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How Litter and Litter Boxes Affect Your Cat

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by Deborah W. Fegan, DVM

Cats are clean animals.  It is normal for them to have a toilet area which is used regularly to contain their waste. They are generally tidy in this areakitty1 and cover waste to reduce odors that could alert prey to their presence. Studies have shown that a cat enjoys their toilet if they spend at least 20 seconds covering their waste.

This article offers some suggestions for keeping your cat (and you) happy with her litter and its box.

Litter Box Tips

Cats have preferences concerning the type of material they use for their toilet.  Some prefer loose, sandy areas while others like soil-like material.  The common factor is that all cats like CLEAN!  They don’t like to use already soiled areas, particularly if it was not them who soiled the spot.

The accepted requirement is one litter box for each cat in the household, plus one extra.

This ratio allows each cat to find a clean box when needed.  Litter boxes should be scooped daily and cleaned thoroughly at least once a week.  Avoid cleansers with heavy residual odor; Lysol, Pinesol and Chlorox, for example, are all a no-no for litter box cleaning.  Hot water and dish soap works well.  A run through the dishwasher or boiling water left to stand in the box for 10 minutes will disinfect the box and kill any residual parasites.

Experiment to find the texture your cats prefer. Remember, they will cover if they like the litter but all cats hate a heavy fragrance.  While a dog can smell a person 50 feet underwater, a cat’s nose is ten times more sensitive. As a useful rule of thumb, if you can smell it the scent will be overpowering for your cat.

Choosing the Right Cat Litter

Options for litter include:

  • clumping (very sand-like)
  • clay based (very soil-like)
  • recycled newspaper (low odor)
  • sand
  • potting soil.

Some alternatives are also available, but those above tend to be the most acceptable for our felines. Of the others, pine and cedar litters are often too “smelly”. Dusty litter is often not preferred by cats, but baking soda in small quantities seems to be well tolerated.

I have some households that use two different kinds of litter for the varied tastes of their favorite felines.  Try to stick with the brand your cat likes.  That attractive sale coupon on a new litter could actually prove more costly if you have to buy a new carpet! If you can’t get your normal brand, or the brand changes (new and improved), watch closely to be sure that the change is accepted by your cat.

Litter Box Logistics

Litter box placement is important.  All the boxes can be in the same place, but the cat must feel that he is safe and unobserved when using the box. This is a compromised time for a predator and he will find a safe place if your spot does not meet his needs.

Seasons and temperature fluctuations can also make a difference. I had one owner who put the boxes in a utility closet that had a vent to the living room.  Their cat used the boxes all summer but started to toilet in the living room by the vent once the heater kicked on in the fall.

Kittens and senior cats may need more accessible options then the often favored “down in the basement” solution.  Provide kittens with a small box (a cake pan works well for this) on every floor to which they have access.  Once they are about 3 months old, you can begin putting less litter in the ones you wish to eliminate until the primary one in most desirable.  They will naturally choose the one with the most litter that is big enough to move around in.

Senior cats may need to have a side cut down so they can enter the box easily.  I have seen many seniors who will use the ground right beside the box because they can no longer get over the sides. Keep an eye on your cat’s mobility to identify when it might be time to make this change.

Cats need room in the box.  Be sure the box is big enough for your cat to get around their elimination to cover up. For a large cat an under the bed tote is a good option. I have seen cats that stand in the box but eliminate over the side because the box is too small.

Despite the allure for owners, covered litter boxes have been linked with increased respiratory issues in cats.  If your circumstances require – or your cat prefers – a covered box for safety reasons, consider sand or soil as the litter to reduce the dust that is stirred up when covering.  Put a washable rug or towel at the box exit so the residual sand or soil will drop off the cat’s feet here and is easier to clean up.

Keeping a clean and safe place to eliminate for your cat(s) is one of those crucial pet parent responsibilities. If your cat starts thinking outside the box, make some of the changes suggested above to find just the right combination of litter and litter box. The pay-off is a more satisfying environment for your fastidious feline and peace of mind for you.

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