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A fresh start for cats

Adopting cats with litter box issues

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

The Fresh Start program at the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota gives house soiling cuties like 4-year-old Kitty a second chance at finding a home.

Nancy and Darrell Spoors were ready for a new cat, and spotted pretty grey Figaro on the website of Animal Humane Society (AHS). The match has been a great one—“We just love her to death,” Nancy told the shelter—but it’s a happy union that might never have happened if not for AHS’s Fresh Start program.

Figaro was originally surrendered for not using the litter box and once would have been considered an owner-requested euthanasia. But Fresh Start—which helps cats who, well, think outside the box—allowed Figaro to find a home, where, according to her new owners, she’s had no accidents.

Cats who don’t use their litter box are typically euthanized in shelters, says Kathie Johnson, director of animal services for AHS, which serves Minneapolis-St. Paul and Greater Minnesota. When you’re dealing with overcrowding and not enough resources, “you struggle to place all the healthy, friendly cats, so you can’t even consider cats such as these,” she says.

But after AHS launched its Bound for Home program in 2010, the shelter saw a change. Bound for Home’s initiatives—including feline evaluations, enrichment, surrender by appointment and a behavior helpline—decreased both the number of cats coming in and their average length of stay, from 30 days to 10 days. These decreases allowed the shelter to launch Fresh Start to try to save friendly, healthy cats who didn’t use their litter boxes.

Intervention efforts start before cats even arrive. When someone wants to surrender a cat with litter box issues, staff talk to them about options, and encourage a visit to the veterinarian to rule out a medical cause. “We try to encourage people to understand that bringing your cat to the shelter should be a last resort, not your first option,” Johnson says. Some opt to go ahead and make a surrender appointment—at which time, with the owner present, staff perform medical and behavioral evaluations to determine if the cat’s adoptable.

Healthy, friendly cats who have litter box issues—no matter how long they’ve been house-soiling—first go to the holding area for a urinalysis. If the test turns up a medical issue, such as a urinary tract infection, the cats are treated and placed up for adoption; interested adopters are informed about their condition and educated to complete the medical treatment at home.

Healthy, friendly cats whose urinalysis reveals no issues enter the Fresh Start program, and go on to the adoption center as well. While AHS houses some adoptable cats in colony areas, Fresh Start cats are housed in individual cages, so their litter box habits can be monitored. Their length of stay is the same as any other cat, about nine to 10 days. Their cage card and online profile disclose the reason for their surrender and their Fresh Start status.

Johnson says many cats who have litter box issues in one home don’t end up having them in the next, once the situation is more to their liking. AHS staff explain to potential adopters that removing these cats from their stressful home environment is usually all it takes to restore good litter box habits. Potential adopters are asked about their home, lifestyle, etc., and if it’s a good fit, staff go over the shelter’s Litter Box Survival Guide and information about introducing a cat to a new home. Johnson and her staff have been surprised to find many people willing to adopt cats with a history of litter box problems.

That’s why the program initially focused on highly adoptable cats who were social and friendly, the ones who purred and rubbed at visitors to their cages, rather than the cats who hid at the back of the cage. As the program has evolved, though, AHS has been able to expand its parameters to include more cats—for example, shy cats with a litter box issue, and friendly cats with a litter box issue and minor health problem.

To date, 156 cats have gone through the program, and the shelter knows of only eight who’ve continued to have issues: Four of them are still in their homes but continue to house soil. Four were returned for continued house soiling and were euthanized.

Johnson’s worked at AHS for almost 12 years and never imagined placing cats who didn’t use their litter box. “Had we not thought differently about our process and recognized that if we wanted to see a different outcome, we had to do things differently, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.