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Litter Box Issues

Queen Elizabeth’s Toilet Seat


Have you heard the urban legend that Queen Elizabeth II of England brings her own toilet seat when she travels? Though the queen may not in fact be that picky about where she eliminates, many cats are.

Photo: iStock

There is no litterbox set up that will please every cat. But there are certain common characteristics that make the box experience better for most cats.

When putting out a litter box, choose a quiet, low-traffic area, where your kitty can eliminate without fear of being disturbed or startled by people, other animals, or loud appliances such as washers or ice makers. The location should be clean, dry, temperature-controlled, and close to “where the action is” in the house. Cats generally prefer to eliminate well away from their feeding and resting areas.

The box
Most commercial boxes are too small for most cats. A litter box should be 1.5-cat-lengths long and 1-cat-length wide. The cat should be able to stand fully upright in the box. If your cat is large, consider making a box out of an under-the-bed-storage bin. According to the research, cats have no preference for covered vs. uncovered boxes. However, people tend to clean uncovered litterboxes more frequently because we don’t enjoy viewing the contents—and cats do prefer clean litter boxes. Because some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, have one box for each cat plus an extra (that would mean three litter boxes for a two-cat household).

Unfortunately, litter is designed for people and not for cats. Despite the plethora of litters designed to reduce waste, use fewer natural resources, smell less bad, etc., cats prefer unscented, fine-clay clumping litter without odor mitigation particles that vary in texture. Litter should be 2 to 3 inches deep. Cats can’t scratch or cover properly if the litter is too shallow, and old cats can’t balance well if the litter is too deep.

Cleaning schedule
Boxes should be scooped daily (or twice daily for some cats). Replace the litter and rinse out the box weekly. Clean the box with soap and water monthly—no harsh nose-irritating chemicals, please.

Help, my cat is going outside the box!
If your cat stops using the box, contact your cat’s veterinarian to rule out medical problems such as a urinary tract infection, a metabolic disease, or kidneys problems. A full examination should be done to rule out problems with mobility, especially in older cats. Arthritis, for example, makes climbing into a high-sided litter box painful.

Once medical problems are off the worry list, behavioral problems can be addressed. Behavioral elimination issues generally fall into two classes—those that involve a problem with the box (litterbox aversion) and those that involve a problem with the cat (territorial or stress marking).

To address litterbox aversion, the problem with the litterbox must be identified and remedied.

Marking problems require correction of underlying problems in the cat’s environment such as inter-cat housemate aggression, separation anxiety, or insufficient stimulation. Marking frequently responds well to medication.

Help is at hand! Contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist if your cat stops using the box. The prognosis for behavioral elimination issues is generally good.

Dr. Borns-Weil says...

Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB

Dr. Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB

Board-Certified Animal Behaviorist

If your cat stops using the box, contact your cat’s veterinarian to rule out medical problems.