Preventing Litter Box Problems

Preventing Litter Box Problems

Cats can be finicky about their bathroom habits, so unless you want to be dealing with a regular mess at home, keeping your cat’s litter box up to his standards is very important. The following suggestions should keep your cat from “thinking outside the box.”

Location, location location

Most people tend to place the litter box in an out-of-the-way spot to minimize odor and prevent cat litter from being tracked throughout the house.

But if the litter box ends up in the basement next to a creepy appliance or on a cold cement floor, your cat may be less than pleased.

So you may have to compromise.

  • Keep the litter box in a spot that gives your cat some privacy but is also convenient. If the box is too hard to get to, especially for a kitten or an elderly cat, he just may not use it.
  • Avoid placing litter boxes next to noisy or heat-radiating appliances, like the furnace or the washing machine. Noises can make a cat nervous, while heat from a dryer or furnace can magnify the litter box smell, which could make him stay away from the litter box (and make you want to change houses).
  • Put the box far away from his food and water bowls. Cats don’t like that smell too near their food. Would you?
  • Place at least one litter box on each level of your house. That way your cat has options if access to his primary box is blocked (the basement door is closed or your dinner party has him holed up in the bedroom.) If you have more than one cat, provide litter boxes in several locations so that one cat can’t ambush another cat using the litter box.
  • If you keep the litter box in a closet or a bathroom, be sure the door is wedged open from both sides to prevent your cat from being trapped inside or locked out. Depending on the location, you might consider cutting a hole in a closet door and adding a pet door.

Visit our Cat Answer Tool to find a step-by-step guide to preventing (and solving) litter problems »

Pick of the litter

Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel. The new scoopable (clumping) litters usually have finer grains than the typical clay litter and are very popular because they keep down the odor. But high-quality, dust-free clay litters are fairly small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable to your cat.

There are several different types of cat litter on the market. The most popular ones are traditional clay litter, scooping/clumping litter, crystal-based/silica gel litter and plant-derived/bio-degradable litter.

If your cat has previously been an outdoor cat and prefers dirt, you can keep him out of your houseplants by placing medium-sized rocks on top of the soil in the pots. You can also mix some soil with your regular litter to lure him in. A cat who rejects all types of commercial litters may be quite happy with sand. Once you find a litter your cat likes, stick with it. Switching litters constantly could result in your cat not using the litter box.

Smelling like a rose

Many people used scented litter to mask litter box odors, but those scents can put off many cats. It’s not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litter box, either.

A thin layer of baking soda placed on the bottom of the box will help absorb odors without repelling your cat. And if you’re keeping the box clean, it shouldn’t smell bad anyway. (If you find the litter box odor offensive, your cat, with his keen sense of smell, probably finds it even more offensive and won’t want to go there.)

How many boxes?

The general rule of paw is one litter box for each cat in the home, plus one more. That way none of them will ever be prevented from eliminating in the litter box because it’s already occupied.

It’s not possible to designate a personal litter box for each cat in your household, as cats may use any litter box that’s available. That means a cat may occasionally refuse to use a litter box after another cat has been in it. In this case, you’ll need to keep all of the litter boxes extremely clean, and you might even need to add additional boxes. However, it’s best not to place all the boxes in one location because your cats will think of them as one big box and ambushing another cat will still be possible.

Under cover

Some people prefer to provide their cats with a covered litter box. Covered boxes can decrease the amount of litter that flies from the box when your cat buries his business. But if your cat doesn’t like a covered box, he won’t use it. To find out which type your cat prefers, you may want to experiment by offering both types at first.

Pros and cons:

  • You may forget to clean the litter box as frequently as you should, because the dirty litter is “out of sight, out of mind.”
  • A covered litter box traps odors inside, so you’ll need to clean it more often than an open one. A dirty, covered litter box is to your cat what a port-a-potty is to you!
  • A cover may not allow a large cat sufficient room to turn around, scratch, dig or position himself in the way he wants.
  • It may make it easier for another cat to lay in wait and “ambush” the user as he exits the box.

Other types of litter boxes

There is a wide variety of litter boxes on the market today. Keep in mind that some fancy litter box innovations are for the owner’s convenience, not the cat’s. In fact, some of these features may actually turn your cat off. It’s really best to keep it simple—a basic box, litter, and a scoop.

Keeping it clean

To meet the needs of the most discriminating cat, you should scoop feces out of the litter box daily. How often you actually replace the litter depends on the number of cats you have, the number of litter boxes and the type of litter you use.

Twice a week is a general guideline for replacing clay litter, but depending on your circumstances, you may need to replace it every other day or only once a week.

If you clean the litter box daily, you might only need to change clumping litter every two to three weeks. If you notice an odor or if much of the litter is wet or clumped, it’s time for a change.

Scrub the box every time you change the litter. Use mild dish detergent to clean it, as products with ammonia or citrus oils can turn a cat off, and some cleaning products are toxic to cats.

Liner notes

Box liners are strictly a convenience for the owner; supposedly, the liner can be gathered together and tied just like a garbage bag, but the truth is that most cats shred it to bits while scratching in the box. However, it might work if your cat doesn’t work too hard to bury his waste.

Depth of litter

Some people think that the more litter they put in the box, the less often they’ll have to clean it, but that’s a mistake. Most cats won’t use litter that’s more than about two inches deep. In fact, some long-haired cats actually prefer less litter and a smooth, slick surface, such as the bottom of the box. Adding extra litter isn’t a a substitute for scooping and scrubbing (sorry!).

“Litter training” cats

There’s really no such thing as “litter training” a cat in the same way one would housetrain a dog. You actually don’t need to teach your cat what to do with a litter box; instinct will generally take over. You do need to provide an acceptable, accessible litter box, using the suggestions above.

It’s not necessary to take your cat to the litter box and move her paws back and forth in the litter. In fact, we don’t recommend it, as such an unpleasant experience is likely to make her afraid of the litter box and you.

If you move to a new place, however, you will need to show your cat where the box is, though his sensitive nose will probably find it first.

If your cat begins to have litter problems

If your cat begins to go to the bathroom outside the litter box, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions can cause a change in a cat’s litter box habits. If your veterinarian examines your cat and gives him a clean bill of health, your cat may have a behavior problem that needs to be solved. See more ways to solve litter box problems »

Punishment is not the answer, nor is banishing your cat outdoors. For long-standing or complex situations, contact an animal-behavior specialist who has experience working with cats.

Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.

Preventing Litter Box Problems Before They Start

In dealing with feline toilet habits, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By following the easy steps listed below, you will help your cat develop positive litter box habits from the beginning.

Choose a litter box preferred by cats

In selecting a litter box, consider the size, age, and general condition of your cat. An older, arthritic cat may not be able to step into a box with high sides. A large cat will feel cramped in small quarters, and might be unable to turn around if the box is hooded. A hood can also trap and intensify odors and should be removed if it becomes a problem for your cat. Choose a litter box that will maximize you cat’s comfort. Be aware that your cat’s needs may change over the course of her lifetime.

Choose a litter preferred by cats

There are a variety of litters available at both grocery and pet supply stores. Not all of them are equally favored by cats. Scented and deodorized litters mask smells offensive to humans, but many cats will not use the box because they are repelled by the odors of urine and perfume.

It is best to choose completely unscented litters. For the same reason, it’s not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litter box. A thin layer of baking soda placed on the bottom of the box will help absorb odors without repelling your cat. Odor shouldn’t be a problem if the litter box is kept clean. If you find the litter box odor offensive, your cat probably finds it even more offensive and won’t use it.

Fill the box with the right amount of litter

Generally, it is best to fill the box with two to three inches of litter, enough for the cat to scratch and dig, but not so much that it spills onto the floor. Some cats exhibit a preference for more or less litter, so observe your cat and make adjustments if necessary.

Keep the litter box clean

The primary reason cats stop using their litter box is because box cleanliness. Cats have very sensitive noses and are in close proximity to the litter, so it is important to scoop waste at least once daily, and to dump and thoroughly clean the box regularly. Use water and plain, unscented soap to scrub the litter box, and dry well before refilling.

Put the litter box where it will be used

Cats feel most comfortable using the litter box if it is a convenient, quiet, and private place. Find a location where your cat will not be bothered by heavy foot traffic, other animals, and loud sounds. If you have no alternative to the laundry room, be sure to place the box away from washing machines and dryers.

Remember to consider the cat’s age and condition, too. For small kittens or older cats, make the box accessible as possible so that the animals will not have to negotiate stairs, cat doors, or other obstacles.

Keep the litter box environment cat-friendly

Cats may stop using a litter box if they have negative associations with the area. Do not medicate or punish your cat in the room where the litter box is kept. Also, your cat must feel safe when using the box. Restrict access to other pets who may ambush the cat, and be sure to provide litter boxes in different locations in multiple cat households where dominant animals exert territorial pressure on the others.

Provide enough litter boxes

In a multiple-cat household, cats need to have more than one litter box. Ideally, each cat should have access to his or her own box. Make sure that each litter box is scooped daily.

Familiarize new cats with the litter box

When introducing a cat to the household, make sure he or she knows where the litter box is kept. New cats often hide until they feel comfortable in their surroundings. Place the litter box where the cat feels safe, and gradually move the box, if necessary.

It’s a good idea to keep kittens confined to a limited area with an accessible box until they are fully litter box trained. Don’t forget that good behavior deserves rewards. Take some time to gently praise and stroke your cat after he has emerged from the litter box.

Spay or neuter your cat

Spayed and neutered cats are less likely to mark territory with urine than are the unneutered counterparts. They remain healthier and are less prone to diseases that affect fertile cats. In addition, the urine of neutered males is relatively odorless whereas that of tom cats is strong and offensive.

If your cat stops using the litter box, please consult Solving Litter box Problems.

Litter Box Problems Can Be Prevented
“An ounce of prevention…”

1. Have your cat spayed or neutered at six months of age. Sexually mature, intact cats will frequently use urine and fecal marking to indicate their territory. Neutering will correct 90% of elimination problems.

2. There should be one litter box per cat in the household, plus one additional litter box. Extra litter boxes are necessary because some cats like to defecate in one and urinate in another. Others will not use a box that has already been soiled or used by another cat.

3. Clean the litter boxes DAILY. The single most common reason for a cat’s refusal to use a litter box is because the box is dirty. Non-clumping litter should be scooped daily. The litter box should be emptied and washed every other day. Clumping litter should also be scooped daily and the litter boxes washed when soiled.

4. Choose a litter that appeals to the cat. Most cats prefer the texture of the sand-like scooping litters. Be sure to choose a brand that clumps into a firm ball, making scooping easier and cleaner (Everclean HD is excellent*). As a health precaution for younger kittens that might be prone to ingest the litter, use a non-clumping litter until the kitten is four months old.

5. NEVER use a scented litter. Perfumed, chemical scents repel cats. When you wash the litter box, use a mild dishwashing liquid. Do not use harsh chemicals that will leave an odor.

6. Do not use litter box liners – they can be irritating to some cats. In addition, covered or hooded litter boxes may be offensive to some cats. Be sure the litter box is not too small for your cat. The minimum size for a litter box is 22” x 16.”

7. Place litter boxes in quiet, private places that are easily accessible to the cat. The box should be in a location where it will not be disturbed by children or ambushed by other pets. Noisy areas near washing machines, furnaces or under stairs may frighten the cat away from the box. A house with several stories should have a litter box on each floor. NEVER place litter boxes near food or water dishes.

8. While kittens have an innate predisposition to use loose material as their litter, they may also choose other locations. You should limit their territory until they learn that the litter box is the only acceptable place for elimination. Praise and rewards will speed up the learning process. Like small children, they should not be expected to travel very far to find their toilet areas.

9. When introducing a new cat into the home, confine the cat to one room with its litter box, bed, food and water until the cat has used the litter box several times and shows an interest in exploring the rest of the house.

10. Help your cat feel comfortable in his new home and territory. Play games with him, give him a massage, talk to him frequently. Give him positive and affectionate attention. A confident, secure, contented and relaxed cat does not need to relieve anxiety and stress by such extreme measures as urinating or fecal marking.

What To Do If Your Cat is Not Consistently Using the Litter Box
“…a pound of cure.”

1. Have your cat examined by a veterinarian for a physical problem. Be sure to mention kitty’s urination and defecation habits. If a cat’s elimination is painful, it may associate the litter box with pain and choose to eliminate elsewhere. When the cat is healthy again, a careful reintroduction to the box will be necessary.

2. Carefully check the 10 steps for preventing litter box problems. Are you following all of them? Perhaps the solution is as easy as adding more litter boxes, cleaning more frequently or changing the brand of litter. Try to accommodate your cat’s preferences for location and litter material whenever possible.

3. Never punish the cat for eliminating outside of its litter box. House-soiling typically occurs when the litter box, its contents or its location is offensive to the cat. However, this problem may also present itself when the cat is stressed by the environment. HOUSE-SOILING IS NEVER DONE TO SPITE THE OWNER.

4. If aversion to the litter box can be ruled out, consider that the problem could be anxiety-related. Has there been a change in the household? Any intrusion on the cat’s territory, whether human, animal or even a new piece of furniture, can cause a cat to feel threatened, insecure and stressed. This results in his need to remind himself and the world of his territory. Territorial marking is usually accomplished by spraying urine on vertical surfaces or, less frequently, by squatting and urination or defecated on horizontal surfaces. The more cats in the household, the more likely it is that one or more of them will spray.

5. Try to relieve or eliminate the source of the cat’s anxiety. For example, pull the drapes so that the cat cannot view the antics of the tom cat next door. If the environmental cause that triggers the territorial behavior cannot be identified or eliminated, consult with an experienced feline behavior counselor.

6. What ever the cause for the inappropriate elimination, a brief confinement period may be necessary in order to clean the soiled areas, place deterrents in these spots and purchase new litter boxes or new litter. The confinement room should be a comfortable room and should contain two litter boxes, fresh food and water, a bed and toys. Remember not to place the litter boxers near the food and water. Visit the cat regularly, but do not let him out until the home environment has been cleaned and the litter box situation improved. Please note that extended periods of confinement may be detrimental to the retaining process. When the cat is let out, it is important to PRAISE APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR.

7. In order to thoroughly clean the urine-soaked areas, a black light may be used to identify the problem spots and a strong enzymatic cleaner should be used to saturate and neutralize them. The Equalizer (available through veterinary clinics) and Zap-A-Spot have proven to be highly effective. To repel the cat from previously soiled areas, cover them with a vinyl carpet runner (upside down), a solid air freshener (preferably in a citrus scent) or bowls of dry cat food. Solving house-soiling problems is possible with patience, persistence and a systematic plan for retraining. If you would like help determining the cause or treatment for an inappropriate elimination problem, give us a call.

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