Unfortunately in animal rescue, we spend a lot of time thinking about pee and poop. The ways animals go to the bathroom can provide us a lot of information about their health, behavior, stress levels, and more.
Use this guide to learn more about how to best set your foster up for potty training success, interpreting warning signs, and what common problems and their solutions are.
Animals can be very particular about the way they like to go to the bathroom. And it makes sense- it's a very vulnerable act. You'd feel weird with strangers in your bathroom while you're trying to go, and it's the same with animals in a new situation.
To best set your foster up for success, please follow the provided recommendations:
Cats can be very finnicky about their litter box arrangements. It's so important to create a healthy relationship and environment surrounding their box usage. Did you know that one of the most common reasons a cat is surrendered to a shelter is house-soiling (the act of urinating or defecating in inappropriate places)? It can also be a huge barrier to finding an adopter.
Failure to use a litter box can have a number of causes, many easily fixable or preventable. But once a cat starts inappropriately urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, it can be a lot harder to return their habits back to normal. So it's best to try to avoid issues entirely by following the below guide:
1. Location: choose an isolated location that is quiet, private, and easy for the cat to access. This should be away from other animals, so they feel safe using it. NO laundry rooms, high traffic areas, or garages.
2. Box style: Litter boxes should be large enough for the cat to fully stand, turn, and dig without needing to step outside the box. Use an open, uncovered litter box to start- a covered litter box may make them feel trapped and they won't use it.
3. Litter type: Cats typically do best with clay clumping litter as close to natural as possible.
4. Fragrance free: Avoid ANY type of perfume, fragrance, etc in your litter and box setup, including box liners. Cats will avoid these scents and prefer to pee elsewhere!
5. Number of boxes: Best litter box practice is:
1 box per cat + 1 extra neutral box.
Bathroom areas are territory! A cat may avoid using the litter box if it smells like another cat's domain.
6. Clean box: Litter boxes should be scooped daily and litter fully replaced at least once a month. Cats are very clean animals and will not use a dirty box.
Though she seems to be sticking her tongue out it, alum Minty (now Mouse) has an ideal litter set up- large box, clay litter. Rather than go to a covered litter box for tracking litter outside the box, the grey litter collecting mat helped control the mess and kept Minty wanting to use her box.
Common house-soiling issues
There can be a number of reasons a cat may choose to pee or poop outside the box. Figuring out what they're trying to tell you, and amending the situation appropriate, is of paramount importance to developing healthy box habits.
1. Cleanliness: Assess the box. Is the litter scooped? Is it smelly? Dirty? Cats will avoid a dirty box.
2. Safety: Does the cat feel safe using the box? Is it quiet/secluded? Is the box open without them having to fear "ambush" from another pet or people?
3. Litter type: Cats can be very particular about texture. Default to using a clay litter and see if that helps. We recommend Integrity Clay Clumping litter, available at Mud Bay, All the Best Pet care. Or conversely, just Johnny Cat litter from the grocery store is fine too. Avoid crystals, large pellets, fragrance.
You can also try Cat Attract, Dr Elsey's, and other fragrance free brands.
4. Number of boxes: How many cats are using the boxes? Are they getting too dirty too quickly? Provide more boxes in different areas.
4. Dumb kittens: Sometimes kittens will just straight up forget to use their box, have trouble remembering where it is, or not have a momma to help them set healthy habits. Keep the kittens confined to a small area with easy access to a low sided litter box they can get into.**
**Very young kittens may need a different kind of litter, as they may try to ingest clumping. This is when it's appropriate to use larger pellet litter.
Even though these sisters are very bonded and love each other, they started to pee outside of the box when they had to share just one. Adding another box helped keep the box cleaner and settled "territory" disputes between the two
5. Medical Issues: If you have made all of the appropriate changes and you're noticing the kitty still not wanting to use the box, especially if they're opting to pee only on soft things like clothes or bedding, there is a potential that there is a medical component such as a UTI or urinary crystals. We will pursue urine testing to rule out these issues if the litter box set up is ideal and the issues are persistent.
A medical history of UTI or crystals, even if the problem is solved now, can be enough to make a kitty not want to use the box, as now they associate going to the bathroom with pain. Behavioral modification will be needed to help them get back to using the box without fear of discomfort.
In male cats: If you notice straining, frequent ins and outs of the box, or difficulty urinating, this is a medical emergency, as they may be blocked. Let Underdog know ASAP, and if appropriate, head to an emergency vet.
6. Stress: A fearful or anxious cat may avoid the litter box entirely. If there are dogs, children, many other animals, etc, this can be enough to make a cat feel too scared to go to the bathroom in a vulnerable place like a box. We may need to find a new environment for the cat if they do not feel relaxed enough. While there are medications and pheromones that can sometimes help alleviate stress and make it easier, sometimes it's just best to find a different environment.
It's normal for a cat to avoid using the box for a while after stress, like a car trip or new home. If they do not use the box within 24-36 hours, let Underdog know, as it can be of serious concern.
PJ was surrendered to Underdog due to painful urination and blood in the urine. As vet care can be expensive, we took her on to provide the care she needed.
PJ ultimately was diagnosed with Urinary Struvite Crystals, a painful condition. She had a very large crystal blocking the exit of her bladder, requiring surgery to remove. Once that was completed and she was started on an appropriate diet, the urinary blood and pain resolved.
Other litter box considerations:
Declawed cats: Since declawing is inhumane joint amputation, this often causes foot pain, making litter painful to walk on. They may avoid using the box for this reason
History of living outdoors: Many outdoor cats are expected to just do their business outside and don't have litter box habits. These cats will need some more help building the routine.
Spraying/marking: Spraying/marking is different than avoiding using the litter box. This usually happens when there are multiple animals, children, or other stressors in the home, and the cat feels the need to make it smell like them. Unneutered males are much more prone to territorial marking. This usually presents as spray or streaks on walls or furniture, rather than pools outside of the box. This is a different issue and needs to be addressed differently.
Luckily, pottying with dogs is a lot more simple than with cats. Usually, dogs are happy to do their business on walks; however, being on leash can be a vulnerable time for them if they're still getting used to you. They may avoid pottying, or want to crawl into bushes or secluded areas to pee or poop. Try to be accommodating, but not overly so- they still need to listen to you and put themselves in safe situations.
Note: We expect you are following our guide for getting them through decompression. For ease of potty training, always return them to an appropriate sized crate when not on goal-oriented walks. See our guide for more detail.
While cats get their own potty environment, it's less about the space for dogs, and more about the routine. Knowing when and where they get to go to the bathroom helps them feel more secure, and therefore have healthier bathroom routines. Here are some tips to help them get used to potty training:
1. Down to business: While getting your foster settled, walks should be all business- no playing, no socializing. Keep them walking and set the expectation that they're there to potty.
2. Routine: Try to keep them on regular schedules. This will help them know when they can expect to get to relieve themselves. Keep walks consistently the same length, even if they potty right away. If you take them inside the second they go to the bathroom, they may learn to hold their bladders/stool to get more exciting outside time.
3. Frequency: Expect your foster to need to go to the bathroom more often; stress chemicals are proven to cause more frequent urination and urgency.
4. Walk it out: Rather than just waiting for them to pee or poop in the yard, sometimes the stimulation of walking is needed to get things moving. If they're reluctant to potty just in your yard, try a short walk.
5. Weather: Some dogs are really finicky about rain or wet grass. Try to plan their bathroom breaks accordingly, and try again if they're reluctant to go while it's wet out.
6. Health: Watch for signs of straining, overly frequent urination, extremely long urination duration, etc. Female dogs are especially prone to stress induced UTIs.
Mellow was reluctant to go potty at first due to feeling nervous and shy; she also hates the rain! It takes a LONG time for her to potty in the mornings, so her foster budgets more time to make sure she has time to get comfy.
Mellow also developed a UTI, meaning urination could be painful for her. Making sure she could relieve herself often was key to keeping her comfortable.
Starting the process of potty training with puppies can be tough, but if you're following through with your kennel training, is much simpler. Take it step by step, and stay consistent (and calm). Making positive links to going potty outside is so important.
Even though Petunia is an older dog, she needs help remembering her potty training too (and apparently remembering how a leash works). A potty pad and her crate were used to help her transition from having potty accidents to letting us know when she needed to go outside.
Also, due to her age and small size, Petunia gets offered frequent opportunities to go outside to ensure her little old lady bladder is comfy.
We spend so much time looking at, thinking about, and analyzing poop. Animal rescuers all probably have at least 10-15 pictures of poop on their phones at any given moment. It's not that we're enthusiasts- stool is a very helpful way to gage animal health. Check out the Stool section of the Basic Health guide for more information on why we're so obsessed, but here's a quick overview of why analyzing stool can be helpful.
2: Well formed log (ideal)
3 and 4: Soft logs
5: Soft, but with shape
This is considered to be diarrhea and is indicative of a larger problem. Persistent diarrhea is dangerous, causes dehydration, and may indicate illness or parasites that may be life threatening. One bout of diarrhea after a stressful event such as transport, vet visit, or surgery is common. But if it doesn't resolve after 1-2 bouts, let a team member know immediately.
6 and 7: Diarrhea
While this isn't overtly concerning, if it does not improve over time, we may need to investigate causes or solutions.
(This level is common after anesthesia leaves the system- if it doesn't resolve, let the team know)
This is not too concerning. May be emblematic of stress, change in diet, or recovering from parasites. Ideally, will improve to a 2 level, but this is not cause for concern.
This is what we like to see. Well formed, holds shape, regular "poop" color.
Usually a sign of dehydration, these are hard pellets that can be painful to pass.
Familiarizing yourself with this system helps us know how concerned we need to be, and what steps we need to take to mitigate this issue. Never allow diarrhea or vomiting to go unreported, as it can cause dehydration, malnutrition, and be an indicator of larger issues.