African servals, exotic cats as pets

Behavior and Temperament
Can exotic cats be litter trained?
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Letís make one thing perfectly clear: exotics donít come litterbox trained! In fact, they may go to the bathroom in ďunauthorized locationsĒ even once they are trained.

If you canít live with the possibility that this animal may soil your house, your decision should probably be to avoid owning an exotic feline.

In the wild, both sexes mark their territories. Males mark their territory up to 46 times per hour. Females mark about half as frequently.

My serval kitten was supposedly using a litter box well when I got him at 8 weeks, but he managed to pee on my bed and in my wastebasket within hours of arriving at my house!



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It can be confusing to try and make sense of the varying opinions you may receive on whether an exotic cat will use the litterbox reliably. Some sources will tell you that exotic cats can be litter trained and have excellent bathroom habits, while others will swear on their mother's grave that all exotic cats were born to spray every inch of your house. One person may tell you that servals are good at using the litterbox, while caracals almost never do. The next person will say that caracals are fastidious, but their servals spray everywhere, and so on.

The bottom line is that exotic cats very frequently spray and fail to use the litterbox. There is no species you can get, no breeder you can buy from, and no training method you can use that will guarantee this will not happen. You are probably reading this with one burning question in mind; "Will MY cat use the litterbox reliably?" Unfortunately, nobody can answer this question for you; the answer will depend entirely on your individual cat. It just boils down to the fact that every cat is different and everyone's experience is unique.

Letís make one thing perfectly clear: exotic cats donít come litterbox trained! In fact, they often go to the bathroom in ďunauthorized locationsĒ even once they are trained. One womanís pet serval sprays her in the face! While training can be quite successful, if you canít live with the possibility that this animal may soil your house or donít have time to devote to litterbox training, your decision should probably be to avoid owning an exotic feline. It is not acceptable to get an exotic cat only to get rid of it if it develops undesirable bathroom habits.

I do take issue with one Internet source which says, in effect: "All exotic cats, altered or not, spray constantly to mark their territory." A dramatic statement; however, one that can be quickly identified as incorrect even by someone whoís never met an exotic cat in their life. A broad proclamation stereotyping the behavior of a large group of individuals can never be accurate.

Saying that all exotic felines spray is like saying that all people of Middle Eastern descent are terrorists. You cannot paint all members of a profession, society, or species with the same brush. All exotic cats do not spray. While all species of wild cats may be prone to spraying, not every individual member of that species will spray. Bobcats are probably the species most infamous for spraying, but I know people with bobcats that are great in the house.

Most experts seem to agree that exotic cats must be spayed or neutered in order to be good house pets. Both males and females will spray if unaltered. In the wild, both sexes mark their territories; Male servals mark their territory up to 46 times per hour, and females mark about half as frequently. However, spaying or neutering your cat only reduces the chances of spraying; many felines altered at a young age including mine spray or are unreliable in using the litterbox.

One theory behind this proclivity for litter box problems is that unlike domestic cats, most exotics do not instinctively bury their waste. Domestic cats find litter boxes appealing because the are the most convenient and effective place to bury their waste. Exotics don't have a natural reason to use a litterbox as opposed to any other random spot in your house. As a matter of a fact, your bed is a much more comfortable place to go!

Another factor could be that domestic kittens are typically raised by their mothers, who teach them how to use the litterbox. Exotic felines, on the other hand, are more likely to have been bottle raised by humans.

A third contributing factor may be the declawing of kittens. It is well documented that domestic cats often develop litter box problems after declawing. It is excruciatingly painful for a cat to walk during the days following surgery, but they must do so in order to use the litterbox. The cat will often associate that pain with the box and begin to avoid the area. As they start experimenting with other locations, the pain fades due to the healing process, leaving the cat with a lifetime association of litterboxes and pain.

As for my personal experience, my serval kitten was supposedly using a litter box well when I got him at 8 weeks, but he managed to pee on my bed and in my wastebasket within hours of arriving at my house! I had him neutered (but never declawed) at 4 months of age. I followed a crate training program almost identical to that of housebreaking a puppy. I had good but slow results with this initially, and it took about 4 months before I considered him fully litter box trained.

Things went well for a while, but over time he started peeing on my bed and on the carpet in corners of the house when I wasn't around. There were things I could do to reduce the frequency of this, (see Solving Litter Box Problems) but after a year or so one gets tired of slipping into bed only to find what seems like a gallon of cat pee saturating the covers, or scrubbing the carpet for the umpteenth time.

At three years of age he began to spray a little, but only in his litterbox. Instead of squatting to pee, he would stand up and spray the wall behind the box. Like so many other owners, I had to resign myself to living with the natural behavior of this animal I brought into my home, and find ways to maintain a good quality of life for both of us. The article Coping With Spraying and Litterbox Problems explores how I and other owners have found ways to accomodate these behaviors.



 

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Can Exotic Cats be Litter Trained?