McGowan, R. T. S., Ellis, J. J., Bensky, M. K. et al. 2017. The ins and outs of the litter box: A detailed ethogram of cat elimination behavior in two contrasting environments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 194, 67-78.

Few studies have sought to describe cat elimination behavior in detail and much of the information presently available focuses on factors that potentially cause cats to reject a litter box. Thus, the ethograms published in the current veterinary and scientific literature largely focus on macro behaviors (e.g., enter box, dig, squat, cover, and exit box) and lack the detail necessary to make distinctions between types of litter box experiences for cats. To facilitate our understanding of what positive and negative litter box experiences look like for cats, we observed cats eliminating in both an enriched (“positive”) and in a clinic-like (“restricted”) environment. Our results reveal that cat elimination behavior is complex and may include up to 39 different behaviors expressed during urination and defecation events. We further evaluated each event, examining the behaviors occurring pre-, during, and post-elimination as a means to better understand the behaviors associated with the appetitive, consummatory, and post-consummatory phases of the reward cycle around elimination. In doing so, we found clear differences in behavior at different stages of the elimination sequence between our two environments. In general, the elimination sequence was prolonged in the clinic-like environment compared to the enriched environment (P<0.005) and most of the extra time was spent interacting with the box post-elimination (P<0.005). In the clinic-like environment cats were hesitant to enter the box, spent a considerable amount of time pawing at surfaces other than the litter (P<0.02) and spent a great deal of time sniffing eliminations post-elimination (P<0.005). In addition, cats in the clinic-like environment had less frequent urination events and their events were longer in duration than when in the enriched environment (P<0.0039). Thus, although seemingly counterintuitive, a relatively brief elimination sequence may be indicative of a more positive litter box experience. In addition, when given the opportunity cats will utilize a large amount of space during their elimination sequence. Despite popular perception that cats will immediately turn to out-of-box elimination if they are dissatisfied with their litter box environment, we discovered that cats will continue to use a box (and not eliminate outside the box) even when their behavior is indicative of frustration.

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