A biography in cat urine
Tiny is the reason I know as much as I do about litter box avoidance. She's the world's best cat: friendly, empathetic, cool with dogs, cool with kids. Beautiful, and healthy. Interesting and smart. If she sees a photograph of a wolf, she'll run and hide. Her fur smells faintly of perfume.
Tiny has also had at least 1000 accidents inside our house. She has gone through periods of time when she urinated, quite literally, anywhere, and everywhere.
Tiny was the runt of a litter of bottle babies that I fostered, and, when it was time for her to go back to the shelter to be adopted, she was too little to return, so I ended up keeping her forever. Maybe her ambivalence towards her litter box has something to do with not having a mom to teach her proper toilet manners. Or maybe she sustained some permanent damage after eating a lily when she was a kitten. I can't be sure, but I do know she has the most severe case of litter box avoidance that I have witnessed in my 26 years as an animal shelter volunteer and foster parent.
Tiny's early litter box habits were decent enough. I moved her around too many times, considering her nervous disposition. She'd have a few accidents with each move (in weird places too, like on the kitchen counter.) But, after a few days, I was always able to get her back to using her box. Whatever. Moves are hard on everyone.
Then, I broke up with my partner, moved into a new apartment, met a new partner, and got a puppy.
This threw Tiny over the edge.
For a while, we thought the urine stains on the carpet were the puppy's. But then, when I finally saw Tiny crouching on the carpet and urinating, I knew. I knew I had crossed over into the hell that is litter box avoidance.
The puppy grew, and we moved into a house with a dog door and a huge backyard that Tiny could hang out in all day long. And she did. She loved the new house and the new backyard. And she grew to accept the dog.
We purposely picked a carpet-less house, thinking that would keep Tiny from going on the floor. And, that it did. Instead of urinating on the hardwood floor, Tiny urinated on the doormat by the front door. She would sun herself on our back deck, decide that it was time to empty her bladder, and come inside, walk right past the litter box and over to the door mat to urinate.
I bought a few different front door rugs, and switched them out every day. It wasn't awful. I had to use lemon oil on the wood door to make it so that every time we opened the door, we didn't fan in the scent of cat urine. But, whatever. There are worse things. At least she wasn't urinating on the furniture. Right?* (*See below)
I tried putting litter boxes by the door. That didn't work. In the past, we'd had success with pheromones and cat attract litter. I took her to the vet multiple times. She was diagnosed with chronic cystitis, which we treated. But still, nothing helped.
Then, one day, I got the idea to put a dirt filled litter box by the door. And, hold your breath cross your fingers, it worked! She started using the dirt litter box! Weird, sure. But less weird! Her urine was in a box! Amazing!
Then, one day, I was cleaning out a litter box and Tiny walked right up and urinated in the empty box! Praise the patron saint of wayward cat urethras! Now she was urinating in two boxes, and not on the doormat! Not ever! Our litter box avoidance days were over!* (No they weren't. *See Below)
Tiny kept these wonderful habits up for years. Slowly she stopped using the dirt filled litter box all together, and just used the empty box in the back of the house. We were living the dream!* (But dreams end. *See Below)
Then, a lot of bad things happened to Tiny in a very short span of time. First, a client's dog chased Tiny, and she ran away. She stayed away for few days, until, finally, a neighbor saw one of my flyers and called, saying that she saw Tiny hanging out in the yard directly adjacent to mine.
I kept my eyes on the yard, assuming that my neighbor was talking about another orange cat. Surely had Tiny been that close to home, she would have heard my calls and come back. But, later that afternoon, I poked my head out the window and there she was, chasing bugs in their yard. I hurried over to the fence and called her over, but she looked at me like she had no idea who I was and ran under my neighbor's shed.
I spent the next day shaking her food bag (this was back when she ate dry food) playing purring noises on my phone, spraying pheromones all over the fence. But she didn't come out.
On day 4 I climbed the fence and tried to reach under the shed to grab her. This time, when I called her, I heard a weak meow. Hungry hungry Tiny. She hadn't eaten since she'd last been home. I opened a can of food and finally she came close enough to me that I could pick her up and bring her back home.
She wasn't herself for a whole day. Then slowly, she began to act like she knew me. She continued to use her box. After a week or so we let her back outside again. And, all was normal.
Then, Claire, her cat partner, died. Tiny and Claire hadn't been particularly bonded, but Claire was a wise, confident, and somewhat stinky cat, who's presence gave Tiny a bit of a confidence boost in a house filled with dogs (well, just two dogs, but it was a small house.)
Then, my boyfriend and I got married, and took a month long honeymoon, during which we had pet sitters who knew Tiny well. But somehow, in our absence, her one litter box was moved and set on top of a desk. And that was it. That was the end of Tiny's litter box usage for the next 14 months.
This was a long 14 months. After we returned from our honeymoon, Tiny continued to run away and get emotionally stuck under my neighbor's shed. (Was she having a psychotic break?) I would hop the fence to retrieve her, and she'd look at me as if I were a stranger, and crawl deeper under the shed. We'd have to wait until she was starving enough to come out for a can of food before we could pick her up.
Perhaps if she wasn't urinating in every corner of the house, we would have made her stay inside, but she loved spending time outdoors, and we hoped that maybe by keeping her happy she would either start using her litter box again, or start just going to the bathroom outside in the yard.
Instead she started urinating on the floor. Then, when she grew tired of urinating on the floor, she urinated on the couch. Then, we got rid of the couch and replaced it with a free couch from Craigslist. Then she urinated on the that couch. Then we got rid of that couch and bought this awful metal couch from Ikea that was too uncomfortable to sit on *but* had a removable washable cover. Urinate away!
Tiny wouldn't go near that couch. So instead she urinated on the bed.
She urinated on the bed when we weren't in it. She urinated on the bed when we were in it. She urinated on us. She would hop up on the bed and blink her eyes and purr and curl up with me and then urinate. She urinated on my husband once (or twice?) while he was sleeping. He is such a sound sleeper that he didn't notice until he got to work the next morning with cat urine dried on his neck, his shoulder, and his arm.
It was awful. My husband wanted to get rid of Tiny. I told him, after that statement, if anyone was leaving, it was going to be him. We had a baby, and we moved into a bigger house. I covered the floor in the new house with rubber mats, hoping I could train her to urinate on them. It kind of worked for a bit, but mostly because the majority of our floor was covered in rubber mats.
Then, she stopped urinating on the rubber mats, and started going on the floor. We tried locking her in the bathroom to retrain her to use a box. We tried filling the bathroom with litter boxes. Tiny would choose to urinate on her food dish rather than urinate in a litter box.
We tried closing her in the basement. I bought 30 different litter boxes, and several different kinds of litter. She had a basement full of litter boxes. Empty boxes, dirt filled boxes, boxes with special reptile sand in them, boxes with her favorite old doormat in them. I put them all over the basement, and Tiny urinated around them. In fact, I discovered that the only fool-proof way to get Tiny not to urinate on something was to put a litter box on it.
At this point, I was devastated. It seemed like our situation was hopeless. I googled "cat diapers." I got on cat forums and posted questions. I thought about getting another cat. I thought if Tiny saw another cat use the litter box, that maybe she would retrain herself. I thought maybe Tiny would behave like a dog, and try to cover the other cat's urine with her own.
Then, somehow, I thought about a crate. Then I googled "crate training for cats," and found a short page on how to do this.
And I did it. I locked Tiny in a crate with a litter box and a bed and her food. Then, when she urinated on her bed instead of in the box, I took away her bed. Then when she urinated on the floor instead of the litter box, I took away the litter box and covered the entire floor with litter.
And, it worked. I went through the steps, slowly. I took out all the litter, and put her box back in. I gave her more and more freedom until finally she was using her litter box 100% of the time.
It was a glorious 6 months. We got her a cat tree. We gated off the spare bedroom and made it Tiny's own. Tiny was happy. She was walking herself to her litter box. She wasn't urinating on the floor.
Then, Tiny started having accidents again. So we crate trained again and bought ourselves another glorious 6 months.
Then, she started having accidents again. And either crate training didn't work the 3rd time, or I didn't have the stomach to commit to it fully. It was starting to seem like it was taking too much of a toll on her emotionally.
So instead, what I started to do was to put her in litter box twice a day, and wait for her to urinate. This is what we still do today. 95% of the time, when I put her in the litter box at the scheduled time, she urinates. If she doesn't, I shut her in the crate with some food, and try again in a few minutes. And then, again, 95% of the time, she goes. If she doesn't, I take a chance. And 99% of the time, she either goes to the box on her own, or holds it. She doesn't have accidents anymore, unless something weird happens. Like, we leave the back door open and a random cat comes inside. Or if we have a foster cat who infiltrates her space. Tiny probably now has 3 accidents a year.
It might seem like crate training was a failure for Tiny, but I don't think it was. Tiny was so litter box averse that she needed crate training to get her back in the habit of using the box. There is something about Tiny that makes it very difficult for her to walk herself to her litter box. Does Tiny have a mental illness? Maybe. Does she have nerve damage? I'm not sure. I do know that without crate training, we wouldn't have been able to re-create her habit of urinating in the box.
Did I mention that I sometimes have to tell Tiny to go to the bathroom? Sometimes, once I put Tiny in her box, Tiny pretends to urinate. She will fake crouch and then try to leave the litter box without having urinated. Then, I have to say, "No Tiny, go to the bathroom." And then she does. I think cats understand more than we know.
So that's Tiny's story. Every night, I find her and put her in her box. She squats, she urinates, I give her a treat and we hang out. Every morning I find her and put her in her box. She squats, she urinates, I give her a treat and we hang out. And, so it continues. She's become like a dog who's potty time I have to manage, which, I think, she likes. We're closer now. Our schedules are linked. And, we have couches in our house that have never been urinated on. How amazing is that?