Senior cat litter box problems happen all too often and aren't necessarily a reflection of the cat's previous habits. Whether your cat failed to learn faithful toilet etiquette as a kitten or simply developed litter box problems as it got older, such issues are common with advancing age.
Some senior felines never have any litter box problems. But it's good to be proactive and learn the warning signs in case any issues arise that lead to potential toilet challenges with your cat. Your elderly cat may have litterbox problems because there are major changes in its schedule, routine, or environment. Or, it's become finicky with age or it has a medical issue. Here are tips to help you understand and tackle your older cat's litterbox challenges.
Consider Any Medical Problems
A medical issue may be the cause of your older cat's problem with using its litterbox. Whenever your cat's elimination habits suddenly change for the worse, take it to the vet to rule out any underlying medical conditions or to assess treatment options. Here are some possible underlying health reasons why your older cat has stopped using the litterbox:
- Diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and lower urinary tract infections, all of which are conditions that are fairly common in older cats, cause more frequent urination. Your cat may not be able to get to the box in time every time.
- Several medical conditions, such as arthritis, degenerative joint disease, or spinal conditions may cause your cat to associate the litter box with pain. Even though it's not the litter box or the act of using the box that's causing the pain, all the cat knows is that if it doesn't use the box, it doesn't have the pain. It may find another place to eliminate where it doesn't have as much discomfort.
- Decreased vision, glaucoma, or blindness in senior cats is another reason why your pet may have stopped using the litterbox. Blind cats memorize the locations of important property, such as a favorite nap spot, their food bowl, and the location of the litter box. You may not realize that your cat has lost its vision until you rearrange furniture or move the litter box.
Cope With Cognitive Decline
Your aging cat may have developed feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD), which is a form of cognitive decline characterized by such symptoms as deterioration in memory, sight, hearing, and ability to learn. Some older cats with cognitive decline, similar to dementia, will forget where to find the litter box and what to do when they get there. If your cat is diagnosed with cognitive decline, the vet may prescribe supplements and/or medication, such as an anti-anxiety drug, to help ease some of your kitty's anxieties and related issues. Here are more tips on how to help your older cat with litterbox problems:
- Help your cat cope by maintaining consistency in its surroundings and daily routines. Many cats of all ages don't tolerate change well, but with older cats and especially those with increased separation anxiety and various degrees of cognitive decline, consistency in all things becomes even more important or your cat may not use its litterbox as intended.
- Keep the litterbox in the same spot to reduce your cat's stress in finding it. If you must make changes or move the litter box, leave one recent deposit in it to help your cat find it by scent. Be as patient as possible if your cat needs to learn the new location of its litter box and has a few accidents in the meantime.
- Surround the litterbox with puppy pads in case your cat finds the litter area, but can't remember to get into the box.
Make It Clean and Private
Cats are meticulous by nature and appreciate privacy. Senior felines, like some older people, become less patient and more particular as they age. Thus, a cat that may have easily tolerated a less-than-stellar litter box as a youngster may snub the box if it's not pristine or may seek other places to eliminate if disturbed during the process.
Avoid this by keeping the litter box immaculately clean, easily accessible, and in a private space. A low-traffic area—away from the cat's bed and food bowl—is ideal.
Add Another Loo
Older cats may lose bladder tone as they age or have other physical ailments that make it difficult for them to "hold it" long enough to run across the house or down the stairs without an accident. Make it easier for your cat by placing litter boxes on each floor of your home or at each end of the house.
Provide a Shorter Box
A regular commercial litter box may be too tall for arthritic cats to climb in and out of. Since arthritis is common in older cats, it's important to have a litter box that's the right height. Because it may hurt the cat to get into the box, the sides should be low and easy to climb over, and there should be plenty of room to allow the cat to take its time in comfort.
If you want to make your cat a lower litter box, look for a plastic shirt-box-size storage container, use the lid of the container itself, or cut down the sides of a regular litter box. Aluminum disposable bakeware that's about the size of a roasting pan may work as well, and the height of the sides can be modified if necessary (just beware of any sharp edges). Add a stable ramp into the box if necessary.
Adjust the Litter
Consider adding less litter inside the box. Having too much litter may make an arthritic cat feel unbalanced or fearful when it's trying to squat and balance while eliminating. In addition, experiment with different types of litter. Your cat may suddenly prefer a new type or brand of litter that's more comfortable, such as unscented, or clay versus clump, for example.
Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease. American Veterinary Medical Association.
Osteoarthritis in Cats: More Common Than You Think. U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
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de Souza Machado, Daiana et al. Identification of Separation-Related Problems in Domestic Cats: A Questionnaire Survey. PLoS One, 15,4,e0230999, 2020, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230999
Kerwin, SC. Osteoarthritis in Cats. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 25,4,218-23, 2010, doi:10.1053/j.tcam.2010.09.004