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Wellness Wednesday- Using Positive Reinforcement to Retrain Cats with Litter Box Problems

I learned what it was like to live with a cat with litter box problems with my  adopted  Persian, Maurice who first showed his problem by urinating on my bed.  I went through the list of things to try but nothing changed the situation.  I resorted to keeping him confined when I couldn’t watch his every move but living like this became extremely frustrating.  When Maurice passed away I hoped this was a problem I wouldn’t have to deal with again.

Then came Pyro.  He was fined for the first two months he lived here, then he started having digestive problems and began not using his box.  We got his digestive problems under control with diet but the litter box problems continued.  I again went through the list of things to do with no success and because my life was so chaotic at the time I resorted to just living with it, cleaning up the messes as they were made.

One day it hit me that there was something I hadn’t tried.  With one of my dogs I would’ve worked to get them used to whatever was bothering them and for some reason it didn’t occur to me to do this with my cat.  I decided I was going to work on getting him back to being comfortable with his litter box with the goal of him using it again.

I started a whole training routine involving the following steps:

  • I picked a litter box that was easy for me to access since I would have to kneel by it.  I made sure it was clean and had plenty of litter in it.
  • Randomly throughout the day I picked Pyro up and put him in the box where I would gently hold him while petting him and occasionally giving him treats. I would keep him in the box for anywhere from a minute to 5 minutes. If he started to get out of the box, I nicely moved him back into the box.  I wanted to be the one who ended the session by letting him to leave, not let him end the session by leaving on his own. I did this routine several times a day.
  • I would also keep an eye for any signs he needed to use the box.  If he started looking like he had

    Pyro, my 2nd litter box issue cat

    to go I would pick him up and put him in the box and start the above routine.  Because this litter box was in a small bathroom if he hadn’t used his litter box after a few minutes I could close the door in hopes that he would use the box. If he did, I rewarded him as quickly as I could trying to give him the treat while he was in the box.  This way he was being rewarded for being in the box not getting out of it.

  • After a while he started to understand that using the box meant he got a reward and I found he became more likely to use the box during our sessions. Once he was using the box more during these sessions, I only gave a treat when he used the box.
  • After  a period of time, he began to make an effort to go to the box himself to use it. I kept an ear out for him using it and once he was done I would go in and give him a treat (I tried to move quietly and go into the room after he had started because Pyro got easily distracted and all he could think of was the treat so he stopped).

One funny side effect of the training was when Omar, one of my other cats, caught onto this whole deal and he would try to invade the litter box so he could get a treat for using it. Pyro, didn’t care, but keep in mind another cat might be bothered by this especially if there reason for not using the box is another cat being territorial.

It’s been about 4 years since I started the training, and I feel a little weird but I  get a feeling of pride when I hear someone in the box and peek in to see Pyro in there. Since he began using the box consistently, he’s only once not used the box. I still occasionally give him a treat just to keep up the reinforcement.

Poughkeepsie, who joined our family last fall, began not using the litter box a few months after coming here. I started him on this routine and have been having good results. I will admit I haven’t been as dedicated with him as I was with Pyro, but even so we are at a about 99% for urinating and 90% for pooping in the litter box.

This is not a quick solution. This is a couple months of work. And I can’t guarantee it will work with all cats. But so far it has worked with my cats and the results have been so worth it.

 

Have you had a cat with litter box problems? How did you overcome it?

 

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