Let’s Talk Litter Boxes

Cats can end up in shelters or rescue operations for a number of reasons, but one of the most common reasons is because they don’t use the litter box. Reason’s for not using the box can be varied, but there are a few basic things to keep in mind when you are buying your cat a litter box.

SIZE: This is one of the times when bigger is better. Litter boxes should be twice the length of your cat. You will not find any litterbox in the pet store that is that big.

(Un)COVER: As humans, we prefer a little privacy, but studies have shown that most cats prefer an open top box so they can see all around them when they are busy doing their business. Another benefit of not having a lid on your litterbox is that the air will be better for your cat – less inhaled dust and fumes that could trigger feline asthma.

SUBSTRATE: We all want to save the environment but time and time again it is shown that kitties prefer basic clumping clay litter. Some may be happy to use sustainably harvested earth-friendly wood pellets but if you are having issues consider offering a box of clay in the same room as the box of pellets and letting your cat decide.

LOCATION: Along with the box being uncovered cats prefer to have good visibility when going to the bathroom. This means they’d prefer their litterbox out in the open and not down in the dark basement corner. This is an even bigger consideration when we have multiple story homes – young kittens and older cats with arthritis need a litter box on each level. If it’s too far or too painful to get to the box your cat may find another area to go.

NOISE: Ever hear a loud or funny noise that interrupts what you are doing? Imagine being a cat who finally decides to go to the litter box only to suddenly have the furnace/washing machine/etc. startup next to you. If it is scary enough, they might think twice about going back there to go to the bathroom.

NUMBER: No client wants to hear this, but the minimum number of litter boxes should be one per cat plus an extra. And if you put them all in the same room that only counts as one really big litterbox. They do have to be in different areas of the house. In multiple cat homes, this prevents guarding and ensures the dominant cat isn’t ‘protecting’ their litter area from the other cats of the home.

SCOOPING: Again, no one loves scooping the litter box, but at a minimum, it has to be done DAILY. Buy a Litter Locker and scoop the box every time you walk by.

DEPTH: The amount of litter in the box should be enough that when your cat digs before doing their business, they are not hitting the bottom of the box… that’s a lot of litter.

People ask how often they should fully clean their litter box. A general rule of thumb is completely empty and wash out with soap and water about once a month. Of course, if your cat tends to get the sides dirty, that may need to be more often, and if you are keeping the litter deep enough that the ‘mess’ is never reaching the plastic, then you can likely go longer between full cleanings. For boy cats and older cats that don’t squat as well a deep Rubbermaid tote with one side cut down will help keep everything in the box. The older the cat, the less they may be willing to step or jump, and they may need their litter box edge lowered even further.

While automatic litter boxes clean themselves not every cat will accept a litter box that is covered, small and makes weird noises.

There can be health reasons your cat is not using the box so if you feel you have done a good job with the what and the where of your litter boxes then your cat may need a visit to the vet to rule out health issues. This is even more important if you are seeing any blood in the urination or defecation or if it starts suddenly in a more mature pet.

What do I use for a litter box? I have 2 under bed storage boxes and 2 litter lockers: one in the front entry hall and one in the hallway on the third floor. I scoop multiple times a day. If company is coming, I move entry litterbox to the master bathroom for the night. It’s not glamorous, but all my boys use their boxes and not my furniture. Let’s move the litter box out of the dark, scary basement. Your cat will likely thank you for it.

Cat litter box at the front entry hall of a home Blue litter box bin with a cutout

Written by: Dr. Tasha Kean, Veterinarian