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Litter Box 101: Preventing Litter Box Problems

August 1, 2014

Urinating outside the litter box (inappropriate urination) is one of the most common behavior problems we see in pet cats. While there are many medical and behavioral causes, these tips can help you prevent problems from developing due to a specific cause: Cats not liking something about their litter box.

Location: Most people want the presence of the litter box to be as small as possible in our lives. We place boxes in basements, cabinets, corners, and other out of the way or enclosed places so we don’t have to see or smell them or their contents. However, elimination is a relatively vulnerable activity for cats, who still retain many wild instincts. Therefore, given a choice they often prefer to have a good view of the surrounding area and not enter an enclosure where they may be ambushed when they exit.  This doesn’t mean you have to place litter boxes in the middle of a room, but try to avoid tight spaces. For example, try placing the box along the edge of a wall in the middle of a room rather than in the corner of the room.

Size: Many cats prefer more space in the box than afforded by even the largest commercially available litter boxes. This is particularly important for overweight cats or cats with mobility problems that may make finding a comfortable position in the box difficult.  It can also be an issue for especially fastidious cats who may not want any content with waste from a previous visit to the box. Underbed storage containers with the lids removed are a great alternative; they have a large footprint but are still low-sided so they are easy to get into.

Cleanliness: For the most part, cats are very fastidious. If not living in our homes, cats could choose to eliminate in a different place every time they had to urinate or defecate. Most cats adapt to using a litter box, but individual cats tolerate different levels of waste in the box and some are extremely picky about cleanliness. Scooping boxes at least once daily is ideal. Remember, scooping the litterbox is not like cleaning a toilet, it is like flushing a toilet; would you want to use a toilet that had not been flushed in days? Also, plastic will absorb odors over time, so it is ideal to replace each box about once a year.

Number: In multi-cat households, keeping the peace is best achieved by providing an “environment of plenty.” That is, there should be plenty of resources such as resting, hiding, and perching places, and this includes litter boxes. It is ideal to have one more box than the number of cats in the home. (For example, four boxes for three cats.) They do not necessarily all need to be in different locations, but at least two separate locations is ideal.

Variety: Some cats have or develop strong preferences about the litter type and box type. When you get a new cat, offer a few different alternatives and see if s/he has strong preferences. No matter what we might prefer about brand, style, scent, or type of litter, the cat’s preferences should always win out to prevent problems. In general, avoid litters with strong scents or textures that may be uncomfortable to the paws (such as the “crystal” type litter).

Every cat is an individual; some have strong preferences about the litter boxes and others do not. These tips will stack the odds in your favor to help prevent problems before they occur.

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