Litter Box Problems?

Litter box problems with cats can be extremely frustrating, to the point that many people give up and make the difficult decision to relinquish their cat to a shelter or rescue.  There are a few easy things you can do to try to solve the problem first, though, and patience is key!  Curbing litter box issues can take up to three months or more.  Try the tips below, and feel free to call us if you have any questions at (320) 252-0896.

Step 1: Figure Out Why

  • Rule out a a medical problem by taking your cat to your veterinarian.  Cats with urinary tract infections might associate the pain of urinating with being in the litter box, making them not want to use the box.  This accounts for 15 percent of all litter box problems and should be ruled out immediately.
  • Keep a log of accidents to see if there is a pattern.  When does it happen? Where? What does it look like? How frequent are the accidents?
  • Spay/neuter your cat.  Studies show that 90 percent of male cats that spray will stop after being neutered.  Felines can also mark areas when they are in heat to try to attract a male cat.  There are many benefits to spaying/neutering, and this is one of them!
  • Routine change?  Cats are creatures of habit and most do not care for change.  Ask yourself if there have been any lifestyle or environment changes since the litter box problems began.  New pet?  New baby?  New litter box location?  New air freshener near the cat's litterbox that might be offensive to your cat?  If it is something you can easily remove, try it.  If not, be patient with your cat and give them extra love and attention.  It can take them a month or more before they realize that things are not going to go back to how they once were.

Step 2: Remove/Neutralize Urine Spots

  • Locate urine spots.  You can find urine by using a black light. Veterinarians also can give a supplement called Fluorescein to feed your cat that makes the urine glow even more. This is particularly helpful with multiple cat households to find out which cat is having accidents.
  • Don't skimp on cleaning!  Cats are repeat offenders and will continue to return to the same inappropriate potty spots if you don't clean the area properly.
  • Pick the right product.  Just like anything on the market, there are some products that work well for cleaning cat urine, and some that don't.  We recommend products such as Nature’s Miracle (sold at Tri-County Humane Society), Outright, FON, Oxi-Clean, or baking soda (½ cup to ½ gallon of water).  It is important to know your product and how to use it, too!  For example, Oxi-Clean in its powdered form must be added to very hot water to activate its neutralizing abilities.  If it foams up when added to hot water, you know it is hot enough!  Never use detergents, bleach, vinegar, or any products containing ammonia. These products might encourage the cat to return to that spot.
  • Soak the entire area, a light mist of cleaning product won't do!  Neutralizing products work best if they are allowed to soak and sit over the soiled area for at least 20 minutes before removing excess product with a towel or carpet shampooer. 
  • Repeat if necessary.  If you can still smell urine, you can bet your cat can!  Once the area dries, if it still smells like urine, repeat the process.

Step 3: Prevention

  • Make the accident areas unappealing.  Upside down carpet runners on the floor (the kind that is bumpy on the bottom that a cat would not want to walk on) work well, or bricks spaced a couple inches apart.  Tin foil may work for some cats as well.
  • Move the litter box to the location preferred by your cat.  If your cat only goes in one spot in the house, try putting the litter box there after neutralizing the area. If it is a spot that you don’t want a litter box permanently, wait until the cat is using the box religiously and then gradually move it a few inches each day to a more appropriate location.
  • Keep the litter box clean! Scoop daily or every other day and completely change the litter and wash the box out on a regular basis. Do not use products with ammonia; they will actually accentuate the urine smell and may make cats not want to use the box. Scrub the box with baking soda and rinse it well. If you are unable to remove the urine smell over, it may be time to replace the box.
  • Do not use plastic liners in the litter box. Most cats do not like them!  It can also encourage them to urinate on plastic bags around the house.
  • Keep the box at ground level.
  • Give the cat a variety of litter boxes to choose from in different locations.  If you live in a multi-level house, make sure there is at least one box per level. A general rule of thumb is to have one box per cat plus an extra one in a multi-cat household. At least two boxes are needed for a one-cat household because some cats prefer to urinate and defecate in different locations.  Also, give them different box choices, such as one covered box and one open box, and make sure the size of the box is appropriate for the cat.
  • Try different types of litter. Most cats prefer 1 to 1 ½ inches of soft, sandy litter, such as the “scoopable” variety.  Try litter such as Cat Attract (sold at Tri-County Humane Society), which contains herbs that are designed to encourge the cat to use them.
  • Use unscented litter.  Perfumed litter may be too strong and offensive to your cat. Litter with Chlorophyll is especially unappealing to most cats.  Stick to unscented litter.  Baking soda to prevent odor is okay.
  • Keep litter boxes away from eating or sleeping areas.
  • Keep litter boxes in a quiet area with low traffic.
  • Make sure cat has an escape route. If it feels trapped while using the box, it may not want to return.
  • Try products such as Feliway for cats with anxiety or behavioral issues.
  • If all else fails, ask your vet about anti-anxiety medication.
  • Never punish the cat. This will only backfire and may make the problem worse. Reward the cat with treats when you see it using the litter box.


Dr. John C. Wright, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

Dr. Patricia B. McConnell, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist

Rats 101

Rat resizeBackground

Also known as: Domestic rat (a descendant of the wild brown rat).

Weight: Males, 1 to 1 ½ pounds; females, ½ to 1 pound.

Length: 14-18 inches, including tail.

Lifespan: 2 to 3 years.

Cost per year: $300.

Good with kids? Great for families with children 5 and up, but young caretakers should be supervised by an adult.

Fun fact: When rats are very content, they grind their teeth.


  • High-quality rodent chow should be available to your pet at all times. Look for a brand with soymeal as a main ingredient. Tri-County Humane Society’s store sells rodent chow, and all the proceeds go back to the animals.
  • Fresh, clean water should also be available to your rats 24/7. A water bottle with a drinking tube that attaches to the cage is the best way to go.
  • Offer small, bite-sized bits of fresh fruits and veggies daily. Recommended: Peas, broccoli, carrots, apples and bananas. Avoid: Chocolate, corn, candy, caffeinated beverages, cheese, sticky foods such as peanut butter.
  • Rats love people food, and you can give yours the occasional table scrap, such as cooked pasta or a bit of pizza crust. But limit treats or you’ll have a chunky rat.

Cage and Environment

  • Rats are very social and should be kept in pairs at a minimum. A pair of females is recommended for first-time pet owners. Males can do well together if introduced when young. Females are more accepting of new friends later in life.
  • A neutered male can live with females, or a spayed female can live with males. Don’t keep intact males and females together, as they will breed. The average litter ranges from 12 to 20 babies!
  • Solid-bottom, powder-coated wire cages are recommended. 2’ by 2’ by 2’ is the minimum size for a pair of rats, but do get the largest cage you can afford. You can also use a large, multi-level ferret cage or an aquarium with a screen cover for adequate ventilation.
  • Rats are prone to colds and heatstroke. Keep the cage indoors, away from drafts, direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, in an environment maintained at 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. A room where the family gathers in the early evening is ideal – your gregarious pets will love it!
  • Line the cage with bedding. Do not use cedar or pine chips, which contain oils that are dangerous to rats. Provide shredded paper towels or napkins if your rats like to make nests.
  • Your pets will need a cave for sleeping and resting. Try a small flower pot or box.

Behavior and Handling

  • Rats are friendly and curious by nature, but you’ll need to get your pets used to you and used to being handled. Start by feeding them small treats. When they’re comfortable with that, pick them up one at a time, one hand supporting the bottom, the other over the back. When you get to know each other better, don’t be surprised if your pets want to snuggle or sit on your lap or shoulder.
  • Once your rats are hand-tamed, let them play outside the cage in a safe, secure area for an hour every day. Out-of-cage playtime is mandatory. It will keep your smart, active friends mentally stimulated and physically fit. Supervise at all times; rats will chew on everything, including electrical wires.

Exercise and Toys

  • A bored rat is an unhappy rat! Provide PVC tubes for your pets to run through, and ladders and trees branches for climbing. Parrot toys, including swings and ropes, are great for rats.
  • Some rats love exercise wheels. Get one with a solid surface without wire rungs, so your pets’ tails cannot get caught while running.
  • Give your pets appropriate chew toys to help wear down their teeth, which grow continuously. Recommended: Unpainted, untreated wood, dog biscuits, safe cardboard and rawhide chews.

Daily Care

  • Throw it out. Remove soiled bedding, droppings and stale/uneaten food. Clean and refill the water bottle every day.
  • Keep it fresh. Clean cage completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing down the rest of the cage with warm, soapy water.

Signs of Illness

  • Bring your rats to the veterinarian annually. Don’t wait for your yearly appointment if you think one of your rats is sick. Common signs something isn’t right include sneezing, lethargy, weight loss, dull eyes, open wounds, diarrhea and difficulty breathing.
  • Rats are susceptible to external parasites such as lice. If you think your pets are infested, consult a veterinarian.

Rat Supply Checklist

  • Wire cage, large aquarium with screen cover or multi-level ferret cage
  • Aspen or pelleted recycled paper bedding
  • Small boxes or flower pots
  • Tree branch for climbing
  • Exercise wheel (solid, no rungs)
  • PVC tubes for tunneling
  • Rodent chow (also called rat blocks)
  • Attachable water bottle with drinking tube
  • Unpainted, untreated piece of wood, dog biscuits or safe chew toy
  • Toys, including swings, ropes and other toys made for parrots

Source: Information from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Why Do Puppies Chew, and How to Stop It

Chewing is a common complaint among those caring for dogs younger than a year old. They’re likely to chew for several reasons. For one, they’re curious creatures and they don’t have opposable thumbs. Their mouths are how they examine objects. Also, from four to eight months of age, they will shed all of their puppy teeth and grow a set of permanent teeth. Chewing helps with teething discomfort. Also, chewing gives a bored pup something to do, and dogs with separation anxiety will likely chew their owners’ items. Finally, some dogs, such as retrievers, were bred to use their mouths.

So how do you stop it?

  • Create a safe haven for your puppy: Use a dog crate or small, carefully dog-proofed area. When dog-proofing an area, get down at puppy eye level to scope out potential problems such as electrical wires or drapery cords. When you can’t supervise your puppy, place him or her in this safe haven with an approved chew toy.
  • Remember, the puppy does not need access to the entire house. Close bedroom doors or install pet gates during the animal’s chewing period.
  • Invest in a variety of chew toys appropriate to the size and chewing preferences of your dog. Check out Tri-County Humane Society’s store for a variety of toys (all the proceeds go back to the animals.) Watch your pet with the chew toys when he or she first tries them to make sure it’s appropriate. Alternate the chewies to keep interest high, saving the best for crate time or when puppy is left alone.
  • Give feedback. When the puppy eyes a table leg, say “eck” or “phooey” and then draw puppy’s attention to an acceptable chew toy. When you catch the puppy chewing on an appropriate toy, make sure to praise him or her with a treat.
  • Try anti-chew products.  If the table leg or rug fringe remains your dog’s favorite chew toy, use a commercial anti-chew product.  Tri-County Humane Society sells bitter apple sprays that are safe for pets and can be highly effective!


Source: Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT

Coping with Allergies

A person’s allergic reactions to dogs or cats can vary, not only with the species and breed, but among individual animals within a breed. If you are allergic to pets but wish to own one anyway, you may eventually find a breed that poses no health problem to you. However, keep in mind that allergies can develop long after you’ve adopted the animal. Also, there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic animal.

Here are some tips on managing your allergies:

  • Restrict a pet from access to your bedroom or confine it to a limited area of your home.
  • Keep pets clean. However, avoid bathing the pet too frequently because that could cause skin problems. An alternative to bathing may be to regularly wipe your pet with a dampened cloth. Dry shampoos also can be effective in absorbing oils and odors.
  • Keep your home well vacuumed and well ventilated.
  • If your allergies are causing you serious medical problems, do not jeopardize your health. Call Tri-County Humane Society (320-252-0896) to rehome the animal. Placing your pet in another happy home will benefit everyone in the long run.

Source: “Canine and Feline Behavior Problems,” Stefanie Schwartz

Guarding Valued Objects

A dog can become very possessive about certain objects. Guarding (also called possessive aggression) occurs with food and variety of objects valued by the dog, including favorite toys. It also may guard inappropriate objects such as shoes or a piece of trash. Attempts to remove the object from the pet may be met with an aggressive response. It may stand over its food dish, for example, and growl when approached. The warning must not be ignored because the dog could bite.

Early signs

Guarding behavior may begin as an attention-seeking game when the dog is a puppy. You may no longer enjoy the game, however, when it persists in your adult dog. Your dog may guard objects during play to attraction your attention. This is typical of dogs that “steal” objects, often in plain view, and run off. If your dog fails to engage your attention with a particular object, it may continue to test your reaction until it discovers one that works. Though playful guarding may not progress to aggressive guarding, it should not be encouraged. Many pet owners believe that guarding food indicates a dog was deprived of food as a puppy. However, this behavior is seen in dogs that have never experienced starvation. Guarding behavior must be distinguished from social dominance because it can intensely displayed even by submissive dogs. Dominant dogs that also guard may be more intensely possessive, but many dominant dogs can be unconcerned with guarding any object of value to them.


The best way to deal with guarding behavior is to prevent it. If your dog tends to stay in the same corner or under a bed with its favorite object, block access to these hiding places. Teach your dog that giving up a possession is actually fun in the form of a game. Train it to “fetch” neutral objects (of no value to the dog) , and teach it to retrieve and return them to you. Command the dog to “sit” and “stay.” As you gently remove the object from its mouth, introduce a new command, such as “drop it” or “let go.” If you practice this frequently and offer lots of praise, the dog will associate the new phrase with relinquishing an object. After several weeks of practice, when the dog has learned the basic rules of the game, practice with a variety of objects of increasing value to the dog. Eventually, include objects that were previously guarded.

Another obedience exercise is to train the dog not to touch an object until you instruct it to do so. Place your dog in a “sit/stay” position, for example, with a food treat or toy just out of reach. Say “leave it!” as the dog maintains its position. Release the dog from this position with a command such as “okay.” You may incorporate this training as a daily ritual at meal time.

Challenge Situations

A dog will bite to guard its valued object and should not be challenged. Not matter how secure you feel with your dog under normal circumstances, do not risk injury to yourself by putting your hand or face in biting range. It may be necessary to leave the dog alone until it loses interest in the object, even if the dog may be in some danger. If your dog steals something before retraining is completed, two responses are advised:

  1. If the object is of no danger to the dog, ignore it. In this way, you are not reinforcing the behavior by paying attention to it.
  2. If the object is an obvious hazard to your dog’s health, do not panic. Calmly and without directly looking at the dog, find something of equal or greater value to the dog, such as a special food treat or even its leash. Call the dog to “come” to you and away from the object. Give no hint of anger or concern in your voice. When the dog begins to approach you, give it immediate encouragement even before it arrives at your feet. Put your dog in a “sit” position and give it a reward.

In some cases it may be effective to simply stop what you are doing and leave the room. The dog’s curiosity in your activity might exceed its interest in guarding. Be sure to remove the object, hazardous or not, as soon as possible. Place it in an inaccessible location or discard it.

Young children must never be left unattended during a dog’s feeding time or allowed to approach a dog when it is enjoying a favorite toy or treat. In such instances, you may be able to exert some control (at least long enough to remove the child or halt its progress) by applying the training you have practiced with a “leave it” command or perhaps simply calling the dog to “come” to you.

Source: "Canine and Feline Behavior Problems," Stefanie Schwartz; ASPCA

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