Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Won’t Cover Litter Box Deposits, Cat Pulling Out Fur, and More

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Dr. Marci Koski is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional who received specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior from the Animal Behavior Institute. While Marci has been passionate about all animals and their welfare, cats have always had a special place in her heart. In fact, Marci can’t remember a time when she’s been without at least one cat in her life. She currently relies on her five-member support staff  to maintain the feline duties of her household.

Marci’s own company, Feline Behavior Solutions, focuses on keeping cats in homes, and from being abandoned to streets or shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. Marci believes that the number of cats who are abandoned and/or euthanized in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand what drives their cats to certain behaviors, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage appropriate behaviors instead of unwanted ones.

Do you have a question for Dr. Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

Cat not covering urine or stool deposits

Hi Dr. Marci!

Thank you for taking the time to help us! My cat Lily is 10 months old and she doesn’t cover her pee or poop :/ she will make a hole a do her business, but afterwards she’ll “scratch” the side of the litterbox very briefly. Today, for example, she also scratched the leg of a table next to the litter box (???). She’s not declawed, she’s neutered and healthy. I checked her paws and joints and everything is fine! We use normal, clumping litter.

Another weird thing she does is that after she’s done eating, many times she will also scratch at the floor or at the sides of wherever she’s eating. I wish she put that much effort into covering her stuff, I guess she’s grossed out!

I hope you can help us because it’s not so nice to see/smell it hahaha. I’m also not proud to admit that I’ve tried to demonstrate a few times, but she’s not interested in paying attention.

Thank you again! — Lucia 

Hi Lucia,

Ahhh, yes – the dreaded unburied litterbox gifts!  Cats typically bury their urine and feces to cover up their scent, which helps keep predators from figuring out where they are, or alert their own potential prey to their presence.  Most cats learn to bury waste products from their mom, but if kittens are removed from the litter or separated from their mom at a young age, they may not have gotten the chance to learn that lesson.  Or, their mom might not have taught them, or they may simply not have learned the lesson very well.  At any rate, it isn’t all that pleasant when you get a nice whiff of fresh – gifts – from the litterbox!

At this point, I’m not sure you’ll be able to train Lily to actually bury her waste.  However, she is going through the motions, albeit in the wrong place, and that’s a good sign that you may be able to get her to bury her waste under the right circumstances.  One thing you might think about changing is the size of her litterbox.  If it’s too small (as most commercial litterboxes are), she’s not going to have enough room to turn around, scratch, dig, and bury.  I highly recommend using simple shallow storage bins (5 or 6 inches deep) that you can purchase at any Target or Walmart store for $10 or less.  If your cat urinates while standing up (some do!), you can buy a large high-sided storage tote and cut a U-shaped door in the side (and throw away the lid) as an alternative.  Get a storage bin that is at least 1.5x the length of your cat (not including the tail), keeping in mind that bigger is better!  She should have enough room to turn around all the way without touching the sides of the box.  That way, she can actually scratch while she’s in the box and cover her waste.

Another thing to think about is the type of litter you’re using.  If she perches on the edge of the box and tries to avoid touching the litter (perching can also happen if the box is too small), she may not like the scent or texture of the litter itself.  A cat who loves her litter will usually spend some time in the box before and after “depositing” just scratching and digging.  I recommend fine-grained clumping litter that is completely unscented.  My clients have had very good success with clumping clay litters, but there are other types of clumping litter out there as well, if you’re concerned about environmental impacts or other factors.

Regarding scratching to cover up her food after she’s done, that’s pretty typical of carnivorous beasties.  Cats are predators who may not finish their meal in one sitting; cats in the wild have learned to “cache” their kills, and will cover them up to hide the scent from other predators looking to steal their meal, or to alert other prey animals of their presence.

I hope this helps – I know it’s not fun to smell fresh litterbox deposits, so I hope that these changes encourage your kitty to follow-through with the initial steps she’s currently demonstrating.  Good luck!

Cat pulling out fur by the tail

My cat has been pulling her fur out by her tail. She is 17 years old and has done this a bit on her legs over the years but not large sections. The section is about 3x 4 inches large. Any ideas? — Susanne Dennis 

Hi Susanne,

I’m so sorry that your kitty is going through this, as over-grooming and fur-pulling can be a sign of either a medical issue or stress (otherwise known as psychogenic alopecia, if the behavior has a psychological or emotional cause).

The first thing you should do is have your cat examined by a veterinarian, as you’ll want to rule out medical causes for her behavior.  Cats will lick, over-groom, and pull out hair in response to itchiness or pain, so your vet will check for fleas, and perhaps test for environmental or food allergies.  Fungal or bacterial infections might also be the source of her behavior.  Your vet will probably do a blood test (which should be done regularly at your cat’s age), and may also perform other tests to determine if there’s an infection or pain that is causing her to pull her fur out.

From what I’ve read, up to 90% of over-grooming and fur-pulling cases have medical causes, so it’s really important to get that vet visit done.  If medical issues can be ruled out, then you’ll want to work on looking at stressors in her environment.  Grooming can be a self-soothing measure when stress is an issue, but grooming can turn into over-grooming and fur-pulling if the stress is continuously present, and can even become habituated, meaning that the behavior doesn’t stop even if the stressor is removed.  Some cats are more sensitive to stress than others, and as cats age, tolerance to stress tends to decrease.  And your kitty is a super-senior, so you’ll want to help her live as low-stress as possible!  Change can be a big potential stressor (changes in your schedule, people/animals in the home, moving, etc.), so try to keep a routine in your cat’s life, giving her meals and play sessions at the same time every day.  Sour relationships between cats (or other animals and people) can also cause stress, so try to mend those relationships if that’s a factor.  And lastly, boredom and frustration can be a HUGE stressor to kitties!  Even though your cat is 17 years old, she’ll still need exercise, both mental and physical.  Try wiggling a wand toy in front of her to engage with (even if she just bats at the lure for a few minutes), or a food puzzle loaded with her favorite treats.  Making sure she has new things to experience every couple of days – even if it’s something as simple as putting out cat grass, or a new cardboard box in a different location – can help bust boredom.

And, if you see indications that she might be getting ready to nibble on her backside, that’s the time for redirection.  Get out a toy or snack that you can distract her with, ideally before she starts to pull out her fur.  I know you can’t keep an eye on her all the time, so you might want to talk with your veterinarian about her wearing a soft E-collar, or a bitter substance that keeps her from licking that spot (not my favorite approach, but if is an alternative if you run out of options).  Additionally, you may want to talk with your vet about anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.  They can really help, so don’t be afraid to ask about them!  They can also help enhance the effectiveness of stress-reduction activities (such as play and enrichment, etc.), so keep that in mind.

I hope this helps – do follow-up with us and let us know what your vet says.

Cat urine marking on sofa

 Hi Dr. Marci,

I’ve read a lot of the other posts on here on issues similar to those we are having so probably have a pretty good idea of what your suggestions will be but here goes. My wife and I were previously owned by three fixed male cats ranging in age from about 2 to about 6 years. A few weeks back we decided to adopt an approximately 2 month old female kitten. We’ve brought cats into a multi-cat household before so we did all the standard things, kept Jennifer quarantined completely until we got a clean bill of health for her, then started slowly introducing her first through a partly open door then very gradually letting her explore while supervised.  

Two of the three boys, Athelstan and Saul are just fine with the new one, they don’t really seem to care much, the issue is with Shiva the young one. We thought there might be some degree of trouble with him because he’s definitely the most high strung of the three. The major problem we have is he is urine marking the sofa which is definitely one of his hangout spots, we’re grateful this is the only place he is doing it. Because of how this sofa is designed it’s very difficult to clean even with the Anti Icky Poo products which generally work very well, basically the cushions don’t come off so it’s impossible to really deep clean it so it eventually may have to go. In the event we replace it, should we use Feliway or anything else on the new sofa to try to help Shiva adjust to it more easily since he is already stressed? — Tom Randall

Hi Tom,

Thanks for writing about your situation – I know it’s so frustrating when someone gets stressed and starts urine-marking!  It sounds like you’ve got some complicated dynamics, but let’s get down to it.  First, I’m glad you went through a slow introduction and that Athelstan and Saul are fine with Jennifer – that’s great!  Second, Anti Icky Poo is the cleaner I recommend, so thumbs-up on that one, too.  I have yet to find an enzyme cleaner that works 100%, but AIP is pretty effective.

Now, let’s talk about Shiva.  Urinating on the couch, aka HIS hangout spot, is likely an effort to surround himself with his own scent and help himself feel more secure in the presence of the interloper (Jennifer).  It’s a self-soothing measure that is helping him adjust to the new social dynamics in the home, particularly since he appears to be more sensitive.  I’m a bit torn about removing the couch and getting a new one before he gets more comfortable with Jennifer – he’ll lose that “security blanket” that has his scent all over it (STRESS!!!) and may urinate on the new couch or in other locations to satisfy his need to be surrounded by his scent.

What I would do is continue to clean any urine spots you find on the couch with AIP, and then provide him with alternative ways to leave his scent in that area.  This could include putting a scratching post right next to the sofa (cats have scent glands in their paw pads that leave scent behind when they scratch) or a cardboard scratcher ON the couch, putting a cat bed or blanket/towel that Shiva sleeps in on the couch, or letting him body-roll on the couch by sprinkling a bit of catnip on it.  Feliway may help take the edge off things, but in severe cases I’ve had clients whose cats actually spray Feliway diffusers!  I might try using Feliway spray (not the diffusers) to spritz the couch a couple of times each day (don’t soak it), but a more effective method might be to get a clean sock, rub Shiva’s cheeks with the sock on your hand (most cats like this), and then rub the sock on the part of the couch that Shiva urinates on.  By doing this you’re collecting Shiva’s facial pheromones (Feliway is the synthetic version of this) AND his own personal scent, and this can be much more effective than Feliway by itself.  I would do this two times a day for a week, then once a day for another week, then go down to every other day for maintenance.

Also, you’ll want to work on stress-relief activities for Shiva, including lots of play with a wand toy (like Da Bird).  Play is the BEST way to relieve stress, so try to play with him every day!  And work on building positive associations with Jennifer – have them work on two food puzzles near each other, or play in the same room, or simply give him treats every time she enters the room he’s in.  In addition, making sure the cats don’t compete for any resources (food, litterboxes, toys, napping locations, etc.) will help, as will expanding the amount of useable vertical space available to them.

Lastly, just to be safe, I might invest in a waterproof blanket (especially if you are going to get a new couch).  A waterproof blanket will have a new scent on it (of course) which Shiva may not like (similar to getting a new couch), but it may give you an idea how he would react to a new couch.  And, you can always work on “scenting” the waterproof blanket in the ways described above so that it becomes Shiva’s.  I hope this helps and that the waterproof blanket isn’t necessary in the long-run, as it’s not a solution, but a patch.  The important step will be stress reduction for Shiva in his environment (which includes giving him ways to be surrounded with his own scent), and in his dealings with Jessica.  Best of luck to you!

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10 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Won’t Cover Litter Box Deposits, Cat Pulling Out Fur, and More

  1. Lucy
    August 24, 2019 at 1:11 pm (2 months ago)

    dear Dr. Marci. Is there any thing like Brewer’s Yeast, or any other Home remedy to Help Feral Cats from Fleas? i feed 3 small colonies , and try to help them,. i do give them A c. v.. when i can they look healthy . but like to help them with fleas. Please let me know if brewers yeast will work for them . Thank You so very Much for your time. Sincerely, Lucy

    Reply
  2. Michelle John
    August 24, 2019 at 2:49 am (2 months ago)

    Hi Dr Marci!

    I wonder if you can help me with this:
    My 2 cats are perfectly healthy and of a good weight, but they are so greedy! How can I stop them from meowing for food up to an hour before mealtime? I feed them 3 times a day and it happens every time, with the meowing ramping up to crazy levels when I’m preparing the food. They know they will get their food when it’s time and I never give in to their early meowing. I’ve started trying to clicker train them not to grab food and they’re good during the training session but it hasn’t worked at mealtime. I’ve tried waiting till they’re quiet before giving them their meal, but it also hasn’t worked—the pre-meal meowing still hasn’t stopped. Any advice?

    Reply
  3. Lucia Faria
    August 16, 2019 at 3:42 pm (2 months ago)

    Thanks so much, Dr. Marci! I think you’re right when you said her mom didn’t teach her because just today it clicked that she doesn’t really blink back (the “cat I love you” from Jackson Galaxy) so I think they took her away from her mom too soon 🙁
    We will definitely buy her a bigger box, the 3 that we have are the standard ones. We will also try to purchase the other litter. I really appreciate your time and expertise given to us, our family wishes you all the best <3 thank you Ingrid and thank you Dr. Marci!

    Reply
    • Marci
      September 4, 2019 at 6:14 pm (1 month ago)

      You are so welcome, Lucia! I hope that does the trick. It sounds like you’re a very loving guardian for your kitty! – marci 🙂

      Reply
  4. Bridget
    August 14, 2019 at 12:48 pm (2 months ago)

    Hello Dr. Marci
    In my 60+ years of being owned by cats, I’ve never run across this scenario.
    My 3 year old Maine Coon mix (she’s been with us for about 1 1/2 years) likes to sit on the back of my side of the sofa in the evening while we are watching TV. (Might I add, that she is DEFINITELY my cat as she follows me everywhere…even when I leave a room and return.) One evening I was having a sneezing attack, which I have never had before. I was on my sixth sneeze, when suddenly, Dinah attacked my scalp with nails and teeth and drew blood.
    Needless to say, that stopped my sneezing.
    Do you have any idea why my sneezing would have provoked such an attack?
    She is sweet and gentle and loves her scritchies otherwise.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Adriene
    August 14, 2019 at 8:03 am (2 months ago)

    Litter box sand- an inexpensive alternative is chicken laying crumbles. $13-15.00 for a 50lb bag. All natural mostly corn. It clumps. It does not leave a sticky, slimy, icky residue that commercial clumping cat sand does. Find it at local feed stores or Tractor Supply. You will love it. Your welcome.

    Reply
  6. Janine
    August 14, 2019 at 7:27 am (2 months ago)

    Thanks for the advice on overgrooming. My vet didn’t find a problem with Miss Kiki. I always try to reassure her she’s my number one girl, but I will work harder with her and play more and hope that will help.

    Reply
    • Marci
      September 4, 2019 at 6:20 pm (1 month ago)

      Hi Janine – yes, anything you can do to lower her stress levels will be beneficial, and play is a great way to do that. You can also try calming supplements like Zylkene or Solliquin, which are natural, safe, and proven effective. You don’t need a prescription for them, but it’s always best to talk with your vet about anything you are considering giving your kitty. Best of luck to you!

      Reply
  7. Mary Anne Krohn
    August 14, 2019 at 4:11 am (2 months ago)

    I agree with everything Dr. Koski recommended for Lily. A couple of years ago I rescued a 3 year old cat that does quite well with unscented clumping litter, which I augment with baking soda when I clean it out daily. Every time I switch to a litter that is perfumed in some way, she responds similarly to Lily. She just hates it. So I’ve learned MY lesson…back to the basic stuff! Also, I quickly discovered that Lil’ Bit wanted to bury her wet food in the way Lily does. Her dry food is left alone, but I soon learned to feed her wet food in a small shallow dish resting on a paper towel, because she not only sneaks up on it, but she will cover it with the paper towel after she has had a few bites. Later, she will come back and uncover it and have a few more bites then runs under a chair or bed until she’s hungry again. I am fascinated by this primal behavior. I had lots of cats, but none that did this. Which makes her even more special to me! Just enjoy Lily’s quirky behavior! She sounds like a sweetie!

    Reply
    • Lucia Faria
      August 16, 2019 at 3:46 pm (2 months ago)

      Thanks so much! Will definitely try unscented! Lily makes up for it with her cuteness hahaha

      Reply

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