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Litter Boxes and Litter Box Problems


Litter Boxes and Litter Box Problems

Cats will naturally use the litter box.  They do not have to be taught to use the litter box. Lucky for us.

However there are some things that you can do to make things more pleasant for your cat and to decrease the risk that she will ever feel the need to stop using the litter box.  If you are adopting a new cat, you should do what you can to make the litter box experience as easy and pleasant as possible for your new friend.

The “scoop” on litter boxes.  Having an adequate number of acceptable and clean litter boxes with litter that your cat prefers and in locations that your cat likes will help ensure that your cat never slips into behavior where she is eliminating in places other than in the litter box.

Number of litter boxes    You should have at least as many litter boxes as you have cats.  Some people recommend that you have one more litter box than you have cats.  For example, if you have 1 cat, you should have at least 1 or 2 litter boxes.  If you have three cats, you should have at least 3 or 4 litter boxes.  In this way, one cat will not be without a litter box while another is using the box.  You do not want your little buddy to be put in the situation where she has to start eliminating outside the box because she cannot find one when she needs one.

In addition, it is also recommended that you have a litter box on each level of your home.  For example, if you have 1 cat, but have a 3-level home, you should have 3 litter boxes – one on each level of the house. 

Occasionally a cat may refuse to use the litter box after another cat has used it.  In this case, all of the litter boxes will need to be kept extremely clean and additional boxes may be required.

Type of litter    Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters presumably because they are softer to walk on.  Scoopable litters usually have finer grains than the typical clay litter.  However, high-quality, dust-free clay litters are relatively small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable to your cat.  If you suspect that your cat has a history of spending time outdoors and is likely to eliminate in your houseplants, you can try mixing some potting soil with your regular litter.  Once you find a litter your cat likes, don’t change types or brands.  Buying the least expensive litter, instead of the litter that your cat prefers, could result in your cat not using the litter box.

Many cats are put off by the odor of scented or deodorant litters.  For the same reason, it’s not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litter box.  If you like, a thin layer of baking soda can be placed on the bottom of the box to help absorb odors without repelling your cat.

Location of litter boxes    Although humans may like the litter boxes in very out-of-the-way locations such as a distant corner of the basement next to the furnace, your cat may not agree.  A new cat in your household may have trouble finding a box that is in an obscure location.  A cat using a litter box close to the furnace, washing machine or dryer may be startled by the machine suddenly starting up or switching modes.  This could make her stop using the litter box.  It is best to put litter boxes in areas that are both convenient for your cat to find and which provide her with some degree of privacy.

Some cats like to scratch the surface surrounding the litter box and may find a cold cement floor unappealing.  You may want to put a small rug under the litter box in this circumstance.

And remember, you should have at least one litter box on each level of your house.

Types of litter boxes    There are pros and cons to using covered litter boxes.

a.  A covered litter box traps odors inside, so it will need to be cleaned more often than an open one.

b.  A covered litter box may not allow enough room for a larger cat to move around or position herself as she would like.

c.  A covered litter box may make it easier for another cat to lay in ambush of a cat who is leaving the litter box.  If a cat is frightened in this way, she may stop using the litter box.

d.  A covered litter box may feel more private and may be preferred by some cats.

e.  Humans may forget to clean covered litter boxes as often as they should.   

Cleaning the litter box    In general, litter boxes should be scooped at least once a day.  Depending on the number of cats and litter boxes that you have and whether you have a cat who prefers an especially pristine box, you may need to scoop the litter more often than once a day.

In addition to once or twice-a-day scooping, you need to completely change all of the litter and wash the box regularly.  If you are using clay litter, you will need to completely change all of the litter twice a week.  Those using scoopable litter can go 2-3 weeks before the litter needs to be completely changed.

If the box starts to smell it is time to clean.  A dirty box is risky business.  Your cat may stop using the litter box if she finds that it is always too dirty for her tastes.

How often you scoop and change the litter box also depends on the number of litter boxes and cats that you have and whether you have a cat who is especially desiring of an especially clean litter box.  If you find that you cannot change the litter as often as necessary, you should consider adding additional boxes.

Don’t use strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products when washing the litter box.  That may cause your cat to avoid it.  Washing with soap and water should be sufficient.

Depth of the litter    Most cats won’t use litter that’s more than about 2 inches deep.  In fact, some long-haired cats actually prefer less liter and like to scratch the smooth, slick surface on the bottom of the litter box.

Litter box behavioral problems.    When cats stop using the litter box it can certainly be a source of stress for the humans in the house.  Remember that a cat that has stopped using the box does not do so because she is “mad at you” or “wants to punish you” or because she is not smart. 

If she has stopped using the box because of a health problem this needs to be addressed immediately. For example, urinary tract infections may cause the cat to stop using the litter box.  Remember that cats do not always act sick when they are.  Only a trip to your veterinarian may be able to uncover an illness that is causing your cat to stop using the litter box. 

If it is not a health problem, then it is because she has learned a bad habit.  The good news is that good habits can be relearned.  Most litter box problems can be resolved with behavioral modification. 

If the problem is a behavioral problem and not a health problem, you can approach the problem by taking on the role of detective in order to find out what changed in your cat’s environment to cause her to change her habits, and by taking on the role of behavioral therapist in order to find things that can be changed in order to modify behavior. 

You should consider the following when dealing with a cat who has stopped using the litter box:

1.  Take your cat to the vet.  Changes in litter box habits can be a sign of illness.  If this is the case, it is important to find this out immediately.

2.  Think about what may have changed in your house to change her litter box habits.  Did something change in your household?  Another cat?  A new pillow on the bed on which she now likes to urinate on?  Did the cat become frightened by something that happened while she was in the litter box such as being scared by another cat or a loud noise by a washing machine or furnace near the box?  

Remember that the original reason that your cat stopped using the box may not be the reason that it is continuing.  For example, your cat may have stopped using the litter box because of a urinary tract infection, and then develop a surface preference for carpet and a location preference for the bedroom closet.  In this case, you’ll need to address all three of these factors to resolve the problem.

3.  Did you change something about the litter box such as location or type of litter or type of litter box?  Has the location of the litter box become difficult for your cat, such as an older cat who now has difficulty negotiating the stairs to the box?  Is the litter too deep for your cat’s preference?  Do you need to change the type of litter box that you are using?

4.  Is the box being kept clean enough for your cat?

5.  If a litter box problem does develop, you should attempt to correct the problem as soon as possible.  The longer the bad habit persists, the harder it will be to change.

6.  Is your cat using several areas of the house as a place to urinate or has she, for some reason started using just one or two favorite places?

You should consider doing one or more of the following when a litter box problems develops:

1.  Keep the litter boxes cleaner by scooping more often, completely changing the litter and washing the box more often, and/or adding more litter boxes.

2.  Add additional litter box locations.

3.  Try putting less litter in the box.

4.  You may want to experiment with different types of litters.  Try having several litter boxes with different types of litter to discover what type of litter your cat prefers. 

5.  If one cat is ambushing another at the litter box, consider adding more litter boxes, adding another type of litter box (covered or uncovered), or putting a litter box in an area where only the ambushed cat can get to it.

6.  If the cat is using only one or two inappropriate areas to urinate, keep the cat away from that area(s) and clean the area(s) totally with an enzymatic cleaner. 

It is absolutely crucial to eliminate the odor from the area that your cat is inappropriately using. The Denver Dumb Friends League has an excellent area on their web site about cleaning pet stains and odors.  (http://www.ddfl.org/behavior/cleaning.htm)  In some instances in order to completely clean the carpet you may need to change the carpet padding and/or the carpet itself. 

To keep the cat away from the undesirable area you can keep the cat out of that closet or room or cover the area (after complete cleaning and deodorizing) with some material that is objectionable to the cat such as aluminum foil.  You may need to keep your cat away from the area for several weeks.

7.  If your cat is urinating on something that can be eliminated from your house, you should get rid of the object.  Get rid of the cat bed that she is urinating on in order to mark it as her property.  Get rid of the pillow that she is urinating on to mark it as hers.  You should get rid of that rug that she has started using as a litter box.

8.  You may need to retrain your cat by keeping her in a small room with one or more clean litter boxes for a period of time until she relearns good litter box habits.

9.  Discuss the situation with your veterinarian to ask for suggestions.

10.  Punishment is never the answer.  This will only cause more anxiety in your cat, may worsen the litter box problem and may cause the emergence of additional behavioral problems such as aggression and fear.

If simple changes such as those above are not successful you may need to reach out to someone with additional experience in these issues.  Please consider the following:

1.  Call your local humane society or animal shelter. 

2.  You may need to consult an animal behavioral therapist.  The Denver Dumb Friends League does have additional excellent information on their web site (http://www.ddfl.org/behavior.htm)  The Denver Dumb Friends League also has animal behavioral experts who can be reached by e-mail or phone.   Your veterinarian may also know an animal behavioral therapist whom he/she can recommend.

3.  There are some excellent books with information about behavioral issues.  Some of these are listed in our  “Recommended Web Sites and Reading” section.

Much of the information in this section on litter box problems was taken from The Denver Dumb Friends League website (http://www.ddfl.org/behavior/lbox_prob_prev.htm), and the Humane Society of the United States web site (http://www.hsus.org/ace/13147).  We acknowledge and appreciate their help.



Copyright © [2003]  [Little Buddies Adoption and Humane Society].