One of the most frequent reasons pets are surrendered to shelters or euthanized is they are urinating and/or defecating where they shouldn’t. A staggering number of pet owners don’t think there are any solutions to this problem past these two: live with it, or get rid of the animal.
I meet pet owners every day who have a cat who is suddenly peeing out of the litter box, or a dog who just never learned to poop outside. Some ask for medical advice. Many say (or have a spouse who says) “One more time, and he’s outta here.” Can you imagine if you had a couple accidents, and your parents disowned you? What kind of parents would they be? On the flip side, there are the people who just live with it, loving their pet too much to give them up, and just cleaning up after them constantly.
Cats are very sensitive. They are often falsely thought of as being aloof or vindictive. However, they are usually social animals, and very much creatures of habit. Their world can be rattled by changes that seem small to us, but huge to them. Holiday events with large groups of people, new carpet or furniture, a change in the household schedule, a new member of the family, or construction can really rock their world. Anxiety can manifest in behavior problems, one being litter box avoidance. But stress can also cause illnesses, just like with us.
First, a veterinarian should be involved in order to identify or rule out medical problems. There is a condition in cats called Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), which can have many causes. Urinary tract infections, bladder stones, and urethral obstructions are a few. There is also Feline Ideopathic Cystitis (FIC), an inflammatory disease which can yield secondary infections, or appear with no accompanying infection at all. And it can be noted, FIC is often associated with stress.
Your vet will likely recommend a urinalysis and blood work to begin. Maybe there is, indeed, a bladder infection. Or the start of diabetes or kidney disease. If needed, they will perform x-rays to check for bladder stones or tumors. Diagnostics are your veterinarian’s best tool, and are in your pet’s best interest.
If all medical diagnostics are negative, then it becomes a question of behavior. Now, don’t just throw up your hands and say “So there’s nothing I can do!” Take a deep breath. Calmly listen to your vet. There are many, many ways to deal with behavioral issues. Your vet may have some starting points for you, then refer you to a behaviorist if needed. Most problems have some kind of solution. The truth you have to face is this: it will take a lot of work on your part to help your pet.
Unfortunately, this is where the animal often loses. In our society of instant gratification, people are less willing to spend time working on a solution. They want a quick fix. For example, if a household has multiple cats, behaviorists recommend one litter box per cat, plus one extra. That is just one of the many strategies that can help with what we love to call “inappropriate elimination.” Fancy talk, huh?
But if the owner won’t spend money or time on a solution, the cat either ends up living outside, being re-homed, taken to a shelter, or (yes, this still happens) dumped by the side of the road. Imagine doing that to your grandma who can’t control her bladder!
Cats can also have bowel issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease or chronic constipation. These are both manageable with medications and foods. I had a cat for 13 years who had constipation, but she was “moving smoothly” in the latter half of her life because I maintained her condition.
And the poor dogs! No, I haven’t forgotten them. Let’s start with puppies who are never completely housebroken.
House-training a puppy takes a lot of patience and consistency. Especially with the smaller breeds, toys in particular. Say you get a puppy at Christmas. Now, taking it outside to train it where to go potty means you have to bundle up against the elements. Because you can’t count on them knowing what to do. You may be out there for fifteen minutes. Or five. You are teaching them, and if you punish them for accidents, you’ll teach them to fear you, or at least feel anxious when they have to go. Give them plenty of time outside so they have to fulfill the urge to go. Praise them like crazy when they do it right. Quietly clean it up when they make a mistake. No rubbing noses in the mess or yelling or spanking: behaviorists have established this as the absolutely wrong thing to do.
Sometimes, an adult dog has a lapse in their house-training. Like with the cats, the first thing to do is ask your veterinarian to rule out medical issues. Then go from there. Behavioral help is available if you need it.
Senior pets often have a loss of cognition, besides the usual health problems which can be associated with aging. They can effectively forget where they should use the bathroom. Again, are you going to kick Granny to the curb for simply getting old? There are ways to deal with these issues during your pet’s final years.
The upshot of all this is you have options. Don’t give up. Find the medical help your pet needs. And to be honest, I personally consider behavioral issues to be medical too. It’s about your pet’s physical and mental health. And since undesired behavior can lead to euthanasia, that makes behavior a medical issue which, untreated, will result in death. And if I had taken in every pet I’ve ever seen euthanized because of treatable behavioral problems, I would have hundreds of furry dependents. Sincerely, I feel this is the number one killer of cats, in my book.
Here are some links to wonderful, knowledgable resources to consult on this topic:
The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine has a valuable program called Indoor Pet Initiative.
ASPCA has loads of articles on their site, and are more trustworthy than bloggers or forums.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers are based in behavioral science.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is my feline guru, and I have learned as much about cats from her books as I have from working with them. She has all kinds of articles and resources available, including Skype consultations.
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