Seven Litter Box Habits of Highly Effective Cat Owners

Patty Khuly, DVM
Written by:
Published: March 22, 2009
Seven Litter Box Habits of Highly Effective Cat Owners

No, this post is not on clumping vs. non-clumping, scented vs. unscented, organic vs. inorganic, scooping vs. non-scooping, or any other such litter trivia (though your comments on these are always welcome). 

Nope. This post is about how the litterbox plays into your cat’s emotional life in ways you may have never thought possible. As in, yes it’s great that you care enough to buy your cat fabulous litter, the coolest boxes and the neatest litter-sucking steppy-mats — but perhaps there’s more to the story than all that.

Here’s the scoop:

The most common behavior problem reported in cats is “house soiling.” It’s also the number one reason cats are remanded to shelters. A 1996 study found that 23% of relinquished cats soiled their homes one or more times a week. Studies or no studies, we all know it’s a problem.

There are three reasons cats tend to exhibit what we euphemistically call, “elimination disorders.” The first is medical (as in a urinary tract infection or “Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease”/”Feline Idiopathic Cystitis”). The second involves communication (as in, your kitty’s stressed over something and/or announcing his/her presence in the territory). The third? Well, let’s just call it “bathroom”-related.

Yes, that’s right. Many times cats just don’t like their litterbox accommodations. Something may be “off” one day — a new litter, a new scent, a new cat, a new interaction with existing cats, a new person around the box, a change in the temperature around the box, a new location, and/or a change in any number of circumstances that make the litterbox that much less appealing.

Cats are that finicky about where they eliminate. Make no mistake: Hell hath no fury like a feline PO’ed over her litterbox.

If you’ve ever been the victim of a litterbox rejectee you’ll understand how stressful this can be. Because, frankly, at first you’ll have no idea why your cat is “acting out” or, indeed, which cat is doing it (should you be fortunate to keep many).

The first step is to figure out a pattern. The second involves the veterinarian (to rule out physical issues). And the third is to examine your household and, often most importantly, your litterbox habits. If you’re smart, though, you may be lucky enough to ward off a vet visit  and avoid problems in the first place by following these seven litterbox habits of highly effective cat owners.

1. Cleanliness

Stay at least one step ahead of your cat’s litterbox-cleanliness needs. If you’re always just barely keeping up, the chances she’ll stray from her box increase exponentially should any other stress come to bear. Next thing you know, your mother-in-law’s visit will mean pee aroma everywhere––just because the slightly soiled litterbox was the last straw on that stressful day.

And if your cat’s got a potential litterbox issue, daily cleaning is usually indicated — at least until matters are back under control. That means real cleaning, not just scooping. Sorry. Suck it up.

2. Location, location, location

As in real estate, the location of the litterbox is critical to successful implementation. Cats control territories...even cats who appear to get along without reservations. That’s why spreading out the litterboxes helps. While your house may begin to look like litterbox heaven, it certainly beats having a home that smells like it. Lookie here: You can even hide them:

Consider, also, that boxes near windows or clear doors may be problematic for their proximity to outdoor cats. Beware the influence of those who don’t even reside in your home.

3. Multi-cat stats and your litterbox count

Here’s the key stat: 1.5 litterboxes for every two cats is considered the minimum. Sure, some can get away with less — and do for one or two cats — but once you have three cats, you’re risking your cats’ comfort and your household’s aromatic integrity.

That’s why mo’ boxes is mo’ better. Even if it’s just temporary, consider offering a variety of litterboxes with a variety of litters, if need be. After all, not every cat likes to share and not all cats are going to be wowed by your choice of expensive litters. In fact, I even had one patient who refused anything but newspaper. She required her own special box. It happens.

4. Don’t go changing

Pick a product your cats like and stick with it, say many veterinary behaviorists. “Don’t go changing,” croons Mr. Joel, and neither should you be playing round robin with the litters. I know the ones on sale look soooo tempting, but consider that your cats have to readjust significantly every time you make a change.

Sure, some don’t mind so much — but all cats care to some extent. While you might just happen upon the perfect litter if you mix it up a lot, you may also be courting disaster — especially if you make a drastic change after years of using one particular brand. 

5. Size matters

Yes, it’s been proven. Bigger is better when it comes to litterboxes. Not only do cats feel more comfy and free in a sizable sand box, they also feel less threatened by invaders. More room...ahhhhhh...

OK, so maybe this one's too big — but then, maybe not...

6. Put a lid on it — or take it off...take it all off

Lids and close quarters can be especially disconcerting for cats who have to compete with other cats over territory. After all, how would you feel if you might be ambushed every time you left the bathroom? I, for one, don’t ever want to go back to middle school ever again — and I’m sure your cat doesn’t need that kind of stress, either.

That’s why large, clear plastic boxes, sans lids, can be so wonderful. Consider buying one of those large, clear Rubbermaid-style boxes with a kitty-sized opening above the litter level —  and no lid, of course. This works! Should she spy an assailant, your cat can escape over top easily while still feeling comfy and protected when she’s not being harassed. Here's an example:

7. Litter characteristics

Yes, I promised I would not discuss litter brands and varieties but...I lied. Studies show that cats prefer clumping litters. And odor-controlling litters can stretch the life of a slightly dirty box (crucial when your cat is extra-finicky about cleanliness). Though fragrances, in particular, have not been associated with elimination disorders, it seems cats prefer bleach and fish odors to floral and citrus smells — and the aroma of cedar over all others.

The key, as always, is to be aware of your cats’ needs. Because they’re extra-picky about where they eliminate it’s critical to stay on top of your cat’s litterbox needs. It really can make the difference between a healthy, happy cat and an unhealthy, over-stressed kitty that ends up remanded to a shelter for the rest of her life.

Now it’s your turn. What do YOU do to manage your cats’ boxes? 

Learn More:

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Related Articles

Connect with a Vet

Subscribe to PetMD's Newsletter

Get practical pet health tips, articles, and insights from our veterinary community delivered weekly to your inbox.