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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I’ve got a problem with my senior cat: she has started walking into the house with poop on her paws. Obviously it’s inconvenient to keep cleaning up, but my main concern is that she’ll end up ingesting it when she cleans herself. I clean it off her as much as I can but I’m not at home all the time.

She’s always pooped outside. I’ve made sure the flower bed that she uses is free of fallen leaves and I’ve loosened the earth to make sure she can bury her waste. I also tried a litter tray so she doesn’t need to go out when it’s raining, but I’ve found that she sometimes buries the poop and sometimes doesn’t. She also does this outside, hence the problem.

I wanted to continue with the litter tray, but because she doesn’t always bury her poop the smell can get quite bad. When I’m at home I just put litter over it, problem solved. However the people with whom I share the house don’t like walking into a very smelly house — which often happens if they come home from work before I do and I haven’t had a chance to clean it up. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

~Dave

Siouxsie: It seems to us, Dave, that these issues are probably due to the fact that your cat is getting older. But the good news is, there are some things you can do to help.

Thomas: Although behavior changes can be attributed to aging, you should take your cat to the vet for a checkup, just to rule out any problems with her physical health.

Dahlia: You may want to bring a fecal sample with you to the vet’s office so they can test for worms or other parasites, particularly since she goes outdoors. Also, some parasites can cause feces to smell really horrible!

Siouxsie: Once your cat gets a clean bill of health and you’ve taken care of any parasitic infections she may have, then you need to address other aging-related issues.

Thomas: As cats get older, they can get kind of creaky and suffer from arthritic pain. If this pain is in the hips and knees, it can cause a cat to have trouble holding the “pooping stance.” This can result in pooping outside the box or stepping backward into their own waste.

Dahlia: A daily glucosamine/chondroitin treat can help alleviate some of the aches and pains of arthritis. Siouxsie’s 14, and Mama gives her one just before supper every day.

Siouxsie: And it really does help me feel better. Mama notices the difference in my activity level and my temper if she forgets to give me a treat.

Thomas: If your cat has long hair, you might want to bring her to a groomer and have her trimmed. This could prevent feces from getting stuck in the fur around her feet.

Dahlia: On a side note, don’t worry too much if she cleans the poop off herself. If there’s a lot of it, yes, do clean her up. But very few of us will actually get sick from cleaning up our own poop with our tongues.

Siouxsie: Now, on to the burying issue. Some cats bury their waste, and some don’t. Leaving waste in the open is a territorial marking behavior: it’s a clear signal that this spot belongs to the cat that left the feces sitting there.

Thomas: And then sometimes, especially with older cats, it may just be that they “forget” the proper behavior or they’re too sore to dig and bury their waste.

Dahlia: Some older cats do get senile — it’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome — which can cause loss of house-training. However, this is usually about pooping outside the box rather than not burying their waste.

Siouxsie: As for the litterbox stink factor, there are some things you can do to moderate the smell of your cat’s feces. As a rule, higher-quality food produces less foul-smelling waste — something we can attest to from personal experience.

Thomas: Changing food can be tricky with senior cats, and you may have to do this gradually. We’d recommend that if you’re going to try changing brands, try getting small packages of dry food or just one or two cans of wet food, so you don’t end up spending a lot of money on food your cat won’t eat.

Dahlia: We’ve got some general tips on changing foods in this column, which might help you through the process. Your vet will also be able to give you some hints on successfully transitioning your cat to a new food.

Siouxsie: You also might consider putting the litter box in the bathroom and leaving the fan on when you’re away from home. The fan will help get the odors out of your house, so that might make your housemates more amenable to the idea of letting your kitty do her business indoors.

Thomas: If you have to move the litter box, you need to do it gradually so that your cat will be able to find the box when she has to use it. If you’ve already gotten rid of the litter box, you won’t have so much difficulty in putting it right in the bathroom.

Dahlia: We know some houses have really small bathrooms and you might not have room to put the litter box in there. If that’s the case, consider putting it in a place where you can keep a window cracked open.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Dave. We hope we’ve been able to help you figure out how to resolve your cat’s issues. Let us know how things turn out!

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