Me against the cat pee.

Me against the cat pee.

Me against the cat pee.

Pets and people.
June 15 2004 3:26 PM

Dirty Litter Secret

Me against the cat pee.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

"The cats were fine," said our house sitter cheerily upon our arrival home from a two-week vacation. "Oh, I think you should smell something in the basement."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

I didn't want to smell something in the basement. I wanted to pick up my suitcase, go out to the sidewalk, hitch a ride to the train station, and start over as a hobo. I knew the life of a hobo would smell better than what awaited me in the basement. Instead, my husband, daughter, and I trooped down the stairs. Our eyes teared as the ammonia hit us. We followed our noses to a corner of the room. I bent down and touched the rug. It was dank and saturated with cat urine.

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We were used to our house smelling like a biological weapons lab. About a year after getting our cats, Goldie and Biscuit, we decided to become dog owners and adopted a stray beagle, Sasha. It had taken us about nine long months to get Sasha housebroken. But for the past six months, the cats and dog had been doing their duty where they were supposed to. The condition of the basement couldn't be because Sasha was regressing; we'd farmed her out to her trainer while we were gone.

I knew that cats often get angry when owners leave, so I hoped that as home-life returned to normal, so would the cats. I called the carpet-cleaning company and asked for the Love Canal-strength deodorizers. The receptionist told me no one could guarantee complete removal of cat urine scent. She started laughing as she told me about one customer who had to not only pull up his basement carpet, but take a jackhammer to the fouled concrete below. I was lucky. The cleaning, and an arrangement of window screens blocking the corner, solved the basement problem.

But over the next few weeks it was clear there was no more normal. In the morning I would find the mat in the kitchen soaked, the den carpet soggy, my bathmat sopping. The dog spent the night in her crate. It had to be the cats.

It was small comfort to discover that vast numbers of cat owners are, like me, walking around with wet socks. "Inappropriate elimination" is the No. 1 cat behavior problem. Betsy Lipscomb, founder of Cats International, a volunteer organization that provides freetelephone counseling for desperate cat owners, told me that of the almost 5,000 calls she gets a year, nearly 90 percent are related to out-of-the-box soiling. It is the most common reason cats are turned in to shelters, where the likelihood is minuscule that a Persian cat who pees on the Persian carpet will find a new home. At least my situation was not as dire as that of the man who called the hotline to complain that his cat would urinate only on the stove. Whenever he cooked he turned on the burners and ran from his home until the urine burned off.

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Cat litter has made possible the indoor-only cat, leading cats to surpass dogs as America's most popular pet. The modern cat-litter industry was started in 1947, when the late Edward Lowe, helping a cat-owning neighbor, suggested she use in a cat box the absorbent clay he sold for cleaning oil drips at machine shops. She was so happy with the result that he put some in bags, called it Kitty Litter, and, after convincing a skeptical pet store owner to first let him give it away, began selling it to grateful cat lovers. He became a multimillionaire, and cat litter became a $1.3 billion-a-year business.

As I read through the litter literature, I realized the deductive skills needed to analyze the causes of elimination problems could provide CBS with a new spinoff: CSI: Cat Pee. Anything from the purchase of a new piece of furniture, to the owner having a change in work schedule could cause a cat to soil in protest.

When my soiling problem first happened, I immediately took the cats to the vet, where $280 worth of urinalysis revealed they had no physical problems. The vet gave me a tip sheet for eliminating the elimination problem. Following all the vet's tips, and combining them with the other advice I read, would lead to a litter-box care program that was only slightly less consuming than embarking on a career as a professional gymnast.

I was to get all new litter boxes, three for two cats. They needed to be scooped daily, then completely emptied and washed with scalding water weekly. When I got home from the pet store I noticed that the instructions on the box of litter recommended replacing it only monthly. Even the cat litter company didn't have the nerve to try to quadruple its sales with a "dump weekly" program. (Lipscomb says a well-maintained box does not need such frequent discarding.)

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I should put litter boxes in each place where the cats soiled, to try to retrain them to use the box. This would mean stepping into a litter box upon getting out of a shower, and wearing a couple of litter boxes, like a pair of mukluks, as I stomped around the kitchen preparing dinner. I needed a litter box on every floor because the cats might resent having to take the stairs in order to relieve themselves. Well, I had to take the stairs in order to relieve myself. I was starting to feel they didn't need me, they needed a concierge.

I presented my problem to Lipscomb, who made sure I was using the correct fine-grained, unscented, clumping litter that reminded cats of the deserts of Egypt where it's widely believed they were first domesticated. She asked if the boxes were inaccessible to the dog. Cats International cleared up one soiling problem when the counselor discovered the owner kept the litter box wedged between the crates where the two rottweilers slept.

My litter boxes were in the basement, which I had made dog-free by attaching a loop of string to the hook and eye on the door, so only the cats could squeeze through. Unfortunately, my indoor-only cats had become increasingly obese—their transformation resembled that of Marlon Brando from the sleek Stanley of A Streetcar Named Desire, to the inert Kurtz of Apocalypse Now. I'd had to drop the string, but at least the dog was trained to stay out of the basement.

Lipscomb said that while not allowing cats to go outside certainly was safer, "From the cat's point of view there are a lot of disadvantages. One is that they can't use the great outdoors as a bathroom." Since I had a small fenced backyard, Lipscomb suggested I try putting them outside. I read that part of their elimination problem might be that they were so bored, peeing on the rug became the highpoint of the day. I let them out and they immediately ran into the spider-infested crawl space under the house like a pair of deposed Iraqi dictators. Slowly they emerged. Being outside all day was not only stimulating, it cut down on the amount of elimination in the house—in and out of the box.

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Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, had a suggestion when she learned my litter boxes were in the basement. She told of the time she was making a house call in the middle of the afternoon to the owners of a cat who three months earlier had suddenly given up its litter box for the Jacuzzi. As they were leading her to the box in the basement, Houpt fell down the stairs because it was so dark.

"Don't you have a light?" she asked.

"It burned out three months ago," the owner replied. Because cats can see in low light, but not no light, a nightlight solved that problem.

Then Houpt asked me if there was defecation outside the box. I acknowledged that yes, the cats often deposited on the basement rug. She suggested I find out exactly who the perpetrator was by putting shavings of different colored crayons in the food of all my animals.

That night, I sprinkled their dinner. The next day, the pink-flecked evidence was there on the carpet. In one of those third-act reversals so beloved of the CSI series, I discovered the dog did it, even though she'd convinced us she never went to the basement. This revelation does not mean the cats are not peeing on the carpet (I've caught Goldie in the act several times). It just means that none of my animals is housebroken.

I'm going to beat this. I am arranging to remove the reeking carpet in the den, as per Lipscomb's recommendation. I've doubled the dog's walk schedule. I will not weaken and follow the advice my vet gave me when I asked her what people did who couldn't solve their "inappropriate elimination" problem.

"Move," she said.