Litter Box Management: A List to Consider

By Elizabeth Racine, DVM November 15, 2018

Inappropriate elimination is the number one reason cats are surrendered to shelters. Help set your cat up for success by following these guidelines for appropriate litter box management!

1) Number of litter boxes

The rule of thumb is to have at least one litter box per cat, plus one. For example, a household with two cats should have at least three litter boxes. This ensures that your cat will always be able to find an unoccupied litter box when needed. Some cats also prefer to use one box for urination, and a separate box for defecation.

2) Size of the box

Most commercial litter boxes are too small for the average adult cat! The litter box should be at least 1.5 times the length of your adult cat to allow plenty of room for the cat to turn in all directions. The box should be deep enough to hold at least 1.5 inches of litter. If covered, the box should also be tall enough for the cat to stand up to his full height. Some great alternatives to commercial litter boxes are sweater storage boxes, plastic under-bed boxes, and Rubbermaid containers. These provide ample room for your cat to move and dig.

3) Type of litter box

There are many types of litter boxes. Be sure to get litter boxes that are made of non-absorbent, easy-to-clean material such as plastic or metal. Automated or robotic self-cleaning litter boxes should be avoided because the noise and movement may scare your cat and discourage him from using the box. The litter box should be easily accessible and should have at least one side low enough for the cat to walk in and out. This is particularly important for older cats who are prone to arthritis and may be reluctant to jump into a high-sided box. Most cats prefer their litter boxes to be uncovered. However, some cats prefer a covered box, so offering several different options for your cat is best. If your cat prefers a covered litter box, ensure that one side is left open for ventilation, so dust and odors do not build up inside the box.

4) Location of litter boxes.

Litter boxes should be placed in clean, dry, quiet locations of the house. Avoid noisy and high-traffic areas. Litter boxes should be placed in at least two separate areas of the house. Ideally, there should be at least one on each floor. Most cats also prefer their litter boxes in a separate room away from their food and water sources. Be aware of obstacles that your cat may encounter on the way to the box, such as stairs, baby gates, boisterous dogs, or noisy appliances, as these can all deter a cat from making a trip to the box. Older cats should have at least one litter box on the main floor of the house as arthritis pain may make them reluctant to use stairs. Do not change the location of the litter box. If it is absolutely necessary to do so, move the box only 1-2 inches per day until you reach the desired location.

5) Type of litter

The type of litter you use is very important. Most cats prefer unscented clay cat litter, but preferences can vary. Avoid scented litters or those that are very dusty as these can be irritating to your cat. If you are unsure which type of litter your cat prefers, try offering a “litter box buffet”. To do this, place several boxes side by side, each with a different litter, and monitor to see which type your cat uses most frequently. Once you have identified your cat’s preferred litter, use it consistently. Changing litter types abruptly may make the box unattractive to your cat. Be sure to fill the box at least 1.5 inches deep with litter to provide your cat adequate substrate for digging.

6) Cleanliness

Just like you, your cat hates using a dirty bathroom! All litter boxes should be scooped at least once daily. Boxes that are used by multiple cats may need to be scooped several times daily. Some individual cats are particularly fastidious and may require more frequent scooping. The entire box should be emptied and washed at least once a week. Boxes should be replaced annually. Ensure the area around the box is clean as well – no one wants to go to the bathroom in a mildew-filled basement or next to a smelly trash can!

7) Humor preferences

Cats can be very picky about their litter boxes. In multi-cat households, each cat may have different preferences. Try offering litter boxes in assorted styles and locations to help determine what your cat prefers. Accommodating your cat’s unique preferences may be frustrating at times, but this can help prevent inappropriate elimination in the future.

8) Monitor for changes

Changes in elimination habits can be the first sign of a medical problem. Things to watch for include changes in the volume or frequency of eliminations, straining, vocalizing while eliminating, eliminating outside the box, or frequently going into the box without eliminating. Contact your veterinarian if these changes occur.

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