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

http://drsophiayin.com/images/uploads/Litter_boxes.jpeg

http://drsophiayin.com/images/uploads/Litter_boxes.jpeg

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

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/cat-behavior/litter-box-problems

http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/health_resources/brochure_housesoiling.cfm

http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/what-to-do-when-your-cat-poops-outside-the-box

http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/solving_litter_box_problems.html

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!

Resources

Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Clicker Training Your Pet (ASPCA)