litter box basics
A cat’s relationship with the litter box is more complex than many cat guardians realize. We typically assume the litter box to be a place where a cat simply eliminates. It’s the place we want the cat's waste to be exclusively deposited and as long as the cat follows the plan, everyone is happy. For the cat though, the relationship to the litter box is more complicated than just an elimination spot.
It’s important to look at your cat’s litter box set-up from his perspective to make sure it meets his needs and not just our convenience. The needs of a young kitten may be different from the needs of an adult. The needs of an overweight or senior cat may be different from those of an active young cat. If you live with more than one cat, the litter box needs will be different than when there was just one kitty. You have to make sure the set-up works for YOUR cat.
When it comes to the litter box, there are certainly more than just 8 mistakes that cat guardians can make but here are the ones I tend to see most often during my consultations.
1. The Wrong Sized Litter Box
A mistake I commonly see is that a cat guardian will purchase a particular litter box in order to fit it into a tiny or cramped spot so it can remain out of sight. The size of the litter box should be determined based on the size of the cat.
Here is my general recommendation: the box should be 1 ½ times the length of your cat from nose to base of tail. Many commercially made litter boxes are too small for adult cats. Sometimes plastic storage boxes or plastic under bed boxes work well as cat litter boxes.
2. A Litter Box That isn’t Cleaned Enough
I’ve said it many times over the years – a dirty litter box is like an unflushed toilet – but yet many cat guardians don’t seem to understand how a dirty box is just as unappealing to a cat as a dirty toilet would be for us.
The litter box should be scooped at least twice a day. If using scoopable litter, the entire box should be emptied, scrubbed and refilled with fresh litter at least once a month. If using non-clumping litter then the box should be scrubbed and refilled weekly.
3. Choosing the Wrong Location for the Litter Box
The first rule is to never place the litter box near the feeding station because no one likes to eat next to the toilet. For cats, the separation of the feeding station and elimination location is also based in survival. Cats eliminate away from where they live to avoid attracting predators.
When it comes to location it’s also important to look at what’s convenient and easy to access for the cat. A litter box in the basement may be unappealing because of the dampness or because of the discomfort of going up and down stairs if a cat is older or less mobile.
A cat shouldn’t have to travel too far to find a place to eliminate. There should be litter box availability on each floor of your home. The box should be a location that’s safe and will allow the cat to eliminate without being disturbed or startled. At the same time, the litter box should not be located in an area that would fall into the category of 'out of sight out of mind'.
4. Too Few Litter Boxes in a Multicat Household
If you have more than one cat you need more than one litter box. The general rule of thumb is to have more litter boxes than you have cats. Usually one extra will do, but that also depends on the dynamics without your home.
The litter boxes should be scattered throughout the home so one cat doesn’t have to pass through another cat’s preferred area. One of the ways to keep peace in a multicat home is to not force cats to compete for resources.
If you have five cats it may not seem like much fun to have to scoop six litter boxes but it’s better than having some or all of the cats stressed out and maybe ending up with a litter box avoidance problem. Cleaning a litter box is easier than cleaning soiled carpet.
5. Unappealing Litter in the Box
A cat may have a preference in terms of texture or even scent (or lack of). In general, cats prefer a soft, sandy texture and that’s where most of the scoopable litters are ideal. Stay away from scented litter because a cat’s nose is very sensitive and he may not want to get a sensory assault of roses or perfume when he steps into the litter box.
Cats are creatures of habit so if you decide to change types or brands of litter, do it gradually over the course of about five days by mixing the new kind into the current litter.
If you’re completely unsure what type of litter your cat likes, set out a litter box buffet with a different brand in each box. Your cat will let you know which one is the winner.
6. Not Enough or Too Much Litter in the Box
Although I’ve seen cat guardians use not enough litter in the box, what I see most often is too much litter being used. There needs to be enough litter in the box to absorb liquid and therefore absorb the odor, but not so much that cleaning the box becomes a monumental task. Three to four inches of litter is the correct amount.
7. A covered and Cramped Litter Box
Covered litter boxes are popular with cat guardians because they do tend to help keep the litter fairly contained within the box, particularly if you have a cat that likes to dig vigorously. They also hold the appeal of providing privacy, something important to humans, but less so to cats.
With all that said, a covered box has more negatives than positives. Most covered boxes are too small and most cats feel cramped in there. As a result, you may find half of your cat sticking out of the box entrance during elimination. If you’re lucky, the front end is the part sticking out and if you’re not so lucky, it’s the business end.
Covered boxes also don’t allow for efficient drying of the litter and although you may not be able to smell anything, your cat certainly will whenever he steps into the box. The covered box may also not get scooped as often as needed because it’s more inconvenient to remove the lid in order to clean it.
While the covered box does provide privacy, it also lacks escape potential. It’s important, especially in a multiple cat household, for the cat in the box to not feel trapped or to ever be vulnerable to an ambush. The quickest way to a litter box problem is for a cat to not feel safe in there.
8. Punishment and Assumptions
It’s very sad to see a cat guardian punish a cat for a litter box avoidance problem because it will only lead to a bigger problem and increase the stress already felt by the kitty. Cats don’t eliminate outside of the litter box out of spite or as a misbehavior.
If a cat doesn’t use the box it’s because he can’t for some reason. Don’t immediately assume a missed litter box elimination is behavioral and don’t reprimand the cat. Very often, the reason a cat goes outside of the box is due to an underlying medical condition. Make sure your cat is checked by the veterinarian before assuming it’s a behavior problem.
Once the cat gets a clean bill of health you can work on figuring out what’s keeping him away from the box. It may be the box set-up, lack of maintenance, something going on in the household, multicat issues or any of the other things previously mentioned in this article.
Instead of punishing the cat which is counter-productive and possibly damaging to your relationship, look at the environment from his perspective and you may surprise yourself in what you’ll discover.
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with 30 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.