How do I stop my cat from putting socks in the litterbox?
December 9, 2019 11:33 AM   Subscribe

This is a ridiculous situation and I need wiser minds.

A few months ago my entire family was struck down by flu, that kind of illness where every second ticks by in your chest and you really empathize with Hamlet's soliloquies on the burden of existence. Focused solely on water intake and effluvia, I did not even go near the litter box. (I promise we normally take very good care of our precious and that I still feel bad about this.)

On the day I could finally drag myself downstairs to it, the following transpired:

1. I saw how gross it was and went for a trash bag to just clean out the entire thing.
2. In getting up I knocked a toddler sock off of the dryer into the box.
3. I then cleaned out the litter box.
4. My cat witnessed this entire series of events.
5. I gave her a treat because I felt bad.

This sequence of events was profoundly transforming. It's important to explain at this point that my cat is a total sweetheart and cuddly and I love her so so much but... well, let's just say intelligence was her dump stat.

Somehow, at this moment, the echoing cavern off her brain made an incredible leap of logic. I myself did not uncover this understanding for several days.

The problem is thus: she has associated sock-in-box with litter-box-gets-cleaned and, it being the third fact her brain possesses, will not let go of the notion no matter how untrue it is.

I clean it every day, but she keeps dragging socks and other small clothing items in there. She doesn't go on the material, just puts it on top of the litter, but it still gross. I've been washing everything but that doesn't seem super hygienic (the alternative seems both expensive and environmentally wasteful). With the litter box in the laundry room she has easy access to victims, but even when I've been diligent about not leaving out a single scrap of fabric in there, she'll drag something through the entire house to pursue her objectives. I have witnessed it, and was scared it was a mouse. It was another white toddler sock.

The problem is that I'm unintentionally enforcing this weird pavlovian loop, because obviously I clean the box every day and she leaves something in there nearly every day.

We can't keep all clothes out of her reach, even if I was capable of putting laundry away as soon as it was clean forever. (I am not.) This is what I've tried:

*Switching to a new type of litter.
*Switching to an entire new litter box.
*Moving the litter box. She got confused and upset. I put it back. It didn't help.
*Cleaning in the morning and evening.
*Leaving out my spouse's dirty work socks nearby on the theory that no creature on this earth would put that in their mouth. Conclusion: she dragged in a mitten.
*Searching on the internet for similar situations. My cat is unique.

Nothing has solved the problem, I know this is absurd but I feel like I'm living in the subplot of a scholastic book fair novel for middle school readers. Am I doomed to be rescuing socks from a litter box forever now? Why is this the thing she understands, and not that stairs are sometimes walked on even if you nap there? Please help.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
This is perhaps a harebrained idea, but is citrus-smelling laundry detergent an option? I don't even know if it exists?? But I've heard cats don't like lemons and stuff - maybe she'd drop the habit?
posted by speakeasy at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would provide, quite near the litter box, a bunch of small scraps of waste fabric, or actual old socks beyond use, and let her go to town with them. She'll tend to ignore your actual clothing if the scraps are more convenient to her. You can toss out the pieces she uses, or wash them for re-use if there's no poop on them. But then, don't reinforce the behavior by immediately cleaning the box, or by providing any treats. Maybe she'll unlearn it after a while.
posted by beagle at 11:41 AM on December 9, 2019 [33 favorites]

It's entirely possible that her discovery of the Joys of Sock Killing is a total coincidence to the sock in the litterbox incident. My Katie killed socks every day of her life.

Anyway, if I were you, to avoid going down the dark slope of no return, I would just keep washing the stuff she drags in there. Thank your lucky stars that she's *not* peeing on them. Just retrieve the items and put them aside to wash, maybe in a hot water wash if it puts you more at ease.

Also, perhaps you just have to completely eliminate her access to all laundry/loose clothing/loose articles of fabric. It sucks, and you have to be vigilant, but that's what we had to do when our Remy decided that ANYTHING remotely cloth-like AND draggable was fair game for peeing on. We eliminated his access to those things (we even had to start rubber-banding our bathroom hand towels on the towel bar because he'd rip them down) and the issue stopped.

Cats are gonna cat.
posted by cooker girl at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

You have to just stop leaving things out she can drag into the litter box. It's way easier to adjust your own behavior than to change a determined cat's.

Just a sidenote, though, I used to have a cat who would drag the dish towels all over the house every night. So put the dish towels away too.
posted by something something at 11:57 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh! Riffing off beagle's idea - maybe some cotton balls on the floor near the litterbox? Maybe she'll think they're an ok substitute for baby socks?
posted by speakeasy at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Let the cat have the white toddler socks. Buy a new set of toddler socks in a different color that your kiddo will wear from now on. The white socks are now "litterbox socks."

I mean, you can try to change the cat's behavior, but that will take time, if it works at all. After all, she has successfully trained you! Intelligence is her god stat!

Thank you for posting this question; I've been thinking about it all day. It's hilarious but also exactly the kind of thing my cat would curse me with.
posted by homodachi at 2:16 PM on December 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

Have you tried very light negative reinforcement? We hiss at our cat when we see him doing something we don't approve of, and it usually stops him in his tracks. I only do it if I am lucky enough to catch him in the moment ("sock in mouth" in your case), never after the fact. It will probably take a long time before it sinks in.
posted by Pfardentrott at 2:30 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is the funniest thing I've read or seen in forever! I've been going to Second City shows, too. Thank you so much! The way you wrote it really works for me.

Here's an approach: Get a plate or tray or cardboard box lid, put it near the litter box, make sure it is NOT attractive to pee/poop on (maybe because it's small and waterproof), and train her to put a sock on THAT.

How do you train her to do that? Here's where it gets fun.

OK, I'm always recommending the book Clicker Training for Cats, but now I'm REALLY recommending it. The basic targeting training is pretty fast -- if your cat has learned about moving socks around, she's probably smarter than she seems anyway, but it will work.

Then, just teach her to put a sock on the plate (or whatever you're using). Reward her for that.

Then, if you really have to -- if this alone doesn't solve the problem -- you can leave the litter box for a tiny span of time, don't clean it, until she puts the sock on the new object.

Basically, you're replacing her ONLY FORM OF COMMUNICATION WITH YOU (putting a sock in the litter box) with a new mechanism of communication -- and also, by the way, creating a whole new lovely channel of communication between the two of you. Because that's what clicker training is! It gives the kitty a way of actually communicating with you - by doing cool things - and I think that's why they love it so much.
posted by amtho at 4:28 PM on December 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

I second the coincidence theory - I have a lot of foster cats through here and about 1/3 like to put socks in litter boxes for no obvious reason. I don't have few a good solution for you other than just restricting their access to socks, but know that you're not alone.
posted by Candleman at 5:52 PM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

How about an automatic litter box? Unless kitty has a sock at the ready, it should clean it before she gets a chance to make a “sock deposit” after using it. That may help some of the rewriting along with teaching that sock on plate equals treat.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 6:59 PM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah, we’ve devoted zero effort to training our sock-hoarders, and for reasons my inferior human olfaction cannot explain, they love to stockpile their hunting trophies right near the litter. (One of my dad’s cats prefers to drop toys in people’s shoes. I guess stinky-people-feet-items just inspire this kind of perversion — although I’m just now recalling when one of our cats found a Winnie-the-Pooh figurine and dumped that in the litter pan, and I knew logically that the pun was accidental but I was just so proud.)

I think the above recommendations to just give her some scraps that are hers to drag-and-drop, or to sequester all laundry out of her (hopefully thumbless) reach, would be the way to go here.
posted by armeowda at 7:00 PM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

i fear the only solution is to become a family of nudists.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:38 PM on December 9, 2019 [20 favorites]

To me it sounds like she discovered a fun new game. I would just see if you could break the association with the litterbox first with the methods described above/give her a treat when she puts the things somewhere more amenable to you, and/or treating her for grabbing things you would more like her to grab. But it's healthy for everyone to have something to do, I wouldn't try to stamp this out completely, this is the joy of having a cat.
posted by bleep at 4:42 PM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do you not realise that you have been able to identify a purpose for the UNMATCHED sock?

My children go camping or to music festivals - I plead - "take the unmatched socks and once stained, discoloured or generally rank - use them for the rubbish collection/fire/ anything"

NOW - provide the supply of signals. And once signalling is complete, dispose of litter and sock.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:04 AM on December 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You are all so brilliant!! I knew MeFi would have an out-of-the-box (ha ha ha) solution.

While I was considering which socks should be sacrificed, a friend dropped off some fake snowballs (these white puffballs thingies) leftover from some school craft project she thought my kids would like. They do indeed enjoy throwing things at each other, but the starchy texture bothered my child with SPD so much he yeeted them out of his hands within microseconds of contact.

Based on your insight I put them into a cardboard box by the litter and, behold, every day since then they have rolled around in litter and our socks are safe. The clinging granules are a bit gross but simple to clean, our delightful fuzzball is pleased, and it is even seasonally festive.

Thank you all for your considerations and commiseration. I wish I could have also followed the instruction to just never leave clothes within cat reach, as that is the correct and complete solution, but my children are not that observant and I am not that organized.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 9:32 AM on December 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

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