Litter Box 101: How to Choose the Best Litter Boxes for Your Cats and Why You Need To

Litter Box 101: How to Choose the Best Litter Boxes for Your Cats and Why You Need To

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When you first get a cat, your next stop is usually the pet store for kitty supplies. A litter box is always at the top of that list, but few people give much thought to the box itself.

Looking at them, you might think that any one box is about the same as any other. However not all litter boxes are created equal; more to the point, not all litter boxes are created equal for all cats.

Cats can be very particular about the size, shape, depth, and other attributes of their litter boxes. And rightly so! Think about it, how would you like it if the bathroom you had to use each day was super small and cramped? Or if you had to climb over a wall or navigate through a maze to get to the bathroom? Or if the toilet flushed randomly whenever you walked by it?

None of those scenarios sound fun, right? Yet that’s exactly what it can feel like for cats whose only options are litter boxes that are too small for them, or have sides or enclosures that are too cumbersome to navigate. And as for the “flushing randomly” problem, that’s a real concern for cats with automatic scooping litter boxes – many cats are spooked by the sound and movement that occasionally emanates from their box!

And if a cat is spooked by their box, or “inconvenienced” by the size or complexity of it, they’re more likely to go looking for somewhere else less spooky and more comfortable to go. Your laundry or bed will do just fine — thank you!

Want to avoid that, and the stress that the wrong boxes will cause your cat? Follow these tips to help ensure that you’re finding the right boxes for your cat.

How Many Litter Boxes You Should Have

Even in a one-cat household, it shouldn’t be “one and done” when getting litter boxes. Everybody likes to have options, and for many reasons it’s a good idea to give them to your cat too when it comes to where they pee and poo. The general rule is to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have — it’s called the “n+1 rule.” For example, 2 cats=3 litter boxes, and so on. Having too few litter boxes is a common cause for many of the “toileting problems” that result in cats being brought to the vet or relinquished to the shelter.

How Big the Litter Box Should Be

This is perhaps the most important thing to consider when choosing your cat’s litter boxes. Cramped quarters are no fun for anyone! Make sure the litter boxes you choose for your cat are large enough for your cat to fit inside comfortably, with some room to spare. They should have ample space to move and dig around in it, without having to step out. There should be plenty of space for them to easily avoid any “deposits” that are still around from earlier visits.

As a general rule, the correct size litter box should be at least as long as your cat, from their nose to the tip of their tail (when extended), and its width should be at least as wide as your cat is long (with their tail not extended).

How Tall the Litter Box Sides Should Be

The height of the boxes’ sides is also a very important thing for you to consider. And your cat’s personality and “condition” will partially dictate the hight of the boxes they need.

  • Best Box Height For Most Cats: For cats that aren’t “sprayers,” or don’t routinely kick litter out of their boxes, a box with walls around 5–7″ high is typically great (especially if the box is large). Check out my recomendation for the best overall litter box for general use below.
  • Best Box Height for “Sprayers” and More: If you’ve got a “sprayer,” “kicker,” or a cat with bad aim in your “clowder” (the official name for a group of cats), then you’ll want the sides to be tall enough to minimize the risks of these undesirable habits; but of course your cat still needs to be able to get into and out of their boxes with ease and without pain. So look for boxes with three sides that are tall enough to prevent pee, poop, or litter hitting your floor (usually wall heights of around 8–12″ are good), but that also have a lower entry/exit side to make getting in and out easy (this side should be around 5–6″). See below for my litter box recommendations for “sprayers,” “kickers,” and those with bad aim.
  • Best Box Height for Mobility Issues: If you’ve got a young kitten or any cats with arthritis or other mobility problems, then you’ll definitely need boxes with at least one side that’s super low. For most of these cats, an entry/exit side that is around 2.5–3.5″ typically provides a good balance of ease of entry/exit for your cat, while still being able to keep litter in. Check out my litter box recommendation for young kittens and arthritic cats at the end of this article.

Cat in Covered Litter Box-614172-edited.jpgHow to Choose Between Covered and Uncovered Litter Boxes

There’s no definitive answer here. Some cats prefer an uncovered box, others don’t. Of course, there’s no telling which “camp” your cat will fall into. So feel free to go either way here, or to test it out by giving your cat a selection of boxes to choose from. Just be ready to adapt if your cat starts giving you indications of a clear preference one way or the other.

If you do go the “covered” route, just make sure the opening isn’t too small or difficult to get to, and be ready to switch to uncovered boxes should your cat ever develop asthma or arthritis.

Why You Should Avoid Self-Cleaning Litter Boxes

There are many self-cleaning boxes on the market now, and it can be tempting to drop a little extra cash for the convenience of a box you never have to scoop. But as inconvenient or unpleasant as you might think it is to scoop litter boxes each day, it will be far less convenient or pleasant when your cat is startled by their automatic litter box and becomes too scared to use it. Then add in the fact that many of these self-cleaning boxes require special (read: expensive) litters; not to mention that the daily scooping ritual with regular boxes provides an important opportunity to spot any changes in your cat’s pees and poos that could indicate a developing health concern (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, constipation, or even urinary obstruction).

So… What’s The Best Litter Box For Cats?

Best overall litter box: Oddly enough, for most cats, the “best overall litter box” for general use usually isn’t a traditional litter box! The thing that most often fits the bill is actually a large, plastic under-the-bed clothes storage box. They’re typically plenty long and wide enough, with just the right depth, too. I love using the inner drawers of the ones linked below, as they’ve got great dimensions for most cats: approximately 27″ long, 15″ wide, and 4.5″ tall — and you can get them in multi-packs to save money!

For “sprayers,” “kickers,” and those with bad aim: As outlined above, these guys typically need boxes with three sides that are tall enough to contain the mess, yet with one entry/exit side that’s short enough for them to get into and out of easily. Especially as a cat ages, getting in and out of their litter box can cause another set of problems and a whole lot of discomfort (as many cats over 7 years old have arthritis). These first two box options fit the bill, with three high sides and one lower one. You could also switch to covered boxes, but you’ve got to be extra careful to scoop covered boxes at least once daily, as they are more likely to trap ammonia and other smells that can irritate your cat’s nose/lungs and drive them out of the boxes. The Modkat boxes are a little pricey, but function great for many cats and homes.

For very young kittens and cats with arthritis or other mobility problems: Here again, the best option isn’t a traditional litter box. Garden potting trays are often your best bet! The one linked below — which has overall dimensions of 24″ long, 21.6″ wide, and 8″ tall, with a front entry/exit side that’s just 2.5″ tall — is perfect!

Of course, getting the correct size, shape, style, and number of litter boxes for your cats is just the start. Check out “Litter Box 101: Setting Up and Maintaining Your Cat’s Litter Boxes” for more tips, tricks, and other useful information to help create potty harmony in your home and avoid all manner of problems.

Litter Box 101: How to Set Up Your Cat’s Litter Boxes to Prevent Potty Accidents

In “Litter Box 101: How to Choose the Best Litter Boxes for Your Cats and Why You Need To,” I gave some pointers for choosing the best litter boxes for your cats, but now I’m going to show you how best to set up and maintain your cat’s boxes. Follow these tips, and you’ll be able to avoid all sorts of common litter box problems (like wayward peeing and pooping outside the box), and you’ll also be prepared to identify painful or potentially life-threatening conditions.

You Need More Litter Boxes Than You Might Think

Though I’ve previously mentioned the importance of an appropriate number of litter boxes, it’s a topic that bears repeating. Even in solo-cat households — including small apartments and “tiny homes” — there should ideally be more than just one litter box.

Why would one cat need more than one box? Because there are a ton of factors that might block their access to a single litter box and other things that can cause them to develop a stressful or painful association with it. If you’ve only given your cat a single, solitary option, it’s not going to be good for either of you (this is a polite way of saying that they’ll find somewhere else to do their business, or suffer from a painful bout of constipation of even urinary obstruction). So try to adhere to the “n+1 rule” for cat litter boxes by making sure to provide one more litter box in your home than the number of cats you have.

Cat Digging in Litter Box

BTW, this box is a bit too small for this cat. Check out our article on how to choose the right litter box for your kitty.

Where to Put Your Cat’s Litter Boxes

When it comes to litter box placement, your cat really wants you to remember the three “L”s: location, location, location!

The Best Places for Litter Boxes

  • Easy access and exits: Ideally, your cat should have at least two ways to get to and from each box. This is to keep their box from becoming completely blocked (e.g., by the family dog, a bully cat, a closed closet door, etc.). If they can’t get to or away from their box reliably, they’re not likely to use it reliably.
  • Plenty of space between: Even if you have the right number of boxes, it’s just as important to spread out your cat’s litter boxes to prevent problems. I shudder each time I see a home with the right number of boxes, but they’re all lined up in a row in the same room (close, but no cigar). It’s best to spread the litter boxes across different rooms, and definitely have at least one litter box on each floor of your home. But if the boxes absolutely have to be in the same room or area, be sure to provide plenty of space between them.
  • Good air circulation: Your cat’s nose is quite sensitive, and cramming their litter box in a small cupboard or a dingy basement is likely to force them to deal with scents and odors that could stress them out and dissuade them from using their box. (Learn about other ways to reduce litter box odors.)

What to Avoid When Placing Litter Boxes

  • Drafty vents: Heating and air conditioning vents can create unpredictable (as far as your cat’s concerned) drafts of air that can startle and stress out your cat. Try to avoid locating their litter boxes near such vents.
  • Foot traffic: If your cat has to cope with the possibility of a bunch of people walking (or running, especially if you’ve got small children in your home) by their loo every time they’ve got to go, it definitely won’t be comfortable or fun for them. Try to find a place that doesn’t get too much foot traffic.
  • Noise: Going to the bathroom is a fairly vulnerable scenario for cats, and they can often be on “high alert” when in their box. If they’re doing their business in an area where there’s a lot of noise — especially if the noise is loud or sudden — then your cat isn’t going to be able to go in peace. Though laundry rooms are common places for people to put their cat’s litter boxes, the noise from a clunking clothes dryer or the end-of-cycle alarms from either machine can be enough to stress out your cat when they’re feeling exposed. Try to avoid the laundry room if you can.

Bonus Tip: Try Pheromones

To help your cat unplug, try plugging in. More to the point, consider plugging in a Feliway calming pheromone diffuser near your cat’s litter boxes. The Feliway calming pheromones can help reduce or prevent stress and anxiety in cats and — since stress and anxiety can be a common contributing factor in urinary problems with cats — prevent problems from ever happening in the first place.

 

How Much Litter You Should Use and What Type

Filling your cat’s litter boxes is mostly straightforward, but there are a few things you should know to help get the right setup for your cat.

  • The type of litter: First, of course, you’ve got to choose your cat’s litter. Given all the options and cool marketing buzzwords out there, I’ve dedicated an entire article to help you find the litter that’s best for your particular cat. Check out “Litter Box 101: What Type of Litter is Best for Your Cat.” But, generally speaking…
    • Cats tend to prefer fine particle litters to large pellets
    • You should avoid scented litters
    • Use a low-dust litter to avoid irritating your cat’s sensitive nose and lungs.
  • How much litter to use: The right depth of litter for your cat’s box will depend on their preferences and digging habits, your scooping habits, and the type of litter you’re using. You could get away with an inch or two in the box for cats that don’t do a ton of digging, if you’re diligent with scooping multiple times per day, and if the litter clumps up solidly and quickly. But those are ideal litter box maintenance conditions and, even then, 1–2” of litter might not be enough. To play it safe, I recommend starting with 2–3” of litter in each box and then adjusting as needed and always replenishing to maintain that depth.
  • You might consider a litter attractant: For kittens who are just learning to use their litter boxes, you may want to add a bit of litter box attractant, such as the Cat Attract Litter Additive linked below. This additive may also be useful in helping a previously litter-box trained cat to fall back in love with their litter box — but with these guys, it’s also important to have them checked out by your veterinarian to ensure that there isn’t a medical reason that caused them to abandon their litter box in the first place.

 

How to Maintain and Monitor Your Cat’s Litter Boxes

The importance of scooping the “deposits” — both urine and stool — out of your cat’s litter boxes at least once daily truly cannot be overstated. Multiple studies (like this one) have shown that cats routinely and strongly prefer clean litter boxes to those with “stuff” already in them. After all, would you prefer to use a freshly flushed toilet, or mostly full Porta Potty?

A note about “self-cleaning” litter boxes: Enough cats are terrified of the noise and movement these things make to recommend against their use. Add to that the importance of actually seeing the trends in what your cat is putting out — which “self-cleaning” boxes deprive you of — and you can see why I’m not typically a big fan of these types of automatic boxes.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

To avoid the buildup of caked-on litter, fecal matter, and bacteria, try to do a complete litter box wash and refill about once a month. Use soap and water to clean the boxes but do not use bleach or other harsh cleaners. The smell of bleach and other chemicals can cause your cat to avoid their box even after it’s clean. To finish up, dry the boxes and add fresh litter. Depending on the number of cats you have, and how stinky and messy they are, you may need to do complete litter change outs in-between these monthly litter box washings, or wash the litter boxes more frequently.

Keep an Eye Out

Changes in your cat’s urinations and/or defecations can be some of the clearest signs of certain diseases and other medical or behavioral conditions. This is why it’s so important that you monitor the number and size of the urine clumps and fecal deposits in your cat’s litter boxes each day when you scoop them.

If you notice changes in your cat’s litter box, here are some potential causes:

  • Urine: more clumps/larger size
    • Diabetes
    • Hyperthyroidism
    • Kidney failure (early)
    • Kidney infection
  • Urine: fewer clumps/smaller size
    • Impending urinary obstruction
    • Bladder inflammation (“cystitis”)
    • Bladder infection
    • Dehydration
    • Your cat might also be peeing outside of their box
  • Fecal: more stool/larger size/looser
    • Change in diet
    • Intestinal infection
    • Intestinal worms
    • Pancreatitis
    • Food allergy
  • Fecal: fewer stool/smaller size/more firm
    • Constipation
    • Dehydration
    • Digestive obstruction
    • Your cat might also be pooping outside of their box

Avoid Actual Toilet Training

Lastly, I want to make a quick note about training your cat to use a human toilet: don’t do it.

You might not be thrilled about the prospect of scooping your cat’s litter box, or any aspect of having a litter box in your home, but before you think about toilet training your cat, take a moment to consider the consequences. I’ve outlined several important (and hopefully compelling) arguments against toilet training in “7 Reasons NOT to Toilet Train Your Cat.”

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