I received an email a couple days ago from a pet parent, Olivia, who has a very specific – and in my opinion relatively unique in so far as how frequently it happens – problem with one of her cats pooping every single time she cleans the living room.
Now, I’m not saying it’s odd for cats to poop when they’re stressed, or even for cats to poop when they hear a human cleaning (because let’s be honest, a lot of cats find vaccuums terrifying). But to me, the fact that Olivia’s cat poops each and every time she cleans is a little unique – though do let me know in the comments below if you’ve faced similar issues in the past and don’t think it’s all that uncommon.
I’m going to show you her message to me first, then I’ll get into how I’d recommend attempting to solve it – for her and anyone else who has a similar issue with one or more of their cats.
Please take a moment to leave a comment below if you have any advice for Olivia! If you have tips and tricks for her, or anyone else in this position, whether or not you’ve used them is irrelavent, the ideas matter a lot in terms of giving those in a pickle something to try!
Even if you’re just repeating something I’ve said in the article that you think might be useful, or you think might not work out so well, it’s really ridiculuosly helpful for you to share your advice and opinions for pet parents going through difficult situations like this. And if you happen to have gone through something similar (or even the very same thing!) and have tips and advice on what did or didn’t work with your cats – that would be so so so useful to other pet parents in this situation if you shared.
And now her email…
The Email for Help: Cat Poops Whenever Olivia Cleans
Hi Elise! Hope you’re doing well.
There’s an issue I’ve been dealing with since I got my cats two months ago, and I’m wondering if you might be willing to write a post on it; I’ve done some digging online but haven’t been able to find a satisfactory answer. One of my cats poops whenever I clean the living room (which is the room in which they spend 90% of their time—their cat tree and shelves are in here, their water dishes are in here, and they get fed in the kitchen right near the entry to the living room).
At first I thought it was because it scared her when I moved the furniture when she was nearby, and then I thought it was when the vacuum cleaner got too close to her, and then I thought it was both. Last night, she was up on one of the cat shelves and then her sister joined her, so I leapt at the opportunity to really thoroughly vacuum the living room (OMG, so much cat hair on the rug), but then this morning when I went to dust off the shelf I noticed that she had pooped up there and I somehow hadn’t smelled it. I had to clean the living room again just now (long story short, they had been using an old door mat as a scratching mat and it made an absolute mess everywhere; I finally lost my mind and threw it out this morning and ordered a sisal scratching mat meant for cats) and before I even took out the vacuum, I noticed she was in a corner in the kitchen, but afterwards I realized she had pooped there too, even though she was in a completely separate room! (Albeit, I live in a small apartment, but still.)
Obviously she’s pooping because she’s scared (she also pooped all over herself in her carrier on the way home when I first got her), but I have no idea what specifically is causing it or what I can do to remedy it. It isn’t the end of the world, but I’d rather not have to pick up cat poop every time I clean my living room. I’m sure there are other people out there whose cats poop when they get scared for myriad reasons, so if this is something you would maybe be interested in writing a post about, I would love to read what you find!
Thank you so much! Sending kitty kisses to Bjorn and Avery.
My Initial Thoughts on the Problem
First off, I’d say you have to be absolutely right, Olivia, in so far as she’s pooping because she’s stressed out and scared. Insofar as what specifically is causing it – it’s likely grown at this point from a fear of the vaccum, and a fear of moving furniture, to just a general fear of you cleaning things because cleaning means loud noises and big items moving around, and that’s scary.
It’s like how humans start being stressed about particular things, like being nervous over that oh-so-crowded grocery store experience – but then over time, that anxiety grows to more and more general things. Enough bad experiences leaving the house, and you might develop a fear or an overbearing anxiety every time you leave the house. I think your cat’s got that general fear – of you cleaning – at this point.
Now onto what you can do to fix it, because honestly, even if it’s a general anxiety around cleaning, there are things you can do to help. Here are my tips.
By the way – I’m only going to give tips for the cat that’s so terribly afraid of the cleaning that she poops each time you clean. When it comes to the other cat, while she may be afraid of the cleaning routine you have, I would assume she’d actually benefit from sticking around and seeing the routine often enough to stop caring about it.
It’s basically exposure therapy (from Wikipedia: Exposure therapy involves exposing the target patient to the anxiety source or its context without the intention to cause any danger. Doing so is thought to help them overcome their anxiety or distress).
So for the cat that’s terrified and way more than a little scared – I absolutely do not think it’s ideal to expose that cat to so much stress. That’s a lot of anxiety, and that needs to be lowered, in my opinion, before you give direct exposure to the cleaning again. The other cat, who is just a little stressed over it, but nowhere near enough to poop, in my opinion should continue to be exposed to the stressor of you cleaning, until your cleaning routine feels normal to her and is no longer a cause of much, if any, stress.
Now on to what you can do for the cat that poops! Here are the steps:
A Multi-Step Strategy to Try for Reducing Stress So Cats Don’t Poop When You Clean
Round 1: Reducing the Stressors Until the Pooping Stops
Step 1: Grab a hard carrier and spray it with catnip, or sprinkle catnip onto the bottom of it to make it cozy.
Basically, your role here is to make a “safe space” for your kitty, where she can feel protected from the frightening cleaning routine – the vaccum, the furniture moving, as well as whatever else stresses her out.
Catnip helps cats feel happier, so that’s why that’s there. Hard carriers like the AmazonBasics Hard-Sided Pet Travel Carrier are way easier to clean than soft ones, you just wipe them down, and they’re often not very expensive, so that’s why I’d recommend using one for this job.
Step 2 (Optional): Make the carrier more cozy by lining the bottom with an easy-to-clean cheap pet blanket.
If you do the laundry often and don’t mind replacing pet blankets that have been soiled, you may want to give this option a try. But it’s completely optional, definitely don’t have to!
Alternate Step 2: (Optional): Plug in a Feliway Classic into the outlet of the room your cat’s going to stay in, away from the commotion.
Again, completely optional. I’ve heard the Feliway Classic/Original works, but that the others don’t, which is why I recommended it. I personally have used the product myself and I feel like it works, but it definitely doesn’t eradicate anxiety, just helps reduce it.
It’s like calming candles and your favourite scents for humans – super helpful in terms of helping you relax, unless you’re so ridiculously stressed you can’t get to the head space of relaxing at all and your anxiety is so bad it overrides your ability to be calm. So helpful in some situations, not helpful in others.
I think you can plug and unplug it, but I have a feeling it’s more helpful if you leave it plugged in all the time, as the room stays full of the scent instead of having to re-fill each time you plug it in. They typically last a very long time, roughly 30 days, so hopefully the training will be completely done before you’re out of Feliway even if you decide to leave it plugged in.
Step 3. Place your cat in the hard carrier (these are easier to clean) in the other room before you begin to clean.
Your eventual goal is to get your cat used to the cleaning, but for now, it’s best to keep your cat feeling protected and safe, and that means being away, off in another room while the cleaning happens.
Step 4: Cover the carrier with a blanket to drown out some of the noise and make your cat feel more cocooned inside the carrier.
Cats like hiding. They like dark places when they’re scared. That’s why this step will help a lot, even if the blanket doesn’t drown out the sound. The fact that the sound will be dulled by the blanket is an added bonus that absolutely should help a lot.
Step 5: Play calming cat music so there’s music to hopefully drown out as much of the cleaning noise as possible.
Decreasing the noise impact of the vaccum and cleaning to your cat’s stress by drowning it out with calming music should help you control your cats anxiety considerably.
And cat music is free to play often, especially if you have Spotify. My brother from over at PetsOverload.com makes his own. It’s free to stream here on Spotify, and here from his website for cat music, Catnip Chrous. Try it out.
Step 6: Close the door to the room you’ve kept your kitty in, blocking out even more of the noise.
This final step is easy to do and makes arguably the most difference.
If you can’t close the door because you don’t have one (for example if you live in an open concept studio apartment), this is not absolutely necessary, but it really would help if you could close a door.
Maybe if you have a closet, that would do the trick for the placement of the carrier so you could use this step.
Repeat Round 1, Steps 1-6 until there’s no more pooping when you clean.
Once your cat is used to this procedure, it’s time to get her closer and closer toward the end goal of being present while you clean without defecating.
Round 2: Gradually Getting Kitty Used to Stressors
If your cat deficates, it means he or she isn’t ready for the next step, so go back a step and repeat it a couple times until there’s no defication at least a few times, then try the new step again.
Here we go with round 2!
Step 1: Lower the volume of the cat music by about a quarter the volume each time you place your cat in the carrier (until the music is completely off).
Pretty straight forward. If your cat isn’t deficating, lower the volume. Still not deficating, lower again. Started deficating, go back to the previous volume and stick to that for a couple days. Then decrease it on the third day, more gradually this time, to test.
Step 2: Leave the door open a crack while you clean.
The next step is to leave the door open just a crack while you clean, thus letting a teeny bit more of the sound come through.
If you feel your cat isn’t capable of having the door open a crack without the cat music playing, you can turn it back on and repeat the process of lowering the volume little by little.
Step 3: Bring kitty’s safe-spot carrier just outside the safe room.
This is a huge step, and you don’t have to take it if you don’t want. If you find it’s easy enough to take or keep your cat in his or her safe room before you start cleaning, skip out this step and try the next one.
Step 4: Remove half the blanket from the carrier. Then the whole blanket from the carrier.
A good step to take, in my opinion, but if you’re happy to leave the blanket on top of the carrier, you can just drape it on top, only uncovering the from portion where the door is and leaving the sides and the back covered with the blanket.
Step 5: Test leaving the carrier open outside the room (or inside the room if you skipped that step) without placing your kitty into the carrier yourself before you start to clean.
Your cat will hopefully run to the carrier to hide herself when the cleaning starts, or hide in some other spot, but if she doesn’t deficate, your job is done.
Again, if you have problems with a certain step, go back one step or part of a step and repeat until your cat is less stressed, possibly easing youor cat in more gradually.
If you have no problem with repeating a single step pretty much forever (like placing your cat in a carrier in the other room before you start to clean, or placing your cat in the other room before you start to clean), take that into account and adjust this blueprint accordingly to suit your needs.
Basically the gist of it is – reduce stress enough to train your cat to stop deficating, then increase stress ever so slightly until you’re happy with the level of acceptance your kitty has with you cleaning.
Hope this terribly drawn-out article helps!
Your Thoughts on Cats Pooping When Humans Clean?
Please if you’re reading this and have any suggestions for Olivia, or other pet parens in similar situations, do take a moment to leave your thoughts, experiences, opinions, and tips in the comments down below!
I’m hoping what I wrote can help, but that if it doesn’t, I’m hoping someone else’s comment can provide something useful to try instead.
Looking forward to hearing about your experiences as well related to this topic, or on cat stress and defication in general, in the comment section.