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Dealing With a Wee Problem

Study shows inappropriate elimination problems often can be treated to pet owners’ satisfaction

Study shows inappropriate elimination problems often can be treated to pet owners’ satisfaction

Litter box issues are high on the list of reasons for surrender of cats at shelters all over the country. But a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (Vol. 5, No. 4, 2002) should give hope to shelter workers tired of seeing cats relinquished for potty problems. Examining the long-term effectiveness of behavioral treatment for inappropriate elimination, researchers Amy Marder and Joan Engel found that a majority of owners (73 percent) felt that their cats’ elimination problems had been cured or much improved by the recommended treatment.

The specific treatments recommended to owners differed according to individual behavior histories, but each treatment generally included daily scooping of litter boxes to remove urine and feces, application of an enzymatic cleaner and odor remover to areas the cats were not supposed to use, and rewards through praise and treats when the cats used their litter boxes correctly.
The owners also altered areas where they did not want their cats eliminating to make it unappealing—for example, covering carpet with plastic sheeting or putting the cats’ food or beds in the areas they had been soiling. The owners were asked to experiment with their cats’ litter box preferences by moving the box to different areas of the home, changing the type of box, changing the type of litter, and assessing their kitties’ preferences; the owners then provided the combination their cat seemed to favor. No drug therapy was recommended for participating cats.

Researchers examined the effectiveness of the treatment by measuring caregivers’ perceptions of the outcome and their reports about any decline in the number of times their cats were eliminating out of the box.They also examined other factors, such as how strongly caregivers’ perceptions of the efficacy of the treatment were linked to the decreases they reported.

Fifty-eight cats were studied.When initially presented for behavioral examination and treatment, 24 of the cats were going outside the litter box less than once a day; 33 once or twice a day; and one more than twice a day. The average number of times daily was approximately .89, but that figure dropped to .25 times a day after treatment—a decrease of nearly 75 percent.

Of the 58 cats, 50 (or 86 percent) were still in their homes at the time the researchers conducted their final interviews. Of the eight who were no longer in their homes, four had been given away because their elimination problems had continued; the others were no longer in their homes for reasons unrelated to their elimination problems (one had been hit by a car, another euthanized for chronic renal failure diagnosed after the study had commenced).

The study also tested the relationship between caregiver compliance with treatment recommendations and the owners’ ultimate perceptions of how well the treatment had worked. Not surprisingly, the caregivers who had followed the recommendations most thoroughly reported the strongest improvements in their cats’ behaviors.

The owners who reported that their cats had improved also generally felt that the time elapsed until their cats showed signs of improvement was rapid—38 percent reported that their cats had improved within the first week of treatment. Overall, caregivers reported that their experiences with the program were positive; 89 percent thought the program was worth doing and only 16 percent felt that it was difficult. Caregivers who had seen their cats improve also reported that they thought their cats were happier.

“Caregivers often are reluctant to follow behavior modification programs because they are difficult and lengthy,” the researchers wrote. “It seems reasonable that caregivers would be more likely to follow a program that was not difficult, produced rapid results, and was effective in most cases.”

The researchers suggested that participants found the program worthwhile and easy to follow for a few reasons: It was effective in helping their cats, and it also did not recommend drug therapy or confinement to one part of the home. Caregivers often have difficulty administering oral medication to their cats and become disturbed by the side effects, the researchers wrote. Owners are often unwilling to confine their cats because it’s emotionally difficult, seems cruel to the cat,and sometimes involves rearranging their homes. The fact that this program did not use either of these methods may have increased caregivers’ positive perceptions of it.

“The results of this study give caregivers a valid and promising alternative to relinquishment for inappropriate elimination problems,” the researchers concluded in their summary.


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