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Dec 6, 2023

The Litter Box Withholder

The first time I cared for Harry, he didn’t use his litter box until the third day. A big relief for both of us. Until then I was patting down patterned rugs, soft furnishings, checking under beds and inside closets convinced I would find proof Harry was thinking outside the box. He wasn’t and that was more disturbing.

The Litter Box Withholder

Harry had a good appetite, drinking just enough water every day to wash down his kibble diet. Yet he habitually went days without using his litter box. My concerns were shared by the owners who consulted Harry’s vet who recommended a daily serving of moist food to boost his fluid intake. Harry was delighted.

As the moist entrée was spooned onto a plate, Harry would string together little meows as he ribboned around his owner’s legs. His people loved the eager displays and encouraged repeat performances by bringing home a wide selection of moist food options to pamper his palate.

A few months later I’m on the phone with Harry’s owner taking down the dates for an upcoming 7-day vacation when he mentions that I should prepare myself because “Harry has been making a lot of noise.”

HOW TO UNDO A SONIC ASSAULT

His pre-dinner vocal performance started small. A few little meows during the 12–15 seconds it took the owner to scoop food onto a plate and place it on the floor. Over days and weeks the timing of food-to-plate-to-floor did not change, while everything about Harry’s vocalizations did. By the time the owner was planning the next vacation, entering the kitchen at dinnertime triggered a caterwaul of feedback that continued unabated until the moist food was served.

I will be forever grateful to Harry’s owner for the heads up. Screaming for dinner was bad for Harry and bad for me. I did not want to resent my sweet, handsome friend for making my head hurt. To change his behavior I needed to convince him that making any noise would drive me away. The process was immensely helped by a kitchen at the front of the house and a cat food supply steps away from the fridge.

Standing at the counter with a plate and can of food in hand, I popped the top and heard the opening notes of an otherworldly wail. Grabbing the can and plate I moved quickly to put both in the fridge and headed out the door. Took about 10 seconds. While standing on the front step I counted to 30. Then I went back inside, retrieved his dinner from the fridge, and walked to the other end of the counter next to the feeding area where the sequence began. My surprising behavior had silenced Harry and now he had a decision to make. When he began to sound off, I bolted toward the door. This time I stood on the front step and counted to 60. My third visit to the front step ended after a count to 90. By the fourth repetition I was well into the visit so I locked up and headed for the next pet on my schedule. I circled back to Harry afterward.

This is the pattern I followed for the first three days, piling up time penalties while varying how many chances Harry got before leaving for the next pet. He remained quiet when dinner was eventually served. Meanwhile it was fun challenging myself on how fast I could grab up food that was half in the can, half on the plate along with the spoon while being careful not to spill, getting everything inside the fridge and me out the door as fast as possible. By the fourth day Harry was almost convinced. Almost. That day he waited until I was bending toward the floor with the plated food before opening his mouth. I think I broke my previous speed record.

Reverting Harry to his former self was completed over 5 visits using varying time penalties totaling 3 hours, much of it spent caring for other pets. I owe much of my success to cooperative Philly weather and the amazing elasticity of animals. During all the vacations and holiday breaks that followed, Harry anticipated his daily serving of moist food with quiet contentment. Hard won silence is the gift that keeps on giving.

And Harry’s irregular litter box use? He’s still withholding.

Did you know?

Harry is very easy to love. He enjoys being cradled in his owners’ arms like a baby. So it’s no surprise that his early meows were met with smiles and extra attention. Harry’s keen interest in the intoxicating smell of novel food pleased his owners and seemed harmless. The owners are right. The only (unintentional) mistake was permitting Harry to link his vocalizations to the food.

Positive reinforcement trainers the world over shape behaviors in all kinds of animals using the same conditioning principle. An aquarium fish passes through a hoop for tiny shrimp, horses accept a farrier’s handling for carrots, zoo gorillas bare their teeth for visual checks for veggies. Food reward greatly increases the likelihood animals will repeat their behavior. And that’s how howling Harry happened.

When an animal is unintentionally trained to a behavior we don’t like, we can manage the problem by rewarding a competing behavior (Harry’s silence) while being careful not to reward the unacceptable.

You + food the animal wants is a powerful combination. Be mindful of all that your pet is doing when you offer it, because everything the animal is doing in that moment will be rewarded.

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