disease. The cats with a litter mate that has developed FIP are 2-10 times more likely to develop the disease themselves, likely through a combination of genetics and exposure. Non related kittens have no increased risk of FIP development than any other kitten. Unfortunately there is no treatment or effective vaccine for the disease. Anti-inflammatory suppression of the immune system may serve to make the cat more comfortable, but does not alter the disease progression.

Interestingly enough, ferrets develop a remarkably similar corona virus mutant with many of the same clinical signs and clinical pathology abnormalities observed.

For more information, visit http://www.dr-addie.com