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Our eldest cat is 18 1/2 and is healthy for his age. He still runs, loves attention, goes out for 'constitutionals' (short walks round the neighborhood) and generally appears to thrive.

He has lost a little weight but we think that that is normal for his age. He still has a very healthy appetite, and makes sure we know it is feeding time. He is a little stiff, but stairs and laps are no problem.

But as of late, he has taken to sleeping in the litter tray. We have two of them (we have multiple cats, all with access to the outdoors), but he has picked one tray as a bed. The other cats don't use that tray much, and especially when the tray is clean, the old cat curls up on it and sleeps there. When we move him to another, comfortable place, more often than not he'll trot back to his tray again.

The tray is not in an especially warm place, so the behaviour has us puzzled a little. Is this something we should be worried about? What might cause him to prefer such a sleeping place?

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3 Answers 3

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First, with any behavior change, you should take your cat to the vet to make sure there's no underlying health problem.

After the vet has determined that the change is behavioral and not related to a physical problem, you can start to look at your cat's environment from his perspective to try to track down the change.

Understand that cats are comforted by things that smell like them (they have a much stronger sense of smell than we do and it's much more important to their understanding of the world). The litter box is definitely a strong personal scent (even a "clean" litter box will retain some of the scent to a cat).

So look around for things that may be causing stress for your cat. Some possibilities include:

  • Any changes in the home environment (addition/subtraction of family members, furniture rearrangement, illness in the home, unusual visitors, unusual frequency of visitors, etc)
  • Any changes in your neighborhood, since he's an outdoor cat (mainly here I'd look for a new outdoor cat in the neighborhood, but nearby construction or new neighbors who spend more time outside are other possibilities)
  • Any changes in your interactions with him (new food, new water fountain or bowls, different mealtimes, etc)
  • Miscellaneous - anything that causes loud, unexpected noises can cause stress, as can a lack of hiding places or safe pathways through the house

Once you have some ideas (or even if you don't!) there are some ideas that you can use to reduce your cats' stress level. If you can pinpoint a few things that could be causing stress, try ideas from the following list that are related. For example, if there's a new dog in the house, then installing elevated pathways (bullet 2) will help him avoid the dog and feel more secure in the house.

  • Try providing different sleeping places. A cat's ideal sleeping place is warm (sunbeam, covered house, thick bedding), with a good view (think elevated - a wall shelf, a cat tree, or a wide window ledge perch), and often partially secluded (again, a covered bag/house, or thick bedding)
  • Make sure your cat has pathways through the house so that he can travel through the house without confronting anyone (human, cat, or any other pets you may have). Usually these paths are elevated to promote a sense of safety in the cat. A good resource is Jackson Galaxy's Catification pages, but the main idea is to make sure there are pathways and no deadends).
  • Reduce the competition for resources among your cats. Start feeding your cats separately to reduce the feeling of competition among them for food. Also add more water bowls/fountains to different locations in your house. Generally there's a recommendation to add litterboxes until you have one more box than the number of cats, but I don't know how that would be changed by allowing the cats outdoors.
  • Make sure you spend enough time in interactive play (with each cat). This utilizes their hunting skills and helps keep their minds sharp. If another cat is bored and attacking the elderly cat, this will help reduce the number of attacks/harassment.

To end this novel, I'll add that the first winter we had Cat Genies we found Kendall sleeping in one. They wash and blow dry the PVC litter-pellets, so we eventually figured out that he was cold and put a heating pad in a hidy-box. Now we know the weather is starting to turn cold because 3 of our 4 cats fight over who gets to be in the hidy-box (only 2 fit at a time). So, sleeping in the litter box is not always an insecurity thing. In our case, what changed was the litter box and the weather.

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There might be a correlation there! The weather has been changing, we moved from Norway to the UK this summer, and the weather here in Cambridgeshire is damper; we noticed the house cools down faster than we were used to in Norway. We'll see if providing him with some kind of heated bedding helps. –  Martijn Pieters Dec 18 '13 at 23:44
Did the behavior start when you moved? Moving can be stressful to cats, and the litter box would be a familiar place. –  Matt S. Dec 19 '13 at 0:06
No, the behaviour started much later. That said, it can be a factor still. A culmination of contributing factors, as it where. We lost another of our cats to cancer a month or two before the move, and she was his best friend, for example. With a different social place, a different home, plus perhaps another stress factor, the litter tray could be the stress reliever now. We are getting him warmed bed and see if that helps. –  Martijn Pieters Dec 19 '13 at 9:31
@MartijnPieters It sounds like a heated bed is a good place to start, given the changes! However, I would still encourage you to schedule a vet visit. Cats are very good at hiding illnesses, and you may not know there's a problem until it's too late. –  Zaralynda Dec 19 '13 at 15:08
@MartijnPieters glad to hear that he'll be okay! –  Zaralynda Dec 23 '13 at 16:58

Since this is a change in his behaviour, and he has lost weight, I would take him to the vet for a check-up. You will want to rule out any health issues first.

If the vet does not have any answer for you, then I would have to say that something is causing him to feel insecure. Either he is guarding the litter box, or something has happened where he doesn't feel safe sleeping anywhere else. In either case you'll want to watch your cat and his interactions for a few days to see what might be causing him stress.

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The weight loss has been gradual, predating the litter-box behaviour. We indeed reconn it is stress that makes him 'retreat'. However, going to the vet is stressful too. We'll be keeping an eye on him, and if there are any other signs we'll take him in. –  Martijn Pieters Dec 18 '13 at 23:15
@MartijnPieters You have already listed the symptoms of several potentially lethal diseases Kidney and Diabetes being but two. By the occurrence of the next sign, it may be to late for the vet. –  James Jenkins Dec 19 '13 at 11:29

This sounds similar to my cat, and there was an underlying health condition causing them to act like this; I hope yours isn't the same, but mine had kidney failure and sadly we had to have her put to sleep. She still ate loads, however she started to drink a lot more water, which would make sense considering the issues she was having. A little stress is sometimes worth it when it could be an underlying major issue. Better safe than sorry :)

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He has been to the vet about 8 months ago and didn't show any issues then. His drinking patterns have not changed, and he is not using the litter tray more. Just sleeping on it. Still, we'll keep a look out. –  Martijn Pieters Dec 18 '13 at 23:42

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