In all of my behaviour consultations with my clients, not only do we go over the problem behaviour in detail, I also ask for a walk-around of the environment/territory and a discussion of the cat’s routine and history.
Every now and again I get asked why I’m asking questions that aren’t considered relevant. The thing is… it’s ALL relevant! A cat’s environment and history are the main causes of problem behaviour, and a holistic view is necessary. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a much calmer cat as an outcome of changing up the litter box situation… even if the cat never had an (outwardly showing) litter problem to start with!
But even if it’s not directly contributory to the problem at hand, I do like to add value as much as possible. Educating cat guardians is my passion, and I almost always get a nice email or text from clients telling me how their cat has improved in other ways e.g. “Tess is weeing inside the litter box again! But even better, she’s actually drinking her water now and is fighting less with her sister!” This is all because we focus on the whole environment, and not just the litter box (or other main complaint).
So today I’m going to tell you the 5 most common ‘mistakes’ I see in client’s homes. I do try not to use the word ‘mistake’ with clients as it has negative connotations. Instead, I see them as learning opportunities. Guardians sometimes feel guilty that they’ve been making these ‘mistakes’, but it’s important to realise that most people are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have. Once you know better, you do better! Guilt won’t fix anything!
So let’s go through the most common ‘opportunities’ I see in client’s homes.
Most cat guardians who have done any research or reading have heard of the n+1 rule when it comes to litter boxes (‘n’ being the number of cats in the household). For example, if you have 2 cats, you should have 3 litter boxes. This is a general rule of thumb, and is fitting for most households. Sometimes more are needed, sometimes less, especially if any or all of the cats have outdoor access. But let’s stick with the n+1 rule for now.
Firstly, I’ll point out that it’s not the number of litter boxes that this rule was created for (in my view), but instead, the number of litter box locations. In so many situations, I see the guardian religiously following the ‘rule’, but have all the boxes in the one room, usually the laundry or garage.
As far as a cat is concerned, this is only considered one litter box, not matter how many are in there. Remember, cats are territorial creatures, and a perceived lack of resources will cause territorial tension, whether we see it or not. So only having one location to toilet in a multi-cat household is not great. Spread them around!
Secondly, let’s talk about a single-cat household. The rule still (often) applies! See, for some quirky reason, many cats prefer to wee and poo in separate locations. Having two locations for a single cat may just make him that much happier!
The type of litter is very important for a cat. It can make or break whether they feel comfortable or uncomfortable going to the toilet.
The real criminals here are pellet (wood or paper) and crystal litter. More often than not, I see these litters being used where the presenting complaint is litter box avoidance.
It’s honestly amazing how just simply changing it can not only get a cat thinking inside the box again, but also how much calmer and happier they are in general! I’ve seen these positive temperament changes often enough now to realise that the litter/toilet situation is very important to a cat and can cause stress if not handled properly!
Even if litter box avoidance isn’t the presenting complaint, I’ll generally always suggest a litter trial if a client is using pellets or crystals. Simply keep the current litter and litter box, and put one or two others next to it with different litters (a litter ‘smorgasbord’). You’ll know within 24-28 hours which is the preferred!
Look for a finer-grained (e.g. sandy) litter that is much more soft on their feet. I usually recommend a clumping clay type litter. I often describe the pellets or crystals as akin to humans having to step on Lego to go to the toilet!
In about 90% of cases, a cat will choose the sandier litter. Though there are always the cats that make a liar of me!
Also, don’t use any litter that is artificially scented, and don’t use a litter liner if you can help it. Both are adverse to cats.
Food, water and litter should all be in separate locations. I’ve seen many cats who will refuse to use/eat/drink from one of these if one of the other two are nearby.
This is assumed to be an evolutionary ‘quirk’ which protects a cat from harm of some sort. For instance, toileting near a food or water source would contaminate it. And eating near a water source can also potentially contaminate it.
The most common combination I see is food and water together. Often the client tells me that the cat doesn’t like to drink water. Then we separate them and voila!
Sometimes I see them all together (food, water and litter). This is most common in smaller apartments, with all of these resources in the bathroom or spare room. I get it, space is a huge constraint! But separating them will give you a happier cat, so please do it if possible!
On top of this, separating/spreading these resources also gives the perception of a resource-rich environment – something that your territorial fur family would much prefer!
This is very common, especially in multi-cat households where transient aggression seems to be an issue.
Remember, in a natural environment, cats are happier to share a territory if there are enough resources to go around. When resources become scant, tension grows.
Some cats can walk 10’s of kilometres per day to patrol their territory – that’s how large it can be!
Now (for indoor cats), confining them to a territory footprint the size of a house is a big ask if the environment isn’t enriched with plenty of resources.
By resources, I generally mean litter locations, food, water, scratching surfaces, elevated/vertical space, toys etc.
I personally like to use the n+1 rule usually used for litter locations, and apply it to all of the other resources! So, a house with 2 cats will need minimum 3 of everything (except toys) in separate locations to have a chance of harmony and avoiding resource-guarding. Essentially, you need to make sure that the environment is resource-rich and that they don’t have to compete for anything!
A very common situation will be a client dealing with inter-cat aggression issues, and during the consultation walk-around I notice there’s only one dry food bowl (kept full), one cat tree in the lounge, and a litter box or two in the laundry. Guess where most of the fights happen? Around the food bowl, cat tree, or laundry!
Clients will sometimes say ‘but the food bowl is always full and the litter is always clean. We aren’t about to run out of either, so there are enough resources!’. My response is usually that it doesn’t matter what we think (or know) – it’s what the cats think! Perception is everything. One food bowl between multiple cats creates a food ‘scarcity’ in their mind, and will always be in competition with the others for it. The same with just one of any other resource too!
So, for a happy home, remember the n+1 rule… and apply it to resource locations, not just the resources themselves.
In a multi-cat household, a lot of the time cats will have their own sub-territories, especially as they grow older.
This basically means that you might find that certain cat(s) prefer to spend their time in certain parts of the house more than the others. Of course, these territories will overlap, especially in the socially-significant locations like lounge, bedroom and kitchen.
Cats in a multi-cat household will be much happier if they can find the resources they need in their respective sub-territories. Putting all the food in the kitchen, or the cat trees/scratching surfaces in the lounge is a common mistake.
So not only do we have to spread the resources out (making it appear to be a resource-rich environment), we should also make sure that a cat doesn’t have to ‘run the gauntlet’ to get to an important resource like food, water or litter. Having these easily accessible will make for a happier cat, and therefore a happier household!
Those are 5 most common ‘opportunities’ I see in many clients’ homes. If you are making any of these, don’t despair. Sometimes circumstances just don’t allow us to be perfect, and we just have to do the best we can. I often tell clients that I will them what would be ideal, but they have to determine what’s real (for them), as in, what they can realistically do according to their own circumstances. If making these changes is something you can realistically do, then it would be great if you could at least trial it and see what the outcome is!