Litter Box Behavior

Cats, by nature, prefer to bury their waste to prevent other animals from detecting their presence through its scent. For the indoor cat, that means you need to provide it with a litter box and litter.

Litter Box Selection

The typical recommendation is one litter box for each cat in your household. If you have one cat, then you need one litter box. If you have three cats, you should have three. That being said, you may find that your three cats are fine with only two litter boxes.

However, if one of your cats begins soiling outside the litter box, that can be an indicator that you need another box (or have a urinary tract/medical problem that may require a trip to the vet). It’s best to rule out a medical issue by taking your cat to the vet and getting a urinalysis to determine whether your cat has a urinary tract infection. If not, then your cat may have a behavioral issue. Then it’s your mission to figure out what is troubling your cat.

If you are planning on going on a vacation, you may wish to have a few extras to put out while you’re away. In general, you can make use of a few extra boxes for a long weekend, but if you are going to be gone longer than that, it is best to get an in-home cat-sitter to check on kitty and scoop the litter box(es).

Size – Select a litter box that is large enough for your cat to turn around in. If you have an extra-large cat, get an extra-large litter box so that he or she can maneuver around inside it without having an accident outside the box or peeing over the edge.

Depth – Cats usually want to bury their waste. Therefore, make sure the sides are deep enough that they can bury their waste without scratching extra up and over the sides of the box. When filling the litter box, make sure that you leave a couple inches of free space at the top for this burying process. You may also want to consider a litter box with a tall back. If you have a kitten, you may need to start with a smaller litter box that they can step into, and then get a deeper one when they are older.

Covered or Uncovered – Mostly this is your preference. Covers can sometimes help keep odors and litter in, and certainly help block the view of the litter area. However, for larger cats the cover may make it awkward for them to maneuver around and sufficiently bury their waste. The cover will also need to be removed for you to thoroughly scoop out the used litter.

Self-Cleaning – There are lots of pros and cons about self-cleaning litter boxes. The reviews are mixed—some people love them, and some do not. You need to evaluate and decide for yourself. Do consider that it has moving parts, which may not be a good choice for a curious kitten that could hurt itself while trying to play with it when it moves. Also, some cats do not like these because of the moving parts and may refuse to use them. Check the return policy before purchasing one of these, since they are more expensive than a standard one, in case it does not work out for you or your cat.

Other Accessories

Litter catching mat – You may want to consider placing a mat or bathroom rug in front of the litter box to help catch any of the litter that sticks between your cat’s toes and may get tracked around your house. Choose something that is easy to clean the litter out of.

Scoop – This is a slotted large scooper and is sold in the litter section. It is used to scoop out stools or clumped litter while allowing the unused litter to stay in the box.

Liners – Plastic liners are available and are usually used with non-clumping litter to throw out the entire container after it is thoroughly used. One problem is that cats will scratch a hole for themselves and then scratch again to bury their waste and in this process they frequently scratch through the plastic liner and put a hole through it.

Litter Selection

Non-clumping (clay) – This should always be used for kittens because they are curious and like to taste and play with everything. It should also be used for cats recovering from a surgery (such as a spay or neuter), because clumping litter will cement itself to a damp area, one that may be leaking a fluid, and be difficult to clean off.

Clumping – This type of litter is the easiest litter to use and quickly sticks to feces or absorbs urine to create a clump that can be easily removed with a slatted scoop, while keeping the rest of the unused litter in the box for later use. There are several types including wheat, corn, and clay. Clay is the most common, but it is dusty, heavy to clean and dispose of, scratches surfaces, and is unpleasant to step on.

Sawdust / pine, or recycled newspaper pellets – These types of litter readily absorb liquid, and will require a specially slotted scoop to remove the feces, although it does not readily stick to the feces. Cats who are unfamiliar with this type of litter may take a while to adjust. One benefit of this type of litter is that it is not usually tracked around the house from your kitty’s feet. Your litter box may need to be dumped once a week or more often, depending on how many cats you have.

Flushable Litter – Do not flush litter down the toilet even if it claims to be “flushable.” The litter will clog your pipes and cause a back up in your house—you do not want to risk that!

Importantly, flushing cat waste is suspected to be linked to the death of sea otters, whales, and porpoises in the US and around the world. The parasite toxoplasma gondii can be in the feces of inside/outside cats, and can survive sewage treatment and then travel down rivers until it gets to the sea. The only safe way to dispose of this litter is via landfill or incineration. So please don’t flush litter down a toilet, even when the advertising says “flushable!”

Litter Box Cleaning

Cats prefer a clean litter box; and so do your guests when they visit. If they were in the outside world, they would choose a new spot every time. Inside the home, they do not have that luxury and will be much happier if you are conscientious about cleaning their litter box. Litter boxes should be scooped out about once a day; or better you can do it in the morning before you head to work and in the evening when you return. If you have multiple cats, then twice a day is necessary to avoid odor and to keep cats healthy.

Frequent cleaning will also minimize inappropriate behavior in the house. If your cat has chosen to use the pot of your houseplant, or your bathmat, or another rug, it may be due to an unclean litter box that they don’t want to use. It is not recommended to leave lots of litter boxes out so that you only clean once a week—your cat will not appreciate this and you will have more odors in your house because of it.

Every couple of weeks, take the entire litter box and scoop outside and scrub it down with a mild-bleach solution. When using the litter box, that cat will frequently back itself into a corner and some of the urine or feces may touch and stick to the wall of the litter box. Periodically scrubbing it down will keep the litter box odors down, and your cat will be thankful for the clean box.

If your cat has been sick, has worms, or is infected with a bacteria that affects its intestinal tract, you may wish to scrub the box down more frequently to minimize re-infecting your cat or others in your household.

Litter Box Location

Again, this is mostly your preference. Consider an out of the way place that is still accessible, such as a laundry room, bathroom, or a mud/wet room. Placing the litter box on a hard surface that is easily cleaned is beneficial (such as a tile or linoleum floor) in case there are any accidents.

Cats like convenience, so remember easy accessibility is key 24-hours a day. As cats age, like people, sometimes it’s even more important to have quick accessibility to a litter box, so keep that in mind with older cats in your household. If you do place the litter box in a place you hardly use, just remember that the box is there and still needs regular cleaning.

If your cat is not using the litter box– consider the location. Is it in a corner? Is it covered? Under a piece of furniture? If a cat is feeling threatened, it may avoid using a box in a location like this because they have no escape route and can not see their surroundings. Consider putting the litter box in an open area. It may just require re-conditioning your kitty and working through the issue of feeling threatened. After her confidence returns, you can relocate the litter box to a more convenient/aesthetic location for you.

Litter Box Training

The nice thing about cats—using a litter box is instinctual.

When you bring home a new cat or kitten, show them where the litter box is. You may want to close them in the room with the litter box and allow them to explore the place and find the litter box. That way they will know where it is when they need to make use of it. With a kitten, you may wish to actually pick her up and place her in the litter box.

If your cat is having trouble catching on, you can also put her in the box after she’s eaten. When she uses the box, lots of praise and extra petting will help reinforce her good behavior. Be sure to keep the cat litter box clean, especially during training, to encourage her to use the box.

Accidents or Inappropriate Behavior

If your cat has always used her litter box with no problems, and all of a sudden she stops using it, your cat may be reacting to a new stress in its life or it may have a medical problem such as a urinary tract infection.

Is your cat also behaving oddly? Meowing? Moving strangely? Acting in pain? It could have a real medical reason for its inappropriate behavior and you should consult your vet immediately. Bring her in for a medical checkup and ask for a urine test and possibly a blood test.

Has something changed in your household—a new pet? A new child? A new roommate? Or new house? Or a new litter box location? If your cat has used another location, clean the area thoroughly and remove all traces of urine/feces smell from that spot.

If you need to re-train your cat, you may need to place the cat, the litter box, and the food and water in the bathroom for a day or week. With no other options (like a potted plant or a rug) your cat should relearn to use the litter box.

Is your cat de-clawed? If so, kitty’s feet are very sensitive to the harsh feel of litter on their paws. It is very common for de-clawed cats to pee outside the litter box because the litter hurts their paws. Change to a finer, softer, litter for de-clawed cats. (Better yet– do NOT de-claw your cat. It causes far more problems than you could imagine and is very cruel to the cat.)

Please work with your cat through its inappropriate behavior. Seek guidance or advice from others and get proper medical help before giving up and euthanizing your pet or placing it in a shelter (where it will most likely be euthanized). Most behavioral problems can be corrected and are solvable with some time.

Bottom Line ….

  • Not enough cat boxes: The rule is one cat box per cat, plus one extra.
  • Cat box too close to food bowl:  Cats do not want to eat next to or close to their food bowls, or where they typically eat. You want to keep the litter boxes away from their eating station. You wouldn’t want to eat in the bathroom, would you?
  • Scented kitty litter: Cats are very sensitive to fragrance and scents, best to use a non-scented litter.