The #1 Reason Pets are Brought to Shelters (and How to Prevent It!)

Filed Under: Dogs, Cats, Behavioral & Training

A nationwide study of animal control facilities performed in 2000 reported that 40% of dogs and 28% of cats were surrendered due to one or more behavior problems. Today, that number is thought to be much higher. The most common behavioral problem cited was inappropriate elimination. Owners are often reluctant to admit when there is a behavioral problem that results in the relinquishment of the pet because they believe acknowledging the problem will decrease the chance of the pet being adopted and increase the possibility of euthanasia.

Dogs that urinate at least weekly in the house are two to four times more likely to be turned into an animal shelter. When cats urinate weekly in the house, they are two to six times more likely to end up being surrendered to an animal shelter.

In all cases of abnormal elimination, pets should be evaluated by their veterinarian first to determine whether a medical condition is the cause of the abnormal elimination. Bladder infections, diseases such as Diabetes or kidney failure which cause increased thirst and urination, etc. should be ruled out before settling on a behavior related diagnosis. When abnormal bowl elimination occurs, parasites, pancreatitis, allergic colitis, etc. should be ruled out as medical related problem before pursuing a behavioral change.

Most cats prefer an unscented litter at a depth of 1 to 3 cm in their litter box. Cats are much more sensitive to odors than are humans. When a cat does not dig enough in the litter box, they are sending the owner a warning signal that a problem exists. Normally cats like to dig in the litter and cover up their elimination. When cats dig in scented litter, they tend to release additional odor which they may not appreciate. Covered litter boxes also concentrate any odors in a small area and may be distasteful to a cat, especially when not cleaned frequently. The litter box should be scooped daily and clumping litter should stay in the box no more than one month. Electronic litter boxes may effectively scoop the litter for you, allowing for less frequent disposal of the scooped material.

Other litter box problems may include a lack of privacy in multiple cat households. It is not unusual for one cat to take advantage of another when they are in a compromising elimination posture. Some cats may not appreciate sharing a litter box and will refuse to use it when it has been previously used by another. With especially younger kittens, the litter box may not be in a convenient area and they will seek out a more readily available location in which to eliminate. In these cases, the litter box may be moved to the site of elimination and gradually moved to a more out of site location. Kittens, just like children, may become too wrapped up in what they are doing to seek out the bathroom facilities until it is too late.

A host of new products are now available to attract cats to the litter box. One such product is called Cat Attract® which is a formulation of herbs that may be used to literally “attract” the cat to the litter box area.

Spraying or the marking of territory by cats may be eliminated through neutering. Multiple cat households often incur incidences of stress related marking. Products for stress related marking include Feliway®, which mimics facial pheromones that give the cat a feeling of well-being and thereby eliminates stress. When natural therapy is not enough, drugs are available to decrease stress and tension among cats in the household. Your veterinarian will be able to help you with an appropriate choice of medication.

Male dogs also urinate on objects in order to mark territory. Often this marking may be inhibited by neutering. When neutering is not possible, belly bands with replaceable pads may be used. DAP® (Dog Appeasing Pheromone), a product made to mimic calming pheromones in dogs, is also available to eliminate stress marking and works in much the same way as Feliway® for cats.

Adequate housetraining with puppies is a must! One of the most common mistakes made by owners during housetraining is to allow elimination on pads or newspaper in the house when the owner expects the pet to go to the bathroom outside. Dogs tend to get acclimated to a certain surface for elimination and once acclimated to that surface resist change. When you want your dog to eliminate outside on the grass, start with grass on day one, otherwise the dog will come inside to use the bathroom just like everyone else in the family. Another mistake made by new owners is to newspaper the entire bed area of the puppy. The puppy will then eliminate immediately after being released from the confined area. Puppies, much like us, prefer not to be confined with their waste material unless forced to. It is appropriate for a puppy to want to keep their living area clean but not necessarily the rest of the house. The behavior of keeping ones own house clean may be reinforced through the use of kennel training when the owner is not in attendance. The kennel should be large enough to house the pet comfortably. When forced to remain with their waste in a confined area, puppies will avoid eliminating unless absolutely necessary. The owner can then capitalize on this behavior by taking the pet to a suitable site for elimination immediately upon release of the pet from the kennel.

Owners need to be realistic when using kennel training. No puppy will be able to hold fecal and urine material for hours without having a necessary accident. Puppies must be allowed out frequently or complicating problems may develop such as the consumption of personal waste by the puppy (being coprophagic) in an attempt to avoid being reprimanded by the owner for the elimination. Owners must have realistic expectations regarding the length of time a pet may reasonably be confined before eliminating. When it becomes necessary for puppies to be confined for long time periods, arrangements should be made to allow the pet to eliminate between reasonable time periods, take them with you, or confine them in fenced areas outside.

Additionally, puppies should be allowed out to eliminate shortly after eating or immediately upon waking.

Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a past AVMA president, states “Behavior problems are the number one cause of euthanasia for dogs and cats.” Approximately 10% of the total cat and dog population is euthanized each and every year. If we can inhibit elimination problems, this figure is likely to decrease greatly.


"A Veterinary Medicine Interview Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson". Veterinary Medicine. July 2007. p. 436.

"Assist Owners in Selecting the Best Pets for their Lifestyles". The Compendium Continuing Education for Veterinarians. Vol 29(10). October 2007. pp. 678.

Topics: adoption, housetraining

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