The Nitty Gritty of Litter Boxes

Many cat owners have A LOT of questions about litter boxes. I go into many homes on a weekly basis for inappropriate elimination (urinating and defecating outside of the litter box). Most cases of inappropriate elimination are not medical but medical must always be ruled out before modifying behavior. Without ruling out medical first, your cat could be suffering from painful and even life-threatening conditions (1-6).

Inappropriate elimination is an issue that requires a professional. However, the advice you will find in this article is introductory information that is helpful for all cat owners.

When it comes to litter boxes, I am a firm believer in sticking with what works. So if what you are currently using works, don’t worry about changing it. However, below are science-based guidelines to consider.

 

LITTER BOX TYPE AND SIZE

In general, your litter box needs to be 1 to 1.5 times the length of your cat. Most litter boxes sold in pet stores are way too small. The majority of cats prefer large, uncovered boxes that they can stand up in and turn around in with ease (7). This is my preferred litter box:

Other feline behavior professionals prefer clear storage containers or more shallow boxes. Some feline behavior pros do not recommend covered boxes or automatic boxes. But I recommend that you find what your cat prefers. If you have multiple cats like myself, find a box that each cat prefers.

A note about automatic/ self-cleaning boxes…Not only can these be loud and malfunctioning but they remove your cat’s waste immediately which prevents you from monitoring their health. If you enjoy these boxes, consider adding a regular box as well. 

 

LITTER BOX LOCATION AND AMOUNT

The golden rule for litter boxes that many scientific studies support is one litter box per cat PLUS one (7, 8, 10). So if you have 2 cats, you need 3 boxes. Also, keep in mind many cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another box. Thus I prefer 2 boxes per cat PLUS one.

Most feline behavior professionals recommend placing a litter box on each floor of your house. However, I have personally tried numerous cats to eliminate in isolated areas such as spare rooms, laundry rooms, etc. If you are not working with a professional, it is best to keep your litter boxes away from noisy appliances and areas with a lot of human traffic. This means no laundry rooms. As most cats need a quiet area where they do not feel threatened. Noise and mechanical malfunction are why many professionals do not recommend automatic boxes.

Avoid placing litter boxes in tight or dark places. If your cat feels trapped, they may avoid the litter box. Simply pulling a litter box out of a corner can work wonders for inappropriate elimination. This is why many professionals do not like covered boxes or boxes placed inside of cabinets/enclosures. Many cats will avoid boxes they have to climb into as well. Especially handicapped cats and older cats.

Contrary to what us humans think, cats do not want their litter box to be private. Yes, you should place it in an area away from excessive human traffic, but cats want to be able to see their surroundings while eliminating. In the wild, they would be vigilant while eliminating due to predators. This is also why most cats cover their waste to hide their smell from predators. Cats that do not cover, often have territorial issues.

 

LITTER SUBSTRATE

I recommend unscented, clay, clumping litter because the texture and size of the granules are incredibly similar to sand. Sand is what the ancestor (the African Wildcat) of the domestic cat would eliminate on. Tight clumps also are easier to remove daily which cuts down on microbiological activity. I.e. reduces the chance of bacteria growing in your boxes.

I also really like crystal based litters due to their low dust characteristic. Cats have sensitive respiratory tracts so some cats do not like a lot of dust. A low dust litter is a must for brachycephalic cats. Not only can excessive dust bother cats, but scents can as well. If the smell is a concern, consider lining an empty litter box with baking soda before pouring new litter in. Air fresheners can also negatively affect cats so baking soda deodorizers are also great. I place baking soda inside cotton bags such as the ones photographed below. These are easy to hang in your litter box areas and reusable.

I make my own bags of baking soda to hang in my litter box room

What about other substrates? Again, whatever your cat prefers is best. I do not recommend any wood-based litters because of potential negative health implications especially pine oils (13). If you are trying to be environmentally friendly, consider corn and wheat based litters. Pellet litters can also be more environmentally friendly. However, even eco-friendly litters can pose health risks so always monitor your cat and discuss with your veterinarian (15).

 

LITTER BOX HYGIENE

Most behavior experts and veterinarians recommend scooping your boxes at least once per day (7-10, 14). With how fastidious cats are about cleanliness, you may need to scoop twice per day.

If you don’t want your home smelling like a litter box, surely your cat will hate eliminating in the box with such strong smells so cleanliness is key.

I recommend deep cleaning litter boxes at least once per month with dish soap and bleaching the boxes once per year. Some experts do not like the use of bleach but it is the ultimate disinfectant. As long as you do 2-3 water rinses after bleaching, you are ensuring there are no traces of bleach left. Some experts suggest only soap and water as well as weekly cleanings (7).

I do not dispose of my boxes unless they start breaking down or have a lot of scratch marks on the bottom. But some experts suggest throwing them away completely every 6 to 12 months. This is your call.

A note about litter box liners…Many cats hate these so be cautious. 

 

WHAT IS MY SETUP

We have 9 indoor only cats in our house. At any given time we have 12-15 boxes set up in their own room that has 2 entry/exit points and vertical space (provides more escape routes for the cats). Entry/exit points are very important because cats do not want to feel trapped nor do they want to be bothered by other cats while eliminating.

We have one automatic box set up 24/7 because it uses disposable trays. We have 3 pellet box systems which we change the pads to twice weekly. The pellets can last up to one year if cleaned with dish soap. We have a few boxes that have crystal or corn/wheat litter. The majority of our boxes are unscented, clumping clay litter.

 

REFERENCES:

  1. AVMA: FLUTD
  2. Cornell University: FLUTD
  3. International Cat Care: FLUTD
  4. VCA: UTIs
  5. Urinary Obstruction in Male Cats
  6. ASPCA: Urinary Blockage
  7. Ohio State University, Indoor Pet Initiative
  8. Feline Behavior Solutions: Litter Box Makeover
  9. Cat Behavior Associates: Litter Box Scooping
  10. American Association of Feline Practitioners
  11. Brachycephalic Cats
  12. Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome
  13. Pet Poison Helpline
  14. HSUS Litter Boxes
  15. PAWS Chicago

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