The scoop on litter boxes

StefanieAnimal Behaviour

The litter box is your cat’s bathroom. While this seems like an obvious statement, it’s surprising how many owners arrange the litter and box to suit their needs rather than the cat’s. We place it out of our way, use covered boxes to keep the smell in and gravitate towards ‘smell masking or multi-cat’ litter. Often there is only 1 litter box for a household of 2 or more cats. The litter box is purchased when the cat is a smaller kitten, and we forget that the larger cat is making do with a smaller box.

It is essential that the litter box suit your cat’s needs. This is especially important for the cat that has access to the outside to void. The world is their litter box. They can pick a clean, private spot every time. When the weather gets bad or they are stuck inside, their bathroom shrinks down to 2 square feet or less, and depending on the cleaning schedule, may have previous deposits in it already. It is a testament to the cat’s need to be clean that they put up with our treatment of their bathroom. Some will hold out as long as they can, and this can be a contributing factor to bladder stress. Some will look to void in other areas that make them more comfortable. Veterinarians call this problem inappropriate urination (going in the house rather than the litter). This is different from urine spraying behavior – that’s a topic for another day. Inappropriate urination (and sometimes bowel movements) are medical problems, often with a behavioral component. The best defense is keeping your pet satisfied with your litter arrangement and avoid the problem from the start.

In a perfect world, the litter, box and location should be chosen from a cat perspective. Here are some guidelines:
How many boxes?
The standard answer is one more than the number of cats you have, as long as they are cleaned once daily.

Type of litter?
Clumping litter is the most common choice, since it causes the urine to form clumps that can easily be removed. Regular granular clay is fine, but you must dump the whole thing daily. It acts like a sponge and just holds the urine, which will release an ammonia smell if left too long. I recommend unadulterated litter – no additives or scents. Scented litters are formulated to mask odor and are designed for our idea of what smells nice. Strong scents or antiseptic smells can put a cat off, including pine or cedar wood chips.

Type of box?
Stay away from covered boxes or automated ones (they can scare the cat). An open box large enough to accommodate your cat’s body (including the tail) is ideal. 1 1/2 the length of your cat from nose to tail is a good measurement for size. Plastic storage totes work well. You can cut down the sides to allow easier access. Remember to get bigger boxes as your kitty grows.

Where to put them?
A quiet, private area away from traffic and activity is best. The litters should be in separate areas, since litter boxes side by side are considered a single box. Make sure the cat can get to them without having to run the gauntlet of dogs, guests, children etc. Avoid positioning them near appliances with loud, sudden noises like the dryer buzzer or the beep of a full dehumidifier.

How often to scoop?
Every 24 hours is the norm, but it can be more often. The trick is that your cat will be used to that level of cleanliness, so if you are away, you must keep up the routine. Alternatively, have a spare box to add if you are going to be away unexpectedly.

How often to clean the whole box?
If you are using clumping litter, weekly should suffice. With regular litter, use a liner, or clean the box daily. Just use water and a mild dish detergent.

Avoid change!
If you want to implement new litter or boxes, always leave the original and add the new. Once they are using the new box, you can change the old one.