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Q: My roommate has two cats. Whenever she goes away for a weekend, one of the cats poops right in the center of her bed. Sometimes on our couch. Like literally in the center, so we can’t miss it. My sister says sometimes her cat does the same thing. What are some possible reasons a cat would do this?
Dr. Chris Miller, AtlasVet DC:
Ah, the age old question of “why do cats poop where they poop?” It has been pondered for as long as cats have been invited into our homes, which really only became widely popular about 50 years ago. If you have ever seen a domesticated cat defecate outside, you will likely notice that a very large area and just the right substrate are needed to take care of business. When you compare this natural process to the small box of litter we provide in our basements, you can quickly determine that some cats just aren’t going to tolerate the bathroom situation their owners have provided.
When a cat stops using the litter box, the cause isn’t always behavioral. Older cats may have joint pain that makes posturing to defecate or entering the litter box difficult. Any issue with the gastrointestinal tract like diarrhea and constipation, or problems that can cause pain or straining while defecating may cause a cat to not make it to the box, or to avoid the box altogether. Even seemingly unrelated problems like seizures or trouble urinating may result in finding feces around the house. This is where a veterinarian is needed to help rule out disease processes that will not resolve with behavior modifications.
Cats are very finicky animals, and if they determine anything as abnormal they will quickly try to solve problems on their own. If the litter box set up isn’t just right, cats won’t use it. Making sure there are enough boxes (the general rule of thumb is one box per cat, plus an additional one), confirming the cat tolerates the litter, and that the box is big enough are the best ways to prevent inappropriate defecation in the house. I often suggest clients start by adding a large litter box or two with a variety of litters to see if the situation improves. Cats even have preferences about the box being covered or not, so experimenting with all variables is important. In this specific scenario, the patterns seem more specific. The owner is always gone and the feces is always in the bed. Is it a message to the owners? Not likely.
Anxiety has many forms and often contributes to cats looking for alternatives to defecating in the litter box. If a stressful event occurs in the litter box itself like loud noises, being attacked by a house mate, or even a line to get into the box may cause cats to begin looking for a new place to go. In fact, any cause of anxiety such as construction, the arrival of a new housemate, baby, or pet can cause cats to behave strangely. This includes the greatest stressor of all: being alone. Separation anxiety can cause cats to defecate in strange places and can be difficult to address. When looking for an alternative area to do their business, beds, couches, laundry hampers, rugs, and flower pots are all common substitutes. This is likely what is causing the roommate’s cat to look for alternatives.
The best ways to address anxiety are to attempt to stop the stress at its source, but if this isn’t possible, preparing for the side effects may help. Limiting access to the areas that the cat is using as their new bathroom is another obvious start, but providing easily accessible and desirable new litter boxes will help as well. Increasing play time and giving the cat something to do to distract them from the stressor may alleviate anxiety. If these techniques don’t help then it is a good idea to pick up the phone and talk things over with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. While they are often a last resort, anti-anxiety medications like fluoxetine, alprazolam, and amitriptyline have been used successfully to help cats fight their fears and go back to the old ways of using the litter box.
Find Dr. Chris Miller on Twitter at @DCVet.