Posted March 22, 2019 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.
One of the most frequent complaints we get from clients is “My cat won’t use the litter box!” Often clients think their cat is “being stubborn”, or think their cat is “angry” with them. But that’s looking at things as if your cat was a two-legged human being. Believe it or not, they are not actually little people. There are many reasons why a cat might not be using the litter pan, and the most important thing to consider is whether there is a physical problem. If you see any blood or straining, or if your cat is painful, do not wait! Call your veterinarian right away. If the problem persists after trying these litter box tips, you also need to call your veterinarian. Sometimes the signs of a physical problem are subtle. But if this is a new issue and your cat seems fine otherwise, read on.
If I were designing a litter box for cats and instructing my patients’ parents, these are the things I would consider.
Litter Box Tips #1: Location
- It is ideal to have one or more boxes on each level of the home. Your cat naturally prefers to use a substance that can bury waste products, so kitty litter is automatically ideal for her. But if it’s not readily available, she may not take the time to go to a specific spot in the basement when she’s been sleeping on your guest bed on the second floor. Also, as cats get older and develop mobility issues, going up and down 3 flights of stairs may be too painful even if she never “limps” or cries in pain.
- Food and especially water should be in a different area. In nature, cats don’t want to soil their drinking water with their prey, and definitely not with eliminations. So separate the food/water area from the litter box area.
- The litter box should be private but accessible. Often we want to put a litter box in the laundry area, because it’s out of our way. But a noisy and unpredictable washer or dryer may lead me to search elsewhere. You don’t want to scare your cat right when he’s using the box, or he may never go back (see Tip #5).
Litter Box Tips #2: Size and Shape
- How long should the box be? The box should be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat, so your cat has room to turn around. A bigger cat does need a bigger box! We find that the lid of a plastic storage box is shallow and large enough to give your cat space. Drip pans or trays from a hardware store are large and may work well. Think “outside the box”, such as using a small plastic swimming pool or child’s sand-box (one of those hard plastic turtle-shaped ones). Dr. Mustillo uses plastic storage bins because they are large, deep and very inexpensive. That works well for her since she has 5 cats in her house! She cut a hole in the side of the one in the photo so her older cats can walk in easily.
- How deep should you make the litter? Most cats prefer 1-1.5”, although some like it deeper. Having 2 boxes next to each other lets you try two different depths, to see which your cat prefers.
- How tall should the box be? Lower sides are especially important for older, arthritic cats. You may even want to cut a U-shape so your cat can just walk in/out without having to step or jump over the side edge. You can put a mat, tarp, or ”puppy pad” under if your cat tracks litter when walking out.
- Should the box be covered? Almost always the answer is “No!” Cats need to be able to see other cats approaching, or you’re likely to have aggression and litter box issues.
Litter Box Tips #3: Keeping it Fresh!
- There should always be at LEAST one box for every cat in the house, plus one extra. So if you have 4 cats, you should have 5 boxes or more. The cats may end up sharing all the boxes, or one or more cats may have a specific box or location they prefer. But at least every cat should have a clean option available.
- Boxes should be scooped one or twice daily. If your work day keeps you away from home for a long day, consider having 2 or 3 litter boxes adjacent if space allows. This way, if box #1 has been used, box #2 is still available. This is even more important in multi-cat households or with older cats who may have kidney issues (and increased urine output).
- Boxes should be washed weekly (for non-clumping litter) to monthly (for clumping litter) – or more often. Use mild dish soap and rinse very well. Do not use household cleaning products as some cats may be sensitive to them (see Tip #4), or they may emit an odor that your cat doesn’t like.
Litter Box Tips #4: Type of Kitty Litter
- Clumping vs. non-clumping? Clumping litter is generally preferred by most cats. And fortunately for us, clumping litters are easier to scoop out frequently. Just add a small amount of new litter to replace what you remove when necessary.
- Scented or unscented litter? Unscented is generally preferred by cats. Scented litters can cause asthmatic-type reactions in some cats, so are best avoided.
- Should you use litter additives for the smell? The only thing that is safe to put in the box besides litter is regular baking soda that you would use in the kitchen for baking. And, some cats like Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract ®. But most litter box “deodorizers” just have very strong scents and will deter your cat from using the box, or could cause the same issues as scented litter.
Litter Box Tips #5: No negative associations with the box!
- Don’t give your cat a reason not to want to use the litter box. If you try to catch your cat while in the box to give medication, put in the carrier, or anything else negative, your cat will either avoid you or the box (or both!).
So, to quickly summarize our litter box tips: Use more large, clean, uncovered boxes with unscented, clumping litter. And don’t interrupt your cat in any way while using the box. A little privacy, please!