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Dumping the litterbox: toilet training cats

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Toilet training cats takes time, tenacity and treats. Be warned: it's a wet, smelly process. I tried toilet-training my cat Ellington in 2013. I was too busy doing overnight crime reporting and my then-husband would rather deal with a litterbox than clean the dirty bathroom. When company came over, it was also hard to ask them to move the training box before and after using the toilet.

  As we approached what I thought would be the last week of training, Ellington acted out. He started going everywhere but the toilet: in the trash can next to the toilet, under a bathroom rug or in the tub. Frustrated, we went back to the traditional litterbox.

  While my attempt to toilet-train my cat failed, other New Orleanians have found success. They begin by plac- ing a litterbox gradually closer to the toilet until it's on the seat. Then they make a hole in the bottom of the box, gradually enlarging it until the cats learn to perch with their bottom over a box-free bowl.

  Victor Pizarro used the following tricks to toilet-train his cat. "[Eventually], get rid of the litterbox and find a bowl that fits under your toilet seat but is snug in the toilet bowl, like a metal mixing bowl," he says. "You put a bunch of litter in there and gradually decrease the amount of litter until the cat gets comfortable peeing in the bowl with nothing in it at all."

  However, the adjustment process can be unpleasant, he says. "It smells really bad," Pizarro says. "You have to be really on top of getting rid of the waste, especially at this, the stinkiest stage. You eventually start adding water little by little into the bowl over the last few days and then eventually you just remove the bowl, and make sure the toilet is always open with the seat down and the lid up."

  Kits like the Litter Kwitter and the CitiKitty make the process easier. Flushable litters, like the corn-based World's Best Cat Litter, are useful as well. But before dropping dough on cat toilet training supplies, think about who's at home. Are there young children who are learning how to use a toilet? Or people who'll be so grossed out that they won't want to help with cleanup? And will someone be home often enough to keep the toilet clean and ready for the cat and offer positive reinforcement?

  For example, Katy Reckdahl tried toilet-training her cat Pipsqueak, but her then 7-year-old son and his friends often forgot to take the training box off the toilet when they used the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night. Unless everyone at home is on board, prepare to waste money and about a month of time.

  However, there's the possibility that your cat might be the rare toilet prodigy. Aimee Landreneau-deTurk and Karen Henry wondered who was using the toilet without flushing. They learned their cats had hidden talents by catching them in the act.

  "So one morning I'm brushing my teeth and Domino walks in, pauses and gives me this look," Henry says. "Waits, hops on the toilet and balances himself, glares at me again and pees. Cat looked at me like he wanted to be left alone with his newspaper. When he was done, he gave me another fierce look and then walked out, tail high and proud. And so we left the lids up after that. I mean, what else can you do?"




When cats can't pee

If cat toilet training goes wrong, it can provoke a litterbox crisis, ending in confused cats who don't know where to pee. However, if your usually trained cat starts urinating outside of the litterbox, a medical issue may be at play. Feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), or stress cystitis, is one of the most common feline diagnoses, according to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. Marked by inflammation of the bladder, bladder stones or urethral blockage, it's a serious condition that can result in kidney failure if not properly treated.

  "If cats are urinating outside the box, going in and out of the litterbox, excessively licking the genitals, vocalizing or straining to urinate, any of those signs warrant an exam by a vet," says Dr. Gordy Labbe of Metairie Small Animal Hospital. Follow his tips to keep your cat hydrated, happy and in good health. — MISSY WILKINSON

Pay attention to diet.

"It's tricky to tell if cats are drinking enough water," Labbe says. "Feed your cat a canned pate diet, which has more water than dry food. Or add water to dry food that is formulated specifically for bladder health. These foods maintain a good pH of the urine, to prevent crystals from building up in the bladder."

Make water available and enticing.

"Place water bowls throughout the house to allow cats easy access," Labbe says. "Some cats are finicky about the type of bowl, and some only drink from fountains. Get a bowl with fountains to get them more into [drinking]. [The issue] could be type of water — bottled water may be more palatable than tap water."

Give them a safe place to eliminate.

"We recommend at least one litterbox per cat," Labbe says. "Sometimes the type of litter matters too. If they are avoiding or stressed about their litterbox, that can cause [urine] retention."

Enrich their environment.

"Urinary issues in cats can be due to stress in part," Labbe says. "One conversation we have with owners is making sure there is some good environmental stimulus for cats." Toys, perches and playtime can make cats happy, but if that doesn't work, antidepressants are an option. "If [your cat is treated for FLUTD] and continues to eliminate outside the litterbox, sometimes we put those animals on Prozac for cats," Labbe says.

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