Want to know the most important aspect of cat husbandry? (No, that doesn’t mean your husband takes care of your cat — it means how to take care of your cat!) It’s the kitty litter box. That’s right … the dirty, dusty, foul box hidden in the basement.

In my book It’s a Cat’s World… You Just Live In It, I dedicate one whole book chapter just to litter boxes — that’s how important litter boxes are to a cat’s life! That’s because an unclean litter box can result in serious behavioral and medical problems in cats. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to focus on this nasty topic because it’s really important info that you should know if you own a cat.

So, what’s the skinny on boxes, and why should you care? Here, three litter box rules to live by.

Rule 1: n+1

If you have multiple cats in your house, having an extra box per cat is imperative. Otherwise, you risk having a cat urinating inappropriately on your down comforter or in your laundry pile instead. If you have one cat, you need two litter boxes. If you have two cats, you need three litter boxes … get it? In a multicat household, a more submissive cat may feel "trapped" in a litter box — especially a covered one — by an approaching cat and may be too timid to enter a box if she’s feeling ganged up on. This may then result in inappropriate urination, which is not ideal.

Rule 2: Variety is the spice of life

If you have a cat that is already urinating outside of the box, you need various types of boxes in different locations (and maybe a vet workup and some behavioral drugs while you’re at it). When it comes to litter boxes, cats like variety. Some may prefer an uncovered box (especially if they feel trapped), while others prefer a covered box (more privacy).  I also recommend keeping boxes in multiple areas of the house (in the basement, bathroom, closet, etc.), so your cats can escape each other. I have two boxes in different basement locations; one cat likes to poop in one and urinate in another. Another variety to potentially add in: different types of litter. Most cats prefer clumping over crystals, but there are also wheat or clay litters — but more on that in a future blog.

As for whether to chose a covered or uncovered box … Personally, I only tolerate covered litter boxes in my household; they help keep the kitty litter dust and smell in and prevent excessive kicking of litter onto the floor. If your cats get along fine, covered boxes will dramatically decrease the "dirtiness" of having a litter box around in your house. You may even notice that your friends come around to visit you more if there’s less stink around.

Rule 3: Clean, and then clean again

We neurotic types clean litter boxes daily, and so should you. In the least, boxes should be scooped out at least every other day. Of course, this depends on how many cats you have (just because you added n + 1 litter boxes doesn’t mean you can clean less frequently!). The more cats you have, the more frequently the boxes should be scooped out. While it’s a dirty job, it really should be done for the best interest — both behaviorally and medically — for your cat(s).

If you notice your cat scratching outside the litter box instead of on the inside, it’s his way of telling you that the litter box is disgusting and he doesn’t want to get his feet filthy while he’s "attempting" to cover up his poop inside. If you just cleaned the litter box and he’s still doing it, it’s likely from a bad memory of getting his feet urine-soaked or dirty while in the box, so unless you want a cat that poops in random places, get in there and scoop.

Some cats will "hold it" and urinate as infrequently as possible to avoid stepping into a dirty, filthy, full litter box. Instead of urinating two to three times a day, your cat will tighten up and only go once a day. The problem is that this makes his urine more concentrated, potentially resulting in crystals (even debris, mucous pus, or stones) to accumulate. This can then result in a life-threatening feline urethral obstruction (FUO), which is when the urethra is blocked and urine can’t come out. Not only is this painful, but it can also lead to temporary kidney failure, electrolyte abnormalities, vomiting, lethargy, arrhythmias, and death. So to help prevent problems like this, or even diseases like feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) or FUO, scoop!

The other added benefit of scooping frequently is that it helps you detect medical problems earlier. If your cat isn’t urinating from an FUO, you’ll notice when there’s no urine in the litter box for two days. If your cat becomes a diabetic, the litter clumps may become larger until, after a few days, your whole litter box becomes one huge clump. If your cat is acting constipated or having diarrhea, you won’t find out until days later, and by then it may mean a bigger medical problem (which translates to a more expensive vet visit).

So, if you love your cat, kick the laziness, get an extra box, and scoop that poop! As tedious as it is, it may just save your cat’s life.

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Oliver's Litter Box by Mr. T in DC