Q: My dog regularly raids the cat’s litter box, a habit that I find disgusting. Why does she do this, and how can I get her to stop?
A: You’re right, Rhonda, it is a disgusting habit from our standpoint. Who knows, perhaps our dogs find it just as bewildering that we don’t join in. This is clearly one of those species-specific behaviors – normal for dogs to do and normal for us to find revolting.
This shouldn’t be a cause of concern from a health standpoint – coprophagia, the medical term for this behavior, is quite common and rarely a sign of a medical issue. Ordinary reasons for dogs to do this include learning the behavior from other dogs, being on a diet (causing an increase in hunger) and generally liking the taste. Extraordinary reasons can include severe malnutrition or starvation and severe pancreatic insufficiency; none of these are likely the cause in your situation. There is a “normal” time for dogs to do this; when females have a litter of pups, instinct drives them to consume the puppies’ excrement.
In any case, this is less of a training issue and more of a management one. Why? Because your options in terms of training this behavior away are limited and not very effective. The first option is to purchase a product, available from your veterinarian, that you would add to the cat’s food to change the taste of its stool in the hopes that your dog would no longer find it appealing. Once the cat is ingesting this product, you would want to leave plenty of stool available for the dog to try, in the hopes that she would consistently find it distasteful and decide to stop raiding the litter box. The second option would be for you to stand guard over the litter box to redirect the dog away from it anytime she goes near it. No matter how effective you are with this message, she is likely to go back to the litter box in your absence.
What makes the most sense in this scenario is management, or manipulating the environment in such a way as to make the behavior impossible for your dog to accomplish. This is where you can get creative.
One possible solution is to simply place the litter box off the floor, out of the reach of your dog. I have the same issue with my dogs. My solution was to purchase a litter box with a cover, and I placed it on the floor, turning it around so the entrance was just a few inches from the back wall. My kitty is small, so she can easily get in, but my dogs are too large to do the same. I have a friend who placed her cat’s food, water and litter box in the laundry room, and then installed a cat door. The laundry room door remains closed at all times; the cats are free to enter and exit, but her dogs can’t get in. Another option would be to install a baby gate, as long as your cat is agile enough to easily get over it to gain access to the litter box, while the dog’s access is denied.
So get your creative juices flowing, Rhonda, and figure out a way to permanently deprive your dog access to the box, with the understanding that it’s perfectly normal for your dog to do this and equally normal for you to be disgusted by it!
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.