Litterbox Basics – make sure your cat is thinking inside the box

Author: Chris O’Neil, Founder, Catology – Cat Behaviour Solutions

Toileting locations are a very important part of a cat’s environment.  At least half of the clients I see have some sort of toileting issue.

It seems pretty straightforward.  Cats just naturally go in the litterbox once trained (usually by their mother)… don’t they?

Luckily for owners (and the cat) this is most often the case.  However, there is a not-insignificant portion of owners that deal with poo on the carpet, or wee on their bed on a daily basis.  It’s one of the main reasons cats are given up to shelters.  I mean, who wants to be dealing with that every day? 

Luckily, if you get the litterbox basics down from the start, it’s unlikely you’ll deal with this issue.  Clients I see that are dealing with litterbox issues are usually making the same “mistakes”.

So, to keep your household running smoothly, lets dig in to the basics of the humble litterbox.  

There are a number of things for owners to consider when it comes of their cats’ toileting habits.  These include:

  1. The type of litterbox
  2. The type of litter
  3. The number of litterboxes
  4. Their location(s)
  5. Their cleanliness

All of these things can make or break whether your cat chooses the litterbox over the carpet.  We’ll go through these one at a time.


The type of litterbox

The type of litterbox you give your cat can be a big deal.  I have clients where, just changing the type has encouraged the cat to start using it again.

Let’s think about a cat in the wild.  Cats are right in the middle of the food chain, both the hunter and the hunted.  This fact in itself has conditioned many evolutionary behavioural aspects of cat behaviour, which we will delve into in future blog posts.

So when a cat, who is prey for larger animal, goes to the toilet, what is most important to them?  Well, for us humans, we tend to value privacy – we close the door and lock ourselves in the bathroom away from other people.  Cats don’t necessarily want privacy – what they need more than this, is safety!  Being able to see their surroundings and having multiple exit paths will trump privacy any day. 

You might wonder what this has to do with the type of litterbox? 

Well, hooded litterboxes do the exact opposite of what cats naturally want.  Litterboxes with a lid or hood don’t allow cats to see their surroundings, AND they only have one exit path.  I’ve seen cats that will only use a hooded litterbox with half their body outside the box so they can see their environment. 

This isn’t to say that cats won’t use a hooded litterbox, it’s just that it doesn’t “match” their natural requirements and unequivocally contributes to litterbox issues in my experience, especially if there are other aspects of the environment that don’t suit.

So, what’s the best litterbox?  The basic, uncovered tray type.  Large enough so they can dig and move around (a lot of the smaller trays you find at the pet shop aren’t big enough).  I personally, and a lot of my clients, now use large plastic storage boxes (either high-sided or low sided), as they are a better fit.


The type of litter

Litter type is quite the preference for cats, and I’ve seen it time and time again be the main contributor to litterbox avoidance.

Cats’ feet have a huge amount of sensory nerve endings which can make them ultra-sensitive, and this can make or break whether your cat likes the feel of the litter.

In my experience, the sandier the better.  This seems to suit the feel of where they would go in the wild.  Crystal and pellet type litter tend to be the ones I see cause the most problems.

Fragrance plays a big role as well.  A cat’s sense of smell is many times better than a human’s, so that pleasant (to you) lavender scented litter may be too strong or aversive for your cat.

I will also make a mention of litter liners here as well.  Many cats may tolerate a liner, but many won’t as well.  Remembering that cats like to dig and cover their “business”, a liner often gets caught up in their nails and makes the whole toileting process uncomfortable.  Suddenly your carpet looks a bit more inviting!


Number of litterboxes

This (and the next point - locations) are a contentious subject for cat owners.

But let me tell you this, the number of litterboxes you have can be a make or break as to whether your cat uses it or not.   This is especially true in a multi-cat household.

Basically, the rule of thumb for the number of litterboxes is, the number of cats, plus one.  This seems to be the sweet spot for keeping toileting issues at bay. 

There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. Many cats like to wee and poo in different, separate locations.
  1. In a multi-cat household, toilet locations are seen as a “resource” and a lack of resources creates territorial tension. One litterbox for multiple cats can result in “resource guarding”, and for some cats it will just be easier to wee under the bed than have to run the gauntlet past another cat.
  1. They are important territory markers. Cats like to put their scent all around their territory, and smelling themselves in different locations helps to cement their ownership of an area.

Many owners think that each cat has their own litterbox.  This may be true in some households, but mostly cats will share the litterboxes.  This helps combine scent.  Of course, cats will prefer some litterboxes over others, and it likely corresponds with the individual territories within the house.


Litterbox locations

Now, the “number of cats plus one” rule can’t be circumvented by putting all the litterboxes in one location (nice try!). This just doesn’t work.  If the litterboxes are all in one room, then a territorial cat can still guard the litterboxes.  Multiple litterboxes in one area are just seen as one (big) litterbox to a cat.

So, ideally they need to be spread around the house, as this creates choice, and a perceived abundance of this resource.

Remembering that cats want safety over privacy, don’t put the litterbox in a cupboard.  Try as best you can to have them in an open spot so they have multiple exit paths (though this isn’t always possible).

Lastly, never put the litterbox and food/water near each other – put them in separate rooms if possible.  Cats will often refuse to eat/drink near a litter source (natural instinct to protect them from contamination), and conversely, I’ve seen cats that refuse to use litter near a food/water source.


Cleaning and Maintenance

Cats are immensely clean animals, and will generally prefer a clean litterbox over a used one.  There is a scale here though. I’ve seen some cats still use a litterbox full of business, but on the other hand I know of cats that will refuse to use a litterbox if something else is in there.

The general rule is to scoop daily (minimum), and replace weekly.  Replace more often if it starts to smell (some of the pellet litters should be replaced twice a week).  Clumping litters may be able to go a little longer.

As humans, we don’t like the idea of cat pee smell in our house, so when you replace the litter, it’s also a good idea to give the litterbox a thorough wash.  Be careful here though – if you use a chemical cleaner, you can actually deter your cat from using the litterbox again.  Especially of it is citrus scented (though any cleaner could be aversive).  I’ve found the best way to clean is outside with the hose, and then a hot water rinse if needed. 

There you go, who would have thought the subject of litter and litterboxes could be so important!  Normally it’s not a thing a cat owner wants to think about too much, but let me tell you, the consequences of not getting this right is a big reason cats end up in shelters or medicated, when the solution can just be to comply with their natural instincts and set up an environment that supports this.