Ask the Edmonds Vet: Why is my cat hanging out in the litter box?

By Dr. David Gross

My cat seems to be spending a lot more time in the litter box. What is going on?

There are many possible explanations for this behavior. In most cases, it is caused by either digestive tract or urinary tract abnormalities. One common possibility is constipation. If the cat has long hair, sometimes even in short-haired cats, this could be the result of an accumulation of hair in the digestive tract — “hairballs” from the cat grooming itself. However, cats also suffer constipation from a variety of other causes including dehydration, colitis, obesity, old age, a condition known as megacolon and more.

Your fastidious cat may just refuse to use a dirty litter box. This can result in constipation. In my day, the olden times, we recommended a small amount (about 1/4 teaspoon) of white petroleum jelly (Vaseline) smeared on the cat’s nose. They don’t usually object and lick it off very quickly. Don’t use carbolated or other products with extra ingredients. Your veterinarian can prescribe newer, perhaps more effective products for chronic constipation.

If the cat is squatting and straining, especially if it is dribbling urine, the problem is probably related to the urinary tract. Cats with urinary problems may also abandon the use of their litter box and have “accidents.” Cats are quite susceptible to urinary tract infections that can afflict the bladder and/or the urethra, the tract leading out from the bladder. Kidney problems are also possible, but are less common. Cats also are susceptible to urinary tract calculi, bladder or urethral “stones.”. Male cats — both castrated and intact — are susceptible to “sabulous” (sand-like) blockages of the urethra. Cancer of the bladder must also be a consideration.

All of these conditions can be quite serious and require veterinary attention. Your veterinarian can determine if the animal is constipated, usually just by palpating the abdomen. The solution to this problem is usually quite straight-forward, but might require an enema in recalcitrant cases. Don’t try this at home!

Urinary tract problems are more serious and more difficult to make a definitive diagnosis. It will probably be necessary to run some laboratory tests on both blood and urine. If large bladder stones are the culprit, it may be necessary to take radiographs to diagnose the problem. In some cases, surgery may be necessary. If your cat is crying out in pain when it attempts to urinate, this could indicate a complete blockage and this is an emergency. If not treated a blocked urethra could result in rupture of the bladder and even the death of your pet.

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