Making Peace With Litter Boxes 

Like it or not, the bit of time you need to spend on learning to live at peace with a litter box is the price you pay for living indoors with cats. They don’t ask for much from us. Healthy food, love, and a clean “bathroom” that isn’t the feline equivalent of a smelly porta-potty. From a practical standpoint, a little time invested in litter box wisdom decrerases odds that your cat will start eliminating in places where you don’t want her to.

Having a cat means you have a litter box. To make everyone happy, the litter box needs to be used by the cat and easy to keep clean. Accomplishing those two goals doesn’t have to involve complex, expensive gadgetry full of flux capacitor parts the way some of the marketing folks would have us believe. Below are eight cardinal rules for litter boxes that I hope you find helpful. And that keep you from throwing money at on pricey air filters or complex contraptions that’s better spent on quality food for your cat.

The Cat Litter of My Dreams

Only infrequently do I recommend products, but my excitement over this grass-based, clumping cat litter compelled me to make an exception.

Toxoplasmosis, Cats, and Litter Boxes

Arming yourself with the facts about toxoplasmosis transmission can keep you safe and ensure that you are not making decisions about living with a cat based on sweeping falsehoods.

Top Ten List: What I Wish I’d Known Then

With time comes wisdom. Or at least the forehead-smacking feeling of wishing I knew then what I knew now.

1. Keep it clean. Really clean. Really, really clean.

By the time litter box odor is noticeable to you, it’s already been noticeable to your cat for some time. Think about how you would feel using a bathroom in which the toilet hasn’t been flushed for days. Don’t subject your cat to that. And if you do? Don’t be surprised if you start seeing “inappropriate elimination” in your house.

Remember, a cat’s sense of smell is infinitely more sensitive than our own. Cats can sense some 200 million odors and there is simply no comparing their sensory world to our own. Did I mention how critical it is to keep the litter box clean?

Make scooping the box something you do at least twice a day. If you do this, it barely takes a few seconds and will spare you from ever having to face a really dirty box. No one wants that–least of all the cat that has to walk in it.

Personally, I was never comfortable with the idea of leaving ANY litter, including the clumping litters, in the box for more than two weeks without completely emptying the contents and cleaning the box. Even with daily scooping, most people are not going to be able to get at every bit of soiled litter — unless you use the “Dr. Pierson method.”  Dr. Pierson kindly agreed to let me include the video demonstrating her method from her website here.

Dr. Pierson’s only condition for sharing this video with me was to make sure everyone understands that she purposely let the litter box get extra dirty for the illustrative purposes of filming of this great event.  Seriously, no joke, she wants to make sure everyone understands that the box in this video is “unacceptably filthy” and, in her mind (and mine), a litter box is plenty dirty once there are more than three “items” in it.  Dr. Pierson and I implore you to not let your litter box get as dirty as the one shown in this video. If you cannot stick to the “three to four item” rule because of your work schedule, then please add more boxes. 

Dr. Pierson’s method involves using plenty of litter so that the clumps of urine are almost always “suspended” in the box, so it minimizes opportunity for the bottom of the box to get soiled. The “tilt” method also enables you to ensure that you’re scooping the whole clump, rather than risking breaking it into pieces and contaminating the clean litter. Finally, it requires having a spray bottle on hand with a dilute bleach solution that you use to tidy up the sides as needed. What’s especially wonderful is how fast this method is particularly if you have the right tools on hand. I started using this method a few years ago and to my amazement, my litter boxes have never been cleaner. You could eat off the boxes in this house (well, almost). And for the first time ever, I find I’m not having to change the box completely every two weeks. There’s no need. My only gripe about Dr. Pierson’s method is that I didn’t think of it myself first.

If the litter box is not pristine, empty the contents of the box and follow up by scouring the box thoroughly with a non-toxic soap (I like to use Dr. Bronner’s castile soap) and rinse. Then rinse again. Then rinse again. Dry the box in the sunshine for a few hours.

Sweep up the area around the boxes on “litter change” day. If need be, wash the floor area with a diluted vinegar-in-water solution. Do NOT use harsh chemical cleaning products anywhere near your cat. Ever. In fact, be careful when selecting any cleaning products for use in a house with a cat.

Please don’t force your cat to suffer with a dirty box because you’ve designated cleaning it as your child’s responsibility. Yes, it’s wonderful to teach children what’s involved in caring for an animal, but children often cannot be trusted to maintain a litter box properly and leaving the box filthy as an “object lesson” for your child is terribly unfair to to the cat. Certainly none of the humans in your house will want to live with the smell. An adult needs to ensure that the box is clean, so if you’ve put your child in charge of the job and s/he falls down on the job? Then you need to take over.

If you keep up with it, we’re really not talking about spending more than two to three minutes of your time twice a day. I promise that it’s not a big deal once you get into this routine and stick to it. And for the at-least-twice-monthly method of emptying of the boxes altogether? That doesn’t take more than a few minutes if you have a nice big trash bag on hand and your soap, bleach, and rubber gloves nearby.

I strongly urge you to visit Dr. Lisa Pierson’s web page on litter boxes. It has some of the best and clearest advice I’ve ever seen assembled in one place on how to keep litter boxes spotlessly clean using a remarkably fast and easy method.  Dr. Andrea Tasi also has some priceless tips on litter boxes on her site. 

Remember: Keeping up with litter box cleaning every day is a very small price to pay to ensure your cat doesn’t start urinating or defecating where you don’t want her to.

2. Offer your cats more than one box.

Some cats, even if they’re in a single-cat household, are averse to urinating and defecating in the same box. So give them more than one box. I can’t even begin to explain why, especially in a multiple-cat household, one cat will want to use one particular box for urinating, another for defecating and another cat will have his/her own preferences. Don’t sweat it trying to figure it out. Just acknowledge the fact that your desire is to have the cats use a litter box and that you may have to make special accommodations to ensure that each cat has what s/he needs. Believe me, it sure beats dealing with the nightmare of a cat that is eliminating inappropriately around your house.

3. Ditch those covered boxes. Or at least offer one uncovered box.

I know many people like these boxes and their cats have used them with no problems for years. I’m a big believer, however, in doing whatever it takes to prevent problems from sneaking up from behind. The covered boxes tend to trap odors. They may keep the odors at bay from your nose, but remember that your cat is forced to enter a small, enclosed space and remain there while she takes care of business. Stick your head into that covered box once in a while and if it smells bad to you, remember that to your cat–with her intensely sensitive nose–it smells much, much worse. If you don’t want to stick your head into that box, ask yourself why.

You also don’t want your cat to have to hunch down in an unnatural position to use her box. Give her the room she needs to be comfortable in the box. If it’s too uncomfortable for your cat to use her box, she may very well stop using it.

Companies that sell the covered boxes say that they can substantially reduce odor. But they’re not reducing odor for the cat–unless you are truly doing your cat caregiver job and cleaning meticulously at least twice a day. A friend suggested to me once that a covered cat box is, to a cat, much like how we humans think about those porta-potties. Eeew, you know? If you can keep them spotless clean and promise to scoop them at least twice daily, then fine. But be honest: if you’re not going to do that, do not subject your cat to using a porta-potty. If you do buy a hooded box, buy a big one with tall sides and ample room.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is much to be said for not making it too easy for cat caregivers to avoid seeing what is going on in the litter box every day. The covered boxes and the “self-cleaning” boxes  simply make it far too easy to miss something important, such as noticing if your cat is having runny stools or diarrhea, or urinating more or less than is normal.

If your cat really likes her covered box, then offer a second box that is uncovered. Trust me. This is a good idea.

4. Keep the box in a quiet, low-traffic spot.

You don’t want your cat being frightened by movement or noise. Let your cat use her clean litter box in peace and privacy. A low traffic area that is not near kitty’s food or water is a wise choice. 

5. Skip perfumed, additive-laden, or paw-unfriendly litter.

Skip those perfumed litters and the “crystal- or pearl-type” litters that can hurt the sensitive paws of cats, especially kittens. Many pellet litters that are made with pine or newspapers can be very uncomfortable for your cat. And if your cat starts associating using the litter box with being uncomfortable? It’s not hard to guess what will happen next.

I hate to think of a cat that’s started eliminating inappropriately ending up in a shelter, un-adoptable, because someone used the wrong litter for that cat and she developed an aversion to the box. Very unfair.

Perfumes are chemicals a cat ingests when she cleans herself. You don’t want that, and it certainly does your cat no good.

Companies sell cat litter with the presumption that people hate the smell of litter boxes and having houses that scream, “I have a cat and things smell here.” The other issue of course is that companies presume people don’t like cleaning litter boxes. Hence, wanting to sell something that purports to solve a consumer’s problem, companies develop all kinds of gimmicks and gadgets ostensibly designed to solve the odor and cleaning problem or in some other way appeal to humans.

When you walk into the litter box aisle of a pet supply superstore, you see a phenomenally huge display area of various litters and contraptions. We have, in addition to the basic choices regarding clumping and non-clumping litters, litters with all manner of additives that lay claim to masking odor and even “automatic” litter boxes that claim to clean themselves, thus ostensibly making it possible for us to totally ignore the litter box except to empty a container containing automatically-scooped urine and feces.

But all those gadgets and gimmicks–the chemical and perfume additives, the strange-shaped litters (like those pearls and “litter crystals” that are so uncomfortable for many cats’ paws), the absurdly small hooded boxes, and the litter boxes that you have to plug in–all are based on the assumption that the litter box is, at its core, a problem.

But believe me, the litter box need not be a problem. Think of it this way: a litter box is merely a necessity that–if you just spend a few minutes learning how to keep properly clean–is there to provide your cat an acceptable place to do her business. It’s no big deal. You have a cat. You have a litter box. And staying in regular, but brief, touch with what is going on in those litter boxes can be worth its weight in gold in terms of staying on top of your cat’s health. To my mind, it’s a very big mistake not to have a regular look at the size of “peeballs” and the consistency of a cat’s stools. Noticing things there is a nice “early warning” sign if something is amiss with your cat. A litter box you that you plug in, forget about, and that sweeps everything, figuratively, under the rug won’t let you do that.

Leaving aside the issue of the wisdom of having anything heavily perfumed or chemically-treated near your cats (i.e., the heavily scented litters) there is absolutely NO need for special perfumes or additives if a cat box is maintained correctly. If you simply take on a little bit of daily cleaning responsibility, you realize that maintaining a litter box situation everyone is happy with–the caregiver and the cats–need not be time-consuming or expensive.

I’ll repeat my suggestion yet again to visit Dr. Pierson’s site on litter boxes and to have a look at her nifty video link that shows you exactly how it’s done. We’re talking maybe 90 seconds twice a day for a sparkling clean litter box that your cat will probably be quite happy to use.

6. If you use a non-clumping clay litter, empty it daily.

Even with daily scooping, non-clumping litters get filthy fast. You can scoop the feces out of the box, but you’re still left with urine-soaked clay that smells just dreadful to your cat. Very quickly what might look like a “clean” box is just a box full of small pieces of urine-laden clay.

Every litter has pluses and minuses, and for me and many others, it’s a matter of finding something where the pluses sufficiently outweigh the minuses. I don’t like using clay at all. Environmentally, it’s a disaster.

Using the cleaning method I use with the clumping litter that I like, which is made of grass, I minimize what gets tossed.

The corn- and wheat-based litters are fine as far as they go, but I’ve found them both intensely dusty. Some of the corn-based litter is expensive and I don’t like, frankly, using anything around my cats that’s a potential allergen trigger. So you’ll have to shop around, armed with information, and find what suits you.

The perfect cat litter? To my mind, it’s: clumping, environmentally-friendly, very low dust, unadulterated with added scents, affordable, comfortable on a cat’s paws, naturally attractive to cats, and devoid of any potential allergens. My choice? SmartCat

7. Some cats love and need a large litter box. Give them one.

I think most litter boxes are just too small. Some cats, especially females, tend to urinate “up and out” of the box. My petite little female tortoiseshell-tabby mix was notorious for this. It was as though she was using the sides of the box as her canvas for spray-painting compelling pee-art designs. I finally mostly solved the problem by getting one of those large dog-litter boxes which has higher sides and added a couple of very large hooded boxes to our mix of four boxes (for two cats). You can find the oversized, un-hooded boxes at many pet superstores or specialty pet supply shops.

It’s not only big cats that like big boxes. My little petite female couldn’t adequately do what she needs to do in a small litter box, whereas an amply-sized male cat might do fine in a small box. I’d rather indulge the fussy cat with an oversized box than have her urinate on the sofa.

Another suggestion if you’ve got a cat who likes to urinate with her back end perched high in the air is to buy one of those large plastic storage bins with very high sides. You may want to give your cat, especially a senior cat, an easy set of steps so she can enter and exit such a box without having to leap. The litter box experience should be a pleasant habit for your cat, not an ordeal. If it becomes an ordeal, your cat may well stop using the box altogether.

Here’s the litter box that’s my current favorite.

8. Keep plenty of litter on hand and have the supplies you need to keep the box clean nearby.

When you buy litter, buy a lot. You don’t want to face a dirty litter box and have to think about driving to the store before you can change it. You should never run out of litter. Stock up when it’s on sale.

Using an oversized heavy metal scoop with holes in it (the kind they sell for use with deep fryers) purchased from the kitchen department at just about any store works well for digging in deep litter for “treasures.” I started using the mother of all litter scoops and love it. It doesn’t break like so many of those cheap plastic ones they sell with litter boxes often do and is big enough to grab an entire “clump” without breaking it up. When you’re done using it, give it a quick clean and hang it nearby.

I keep a store of bags from the ones that newspapers get delivered in and from grocery stores, stashed by the box, so when I clean the box, it’s just a matter of grabbing a bag and my scoop, scooping the boxes of every trace I can find of stuff that shouldn’t be there, putting that into the plastic bag, and then tying the bag shut tightly before tossing.

I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but please do visit Dr. Lisa Pierson’s “how to” page on litter boxes. I thought I was the Queen O’ Clean when it came to litter box hygiene until I learned her way of doing it. I’ve learned that her clever method is not only faster than what I was doing before, but it’s a time- and money-saver. No more hauling out heavy bags of litter-filled trash. The boxes are always clean. And my cats have never been more happy about their pristine litter boxes.

If your cat does begin eliminating inappropriately, first rule out any physical ailment with your vet. There are more than a few medical reasons that a cat might stop using the litter box, and some of them are life-threatening.  If you’ve ruled out a medical reason, next, take an honest survey of the litter boxes in your home and ask: are they clean? is the litter pleasing to the cat? is the area quiet? If need be, try changing litters or adding a new box elsewhere. You might also consider using Feliway in areas where the cat has eliminated inappropriately, far away from the litter box. If you do that, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter. Another idea is to try using Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract litter. Decent texture, not too dusty, clumping, and contains some magical scent (only detectable to cats – is it catnip?) that encourages cats to “do your business here.”

By Eunsoo Lee and Eunyoung Lee

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