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Ask a Trainer: Cat Soiling the Carpet

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Q: We adopted two cats in January. One is a 5-month-old kitten, and the other is a 1-year-old beautiful domestic long-haired cat (DLH) that had been at the shelter for nearly 6 months. When we brought them home, we introduced them to each other, and the house, gradually. We have multiple litter boxes all through the house.

Everything was going well, but now the yearling, Serefina, is pooping on the rugs, usually just before we go to bed, or during the night. The odd thing is that during the rest of the day, she uses the litter boxes! Is there a way to use clicker training to break her of this undesirable behavior? Please help!

A: Have you taken Serefina to the vet for an exam? When there is a shift in behavior, sometimes there is an underlying reason. Let your vet know if there have been any other changes in your home, such as people moving in or out, or anything else that may be different.

If your cat’s health is fine, I would focus on rewarding her when she uses the litter box. This is not as easy with cats as it is with dogs, as cats may go off to use a box away from you. If you do catch her eliminating in the litter box, you can click for that immediately after the stool hits the litter, and then reward your cat with a treat that she likes. You may have to experiment as to what foods your cat finds rewarding; use her million-dollar value reward for the litter box elimination behavior.

If you know that your cat eliminates on the rugs at specific times, confine her to a room or area where she does not have access to the rugs at that time. Especially when you are trying to change behavior, sometimes the best thing is to eliminate opportunities for the animal to rehearse the unwanted behavior. Animals become substrate-sensitive and your cat may prefer the rugs to the litter box. You did not mention if you have experimented with different litter, but that is also worth a try.

Enzymatic cleaners do a good job of eliminating odors for humans, but I think the odors are still apparent on the rugs for animals. Often the cleaner is not left on the fabric long enough as well. The cleaner should be used full-strength so that the area on the rug is saturated overnight. There is no guarantee that the smell will not remain; there is also the chance that your cat has become too accustomed to eliminating on the rug.

If, even with the best management, your cat does eliminate out of the litter box, do not yell at her or punish her. This will just make your cat anxious. Quite possibly she may not want to eliminate in front of you, and then you would lose the opportunity to reinforce her for using the litter box in your sight.

Good luck!

About the author

Nancy Driver is the communications coordinator for Karen Pryor Academy. Through her business, On Cue Training and BehaviorNancyDriver, KPA CTP, provides private in-home clicker training and behavior modification for puppies and adult dogs in the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and greater Twin City areas. Nancy often answers clicker training questions for the KPCT community.