When it comes to the challenge of caring for aging cats, litter box problems are especially frustrating. Just one mishap can destroy a piece of furniture or an important belonging, and leave you feeling like you're at your wit's end before you've even started brainstorming solutions.
As cats get older, physical, cognitive, and emotional changes can significantly reduce their abilities. You may find that what has always worked is no longer what your cat needs or prefers.
To find out how to help your cat overcome litter box problems as she ages, first you must pinpoint the causes.
Why do some elderly cats stop using the litter box?
A variety of factors affect litter box behavior. Sometimes, health problems like urinary tract infections, diabetes, cancer, or kidney problems underlie changes in litter box use.
Many cats become arthritic as they age, and jumping or stepping in and out of a litter box becomes too painful. As arthritic cats continue to age, sometimes they move too slowly to make it to the litter box in time.
Some cats may become increasingly picky about having a clean litter box, and may refuse to use a box that needs to be scooped, emptied, or washed. If you have other cats, your older cat might be bothered by sharing a litter box (even after months or years of sharing it).
Other cats in the household may also start behaving differently toward the aging cat. Younger cats may begin guarding the litter box, preventing access or ambushing your older cat on the way out. To avoid confrontation, your elderly cat may choose to avoid the litter box area altogether and go where she feels safe.
Yet other cats suffer vision or hearing loss, which can cause disorientation and make it difficult for them to find the litter box consistently. Sometimes general cognitive decline can contribute to confusion and memory problems, also making your cat unable to find the litter box reliably.
Older cats may feel neglected and act out as a way to get your attention. Older cats tend to sleep more and stay in certain areas of the house; it can be easy to forget to make the effort to visit them for one-on-one time when you don't encounter them around the house as frequently.
Be patient with your aging cat
As your cat ages, the compound effects of any or all of the factors mentioned above can lead to frustrating litter box misses. Just when you think you've solved the problem from one angle, you may discover another issue and be right back at square one. However frustrated you become, remember that yelling, reprimanding, or other punitive treatment will only exacerbate the problem.
To avoid hard-to-clean mishaps, you may want to cordon off a space for your cat while you attempt the litter box solutions suggested below. If possible, choose an area without carpet, cover soft surfaces you don't want soiled, and supply cozy blankets or bedding that you won't mind tossing if you have to.
You don't want to alienate your beloved aging pet, so make sure the area you choose is one of her preferred places, that you don't cut off access to the litter box, food, or water, and that you visit often. You can even use a screened barrier instead of something opaque, so your cat can still smell, see, and hear household goings-on.
In your search for solutions, remember that changing the litter box set-up at all—even in your effort to be helpful—may upset your cat. Once you've implemented a change, stick with it; you want to increase your cat's confidence in the safety and reliability of the litter box and too much change too quickly will have the opposite effect.
Litter box solutions for elderly cats
Visit the Vet
When you first notice a change in litter box behavior, schedule a visit with your vet. Give a detailed account of your cat's behavior and have your vet run tests to see if there's a physical cause for your pet's problem. Even after you've ruled out or introduced treatment for any physical maladies, you may still find messes where they shouldn't be. Use the tips below to head off litter box dissatisfaction from as many angles as possible (and even preempt problems that don't exist yet).
Avoid Too Much Change
Any alteration of the litter box area can be upsetting to cats at any age, so be careful how you implement changes. The litter box is a place where cats are vulnerable, so they are sensitive about changes in location, litter, use by other cats, addition of ramps/stairs, invasion by dogs or guests, etc. It's preferable to leave the old litter box intact and introduce changes by adding to the area. If you can, have your cat present whenever you change something, so you can assure her that everything's OK.
Keep It Clean
Since a litter box that's anything less than spotless can motivate your cat to go elsewhere, take extra care to keep all litter boxes clean. Whether you simply increase your scooping frequency, select a higher quality litter that leaves less debris (and transition slowly), or opt for a self-cleaning litter box that automatically cleans after each use, try to eliminate the possibility that cleanliness is the culprit.
Make It Accessible
If your cat has arthritis or joint pain, choose a litter box with a low entryway or add a ramp to make it more accessible. Again, be careful not to upset your cat by switching out the old litter box for a new one; leave the old litter box in place and set the new one beside it. Place the new box next to the old one, and add a scoop of litter from the old box to the new one, so it smells familiar. Remove the old litter box once your cat has started using the new, more accessible litter box.
Keep It on the Level
If your cat has to climb or descend stairs to get to the litter box, place an additional litter box on the level of your house where your cat spends the most time. Make sure it is in a place that's private, quiet, and always open (no one shuts the door and blocks access).
A Box of Her Own
A good rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than the number of cats in your household. It's not necessary to have each litter box in a different room, but make sure the one for your aging cat is separate. The idea is that each cat will have a clean, desirable place to go, even if the other litter boxes have recently been used (or are otherwise undesirable). For your aging cat, having a dedicated, accessible litter box located away from the crowd should help reduce bullying by other cats as well.
Escort Your Cat to the Litter Box
For cats with hearing or vision loss, or that to experience memory problems or confusion, make sure to leave the litter box in the same place it's always been. Cats can direct themselves to their favorite things around the house, even if they're blind. It may be helpful to leave some evidence of their scent in or around the litter box, so they can use their keen sense of smell to locate it. For more severe cases, you may want to escort your cat to the litter box shortly after mealtimes and at regular intervals throughout the day (if you're home) to reduce mishaps.
Make Time for Your Cat
And finally, no matter the root cause of your cat's litter box problem, make sure you're devoting quality time to your dear feline friend. She can't help her litter box slip-ups, so don't let your frustration erode your relationship. Wherever she chooses to nap away the day, gently join your cat for some old-fashioned one-on-one time and let your kitty know how much you love and appreciate her companionship.