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Solving Litter Box Problems In Senior Cats

There are few things more endearing to me than a senior cat. Their wise old eyes are a window to the many sights they’ve seen and the great life they’ve lived. But senior cats also carry a great physical burden. Their bodies are not as limber and elastic as they once were. The aging body of a senior cat can create some problems for them and for the people who love them, and litter box issues are common.

I am the owner of a senior cat who has been through much physical difficulty and discomfort surrounding his litter box. I hope that what I have learned through my own struggles can help you and your senior cat continue to live happy and healthy lives together.

Medical Issues Can Cause Mayhem

As with cats of any age, the first step in managing and resolving house‐soiling behaviors in seniors is to find the root of the behavioral issue. In many cases, litter box aversion is linked to medical issues that may have gone unnoticed by the cat’s guardian. House soiling behavior is often misattributed to the cat trying to “get back at” the owner, but this is actually your senior cat’s calling card for help.

When someone contacts me to help them with a feline behavioral issue, the very first thing I ask is, “When is the last time your cat had a medical exam?” Pain and discomfort are very common medical issues that can create or exacerbate behavior problems. Cats may appear well despite underlying disease, compensating for it until they are no longer able to do so. If there is a new, unwanted behavior issue surrounding the litter box, we need to rule out the possibility of underlying health problems.

“For senior cats, we tend to look for metabolic disease, infection and environmental concerns related to age,” says Elizabeth Arguelles, DVM, owner and medical director of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia.

When a cat reaches his senior years (around 11 years old) the litter box can become the Box of Doom to a senior cat with a stiff, achy body. What was once an easy hop in and out to do their business is now a painful and laborious experience for them.

“Senior cats that start having litter box issues could be having trouble getting into and out of the litter box due to stiffness and/or arthritis,” Arguelles says. “Some boxes have high walls and arthritic cats can have difficulty physically getting into them. In these cases a simple litter box change can solve the problem.”

“Additionally in multi-level households, senior cats can have a hard time going up and down the stairs to get to the litter box and may need it moved to the main level living space where they are more comfortable,” she adds.

Your senior cat may be avoiding the litter box because it’s too dirty for his liking. The increased urine production that often results from diseases common to aging cats will cause the litter box to become soiled more quickly, which often causes cats to find an area other than the litter box.

In humans, changes in the aging brain contribute to a loss of memory and effects on the personality, which is commonly referred to as dementia. Similar symptoms are seen in elderly cats: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation and avoidance of social interaction.

After consulting with several feline specialist veterinarians, and getting our senior cat screened for medical issues, I learned that these are just a few of the reasons why a senior cat may no longer want to use his/her litter box:

  • Degenerative joint disease (various forms of arthritis)
  • Cancers in various forms
  • Degenerative changes that occur in the brain with age
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Muscle atrophy; joint thickening
  • Lumbar spondylosis
  • Decreased vision/blindness

Albert’s Struggles As A Senior

How often have you heard (or said) things like, “My cat deliberately pooped on my favorite rug!” or “I know he threw up there on purpose!” I can see why someone might think those things, but the reality is that cats are not doing their business on our personal items to get a rise out of us. Sometimes, when a senior cat’s gotta go, he literally has to go–wherever he is standing.

I experienced this with our senior cat. One morning I came downstairs to a startling and smelly surprise. Someone had pooped and vomited right smack dab in the middle of our nice rug in the living room.

After much investigation at the scene of the accident, I concluded that Albert, our senior cat, had somehow vomited and defecated at the same time. If I had not been aware of senior cats’ medical issues, I might have concluded that Albert did it on purpose. But I knew better.

I called our feline practitioner and made an appointment for our cat. After a very thorough examination, our vet determined that Albert was suffering from a number of ailments that contributed to what I found in the living room that morning. Albert’s old body couldn’t hold it all in, so it all came out at once!

Have you noticed any of these behaviors in your senior cat?

  • Urinating or defecating outside the cat litter box
  • Not wanting to climb into the cat condo as much
  • Difficulty going up or down the stairs
  • Less willing to jump up or down from places
  • Appearance of stiffness
  • Less agile
  • Whines when lifted
  • Lameness or limping
  • Spends less time grooming
  • Cries out loudly for no apparent reason

Arthritis and other degenerative joint diseases are some of the most common ailments among senior cats. If your cat is showing signs of litter box aversion and is demonstrating any of the behaviors listed above, then a joint-related medical issue may be contributing to the problem. Have your cat examined by your vet for a proper diagnosis and to rule out any additional issues.

Our veterinarians created a medical treatment plan to help Albert with his physical issues, and we began following it. For my part, I created a more suitable litter box arrangement that would make Albert’s life easier. If your cat has been diagnosed with a joint-related condition, making the appropriate adjustments to his litter box can be one of the most helpful things you can do for him.

Your veterinarian or a qualified feline behavior consultant can help you make the appropriate adjustments to your cat’s litter box.

“Even an open litter box could very well be too small for a cat with arthritis,” says Dr. Fern Crist, DVM. “When the cat goes into the box and he accidentally touches the side of the box with his tail, rump or back legs, this could be painful enough to make them not want to use it anymore.”

That’s why she recommends using “an open, low-sided litter box, to avoid the cat bumping into the sides.” Her example is just one of many you can use to help your senior cat maintain a comfortable litter box arrangement.

A litter box with low sides make going to the bathroom easier for senior cats. Courtesy of Amy Martin

A litter box with low sides make going to the bathroom easier for senior cats. Photo Courtesy of Amy Martin

Environmental Stress On A Senior Cat

In addition to medical issues that occur in senior cats, reduced tolerance for stress is also common. Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household, since their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations begins to diminish with age. They can become more insecure and feel threatened by other cats in their territory. Because senior cats are easily stressed, changes in their environment should be kept to a minimum and incorporated gradually. Managing your senior cat’s environment effectively will help you maintain your lifelong bond with him.

Things To Remember

Remember that it’s important not to blame or punish your senior cat for his problems with the litter box, and not to assume that those problems will fix themselves.

At the outset of any box issues, have your cat examined by a veterinarian. Feline specialists, if you have one in your area, will be especially helpful when it comes to diagnosing the medical issues often found in older cats and helping with a treatment plan. Regardless of the sort of veterinarian you chose, be sure to act fast once you think a medical issue may be at play. Be sure to follow the veterinarian’s recommendations.

I also encourage you to be open to change and compromise, and have patience. Regardless of the duration of the problem, most cases can be resolved with a few relatively simple steps. Being conscientious of your senior cat will ensure that you and your feline family member maintain a healthy and stress-free life together!


By: Amy Martin

Featured Image: via Wavebreakmedia Ltd Wavebreak-Media/Thinkstock

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