Altoona Veterinary Hospital

3070 8th St. SW
Altoona, IA 50009


My Cat Is Not Using The Litterbox! - 01/23/2019

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A Little Cat History

Why do we provide litter boxes for cat toilets anyway?  Our house cats have African Ancestors (felis silvestris) who lived in the sandy environments of Africa. This may reveal why normal cats enjoy using a small, particulate, absorptive surface to “do their business”. 

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Reasons Cats May Not Use The Box

For simplicity we will break this down to two categories:  Marking and House Soiling.


This behavior often but not always involves urinating onto a vertical service.  It can be caused by hormones, stress, or medical problems.  We will not discuss marking further today.

House Soiling

This category is broken down into “simple” litter box aversions, stress, and medical problems.  The first step in helping a house soiling cat is to rule out the medical concerns first!  So after you’ve seen us, your Vets, and all the medical concerns have been eliminated we can focus on how to SOLVE these bathroom blues. 

Common Owner Errors

  • not enough boxes or boxes that are too small
  • wrong location and hoods/covers
  • wrong type of litter or not enough litter
  • box too dirty or box too clean
  • not the preferred substrate

We will quickly go through the errors and how to fix them!

Not Enough Boxes Or Boxes That Are Too Small

The general rule is one litter box per cat plus one.  Even if you have only one cat there are a few finicky felines who like to poo in one and pee in the other.  If you have multiple cats some will each use their own box and dislike theirs being “contaminated” by the other cat.  We all probably know a fellow human who will go to great efforts not to use a public restroom!  Cats just like people can have very particular habits.  The more “correct” choices there are the more likely it is the cat will be successful.

Some of the commercially made litter boxes may simply be too small for larger cats especially if they are unable to get in, scratch, or move around a bit w/o stepping into previously soiled regions.  Using a larger, low sided storage bin like an under the bed storage bin may be more comfortable for larger cats.  Scientific studies completed showing cats prefer bigger boxes measuring at least 1.5 x their body length.

Wrong Location and Hoods or Box Covers

Cat boxes are usually put in the basement or areas of the house where humans are less likely to hang out for obvious, odiferous reasons. Unfortunately the conditions that make these locations less favorable for us also make them less so for cats.

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Cats prefer big open spaces where they can keep an eye on their surroundings while they use the latrine.  Litter boxes are often in a shower, toilet, or tight corner which do not fulfill this desire.  Litter box hoods/covers can also create the same line of sight concern for cats.  It is often the human that wants to keep the kitty business covered and out of site not our feline friends.  One possible theory for this, is that wild or feral cat ancestors didn’t want to be caught “with their pants down”.  They want to keep an eye out for animals that may attack them and be able to run.  Having an open space allows them both to see far away and also gives them multiple directions for which to escape.   

Putting litter boxes where a sudden startling event could happen creates poor litter box location.  One example:  A litter box placed next to furnace that may kick on.  Some cats may be concerned there is an unpredictable monster lurking.

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Wrong Type Of Litter or Not Enough Litter

Best litter is usually the smooth, small grains (sandy) scoopable, unscented, and with a depth of 4 inches.

 Why?  The smaller grains would feel more like fine sand (picture walking on the  beach in your bare feet) which is more comfortable than a rocky surface.  Cats can have quite an aversion to fragrances in scented litter and in soaps/cleaning agents.  To clean the litter box use non-scented soap or hot water.  Four inches of litter in the box provides a depth that allows excavating by the cat without hitting the bottom of the box therefore making it easier and more pleasant to dig and cover!  This depth keeps allows urine to form a ball that is easy to scoop and does not “crust” to the bottom of the box causing increased box odor and is harder to clean.

Box Too Dirty or Box Too Clean

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Just like cats can be averse to the smell of scented litter and cleaning agents, they don’t want their box to smell of ammonia and sewer– just think nasty port-o-potty in the summertime, YUCK!  Scooping the litter box once to twice daily is ideal and cleaning the entire box as described in the paragraph above should be done weekly.  On the other extreme, you can be too obsessed about cleaning the box scaring your cat by constantly lurking behind him with the scoop. 

A commercial product called Zero Odor Litter box Spray was developed according to the manufacturer’s website as a “patented formula that eliminates pet odors on a molecular level by turning odor molecules into non-odor molecules, so pet odors depart forever. Yet it’s non-toxic and biodegradable”(  

I researched the claims made by Zero Odor finding a scientific peer review was completed in the journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery Volume 9, Issue 1, February 2007, Pages 44-50 by Nicole Cottam, MS, and Nicholas Doddman, BVMS,DACVB(Veterinary Behavior Specialist). A three-phase study was conducted to determine if the use of Zero Odor litter box spray increases the preference of litter boxes to cats, concluded that Zero Odor litter box spray appears to decrease litter box odor and increases the attractiveness of litter box to cats. 

In the market of public opinion, I found Amazon Shoppers gave the product 4.1/5 star review and a 4.5 star review on Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s Website both of which were popular product distributors. 

So if you have a finicky feline or to set up ideal litter box conditions giving this product a try may be worth your time and money for about $15.00 a bottle. 


Consider the substrate

So the substrate for our purposes is the base layer in the litter box which is usually cat litter.  Cats are constantly having both good and bad experiences in their environment including the time they spend in the litter box.  If their experiences have included something painful ie. urinating in a box when you had a bladder infection or trying to have a bowl movement while experiencing constipation,  the association with cat litter can become “poisoned”.  The best human example, I could think of was experiencing food poisoning after having had some bad food from what had previously been my favorite restaurant!–years later I still can’t stand the thought of eating there.   Cats may decide it is much nicer to use a substrate like carpet or dirty laundry as this is completely different and very absorbent.  Even better the humans in the house often clean the carpet nicely with cleaners that removal most but not quite all of the previous odors making it attractive to revisit that same spot to soil it again.  

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Once a kitty has discovered a new favorite substrate we have to “think outside the box”–yes, pun intended!! We may have to block the previously used carpet or area so the cat can physically not return there for some time.  This may mean closing doors or using barriers such as furniture, painters plastic over the area, etc.  

If carpet is what the cat has learned to prefer then we may need to design a carpeted area as the litterbox.   You can use a large storage bin with an opening cut in with with some carpet samples, old towels, absorbent puppy potty training pads, etc. as the litter box.  Although this is not as convenient as the cat just using cat litter, it is likely better than the options kitty had come up with on his own.   Over time, you may be able to very slowly add some cat litter back into the picture as the previous bad associations with the box may lessen.


Final Thoughts

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Whether you find yourself needing help because your cat’s not using the box or your reading this trying to prevent the possibility of future litter box concerns, I hope you have found this helpful.  

With any change in urination/defecation it is always important to rule out medical concerns.  Changes in water consumption, food intake, urination, and defecation are very often signs that your pet may need medical attention.  


Sheri Morrissey DVM










Why should I have my dog vaccinated for leptospirosis? - 11/05/2018


Leptospirosis is a disease that can affect humans, dogs, and several species of livestock. Cats, are the lucky ones, as the disease in this species is quite rare and when it occurs symptoms appear to be mild.


Rodents are the most important creature in transmitting disease.  Other creatures such as squirrels, possums, raccoons, skunks, and deer as well as farm animals may also be carriers.  The bacteria lives in the urine of carrier animals, in contaminated standing or slow moving water, or moist soil environments.  Leptospira can penetrate the soft tissues of the nose, mouth, and eyelids, and be transmitted through open sores.


But I hear you thinking—my dog is not at risk–am I right??!!

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We have to think about the commonplace risks for you and your pet

  • mice in the garage
  • squirrels residing in your trees
  • raccoons visiting outdoor cat food bowls, garbage cans, or wood piles
  • opossums hiding under your deck
  • deer stealing food from your backyard bird feeder
  • drinking out of a stream, pond, or puddle while going for a walk on the sidewalk or trails, while camping, or when swimming
  • owning backyard chickens or living by neighbors who do can increase risk–because where there are chickens there are wild critters who come in to eat the chickens an/or their eggs!
  • living around livestock such as cows, pigs, horses, sheep, or goats


According to Richard Goldstein DVM, DACVIM, a leptospirosis expert and chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center, said “The data that we have now suggests inner city urban dogs are just as likely to get leptospirosis as dogs in rural communities, and small dogs are just as likely to get it as large dogs” (American Veterinarian.  April 11, 2017).



People and dogs may experience flu-like symptoms and the disease in some can cause severe injury to the kidneys and/or liver sometimes leading to death.  Others, with low grade infections, get better but can become chronic carriers of the disease.


Global warming providing more warm puddles/pools of water and moist soil environments.  Encroachment of humans into wildlife habitat, lack of vaccination, and outbreaks in certain regions where rainfall is higher, hurricanes, or other forces of nature that lead to flooding.   I’m sure you may know a rescue dog who moved to Iowa after hurricane Katrina or other such disaster.  These dogs could’ve been exposed to disease and moved after becoming infected.



1) Vaccination is the best way because dogs will be dogs and for many, it is impossible or impractical to avoid some common risk factors.

2) Awareness of risk factors is still important.  Consider risks when swimming or spending time in or around stagnant, warm water and minimize contact with farm animals, wildlife, rodents, and wild animal carcasses.


If you spend anytime on the internet contemplating Dr. Google’s latest vaccine recommendations, then you may become aware that the leptospirosis vaccine of years ago did have a higher incidence of adverse reactions.  There has been great advancements in the science of production and purification for all vaccinations including the lepto vaccine.

What does that mean?

The vaccine works better and has fewer proteins to which a pet can have an adverse reaction to.

What does it mean we when say “adverse reactions”?

This encompasses the following:

  • swelling or firmness of the skin at the vaccine site
  • low-grade fever
  • decreased appetite
  • lethargy
  • collapse, difficulty breathing, and anaphylactic shock

So as you can see adverse signs can range from very mild to very severe signs.

Just what exactly are the adverse reaction rates to the leptospirosis vaccine?

The exact answer is impossible to report because often multiple vaccinations are given at the same time.  In November of 2015, The Journal of the American Medical Association published that “hypersensitivity reactions were rare 6.5/10,000 dogs and incidence rates for these events did not differ significantly between dogs that were vaccinated with or without a leptospira component”. (Journal of the American Medical Association.  Incidence Rates and Risk Factors For Owner Reported Adverse Events For Dogs That Were Vaccinated With Or Without A Leptospira Component).

This information was consistent with statistics from the British Veterinary Association which had found fewer than seven adverse reactions per 10,000 doses of leptospirosis 4 way vaccine sold.  Therefore, the overall adverse vaccine reaction rate as a percentage was .069%


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When we see adverse events in our practice, the most common ones are mild although a very few have been severe.  Please feel free to ask our doctors if your are unsure about having your dog vaccinated.

We want to make sure we cover your best friend from a potentially life threatening disease!


We love caring for your furry friends and hope to see you soon!

Sheri Morrissey DVM