How do I prevent my elderly cat with mobility issues from inappropriately eliminating in the house?

Original Question: My cat is 17 years old and had some kind of a seizure or a stroke about a year ago. She had trouble walking after. My vet said she could recover but thought that more than likely she had heart disease. We discussed putting her to sleep but I wanted to see how she would do if I spent some extra time working with her and I was really glad I did. She has regained full movement and besides being pickier about food she eats and drinks as normal. However, she started going to the bathroom in our dining room, not all the time but it keeps getting worse. I no longer live at home and so it is hard for me to understand why she keeps doing this. The crazy thing is she always does it in the same spot. My mother is at her whit’s end and as I am not able to take her in where I currently live, my parents have asked me to have her euthanized and I just can't justify doing that. I don't know what to do. Could she be doing this because I don't see her as often or just because she is old? Any advice would be appreciated. I believe all life is precious and I don't want to just put her down because she has become an inconvenience but at the same time it really is not fair to my family to make them continue dealing with this. - Hope

How do I prevent my elderly cat with mobility issues from inappropriately eliminating in the house? Oct 25, 2017

Hi Hope,

Thanks for your question. This issue is as common as it is frustrating.

Whenever our pets are eliminating inappropriately, whether it be urination or defecation, it can be caused by two things; medical reasons or behavioral reasons. So the first thing we have to do is rule out medical problems.

I recommend you see your veterinarian and perform blood work and urine to make sure there is no medical issue causing this. Inappropriate urination can be caused by a urinary tract infection, diabetes, renal disease, hyperthyroidism, neurological disease or other ailments that can be found by running diagnostics. If a medical condition is found, then the appropriate treatment can be implemented and the condition may resolve.

In your case, I worry particularly about mobility contributing to the problem. I start to wonder where in the house the litter box is. If she has had a previous impairment to her limbs and although you say she has regained mobility, she may still be weak. If the litter box is in the basement, she may find it difficult or a greater challenge to traverse the stairs. She may have even slipped on them and now doesn’t want to use them because of fear, in addition to the weakness. If this is contributing to the problem, then placing litter boxes on the same level of the home is a good idea.

You may also want to make your own litter box or buy one that has a very low wall around it. She may be finding it difficult to step over the edge of the litter box and now she just avoids it.

Her weight can be an issue as well. If she’s overweight, it could be contributing to reduced mobility and impair movement to the litter box and entry over the wall of the litter box. If it is the case, I would recommend you to take a look at a video ‘Preventing Obesity in Pets’ for more information.

It’s not that unusual that she is defecating in the same place. This is quite typical and it is suggestive that she is actually mentally intact and that it may not be due to stress. If she uses that area consistently, then she has chosen it as a suitable place to eliminate. We just have to encourage her to another place and she’ll likely become consistent there. Keep in mind that cats can detect even a molecule of defecation in the air, so you’ll really want to clean or even eliminate the area where she has been defecating. You could consider restricting her access to it altogether. Some people may consider putting a littler box there temporarily just to train her back on the litter box, then move the litter box a few feet away and towards the ideal place for a week, then closer to the ideal place the following week, until you have completely moved out to the new place.

Here are some other strategies you can employ to focus their attention on the litter box.

You can also start putting treats near the litter box but I always tell people not to let the cat know you’re putting them there. This way they just happen to find them there. They may start visiting in the litter box just to see if they’ve shown up again and since they’re there, they might as well use the litter box.

As far as trying to create an easier litter box for cats to step into, I often have owners buy a large bin, cut the sides really low, put it in a garbage bag and sprinkle litter on top of it creating their own litter box with a much larger surface area and low sides to it so it’s very easy to step in and out.

There are also products that you can sprinkle in the litter that is supposed to attract them to it. These can work in some cases but not in others.

If anxiety is also playing a role, you may be able to improve this with environmental enrichment. Get your cat playing more and engaging it with toys. This will reduce stress. There are some resourceful articles that I encourage you to take a look for additional information: ‘Bored Kitty? How to Enrich Your Cat’s Home Life’ and ‘The Top 10 Best Free Cat Toys’.

Lastly, a lot of cases do take medication to solve these issues. I would have to say that anxiety in general is usually the cause of the problem. Whenever I say this to clients, I always get the same response. They’ll say: you clearly don’t understand my cat, he or she is not stressed. But what clients don’t understand is that although you’re providing a very nice home for your pet, we have to remember that these were animals that lived in the outside environment and engage their world by hunting and hiding. Many cats can develop stress just by being an indoor cat. You can speak to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety supplements and anti-anxiety medication to use as a trial if the aforementioned strategies do not work.

In your case, I believe the issue really lies in the mobility and the established inappropriate location for eliminating. If you work on the first items I mention in this answer, I believe you’ll start to have some success.

Best of luck!

Dr. Clayton Greenway

Disclaimer: healthcareforpets.com and its team of veterinarians and clinicians do not endorse any products, services, or recommended advice. All advice presented by our veterinarians, clinicians, tools, resources, etc is not meant to replace a regular physical exam and consultation with your primary veterinarian or other clinicians. We always encourage you to seek medical advice from your regular veterinarian.

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