The Litter Box Demystified

Sam being attentive

Sam

For new cat owners and sometimes pros, the litter box can be a source of confusion and even frustration. This month, we’re going to work on demystifying the litter box.

1. Location, location, location! Cats can be just as sensitive to location of their litter boxes as we can be about public restrooms. Think about it, how often have you waited until someone left the public restroom to do what you really had to do? Cats enjoy their privacy, as well. They like a place that’s going to be mostly undisturbed and SAFE. I can’t stress that one enough. How many times have you found your cat hiding in or behind its litter box? That’s because they consider it a safe place. In the wild when you have to stop and do your business, you’re vulnerable to predation. Even though cats are predators, they’re small predators and have to worry about being predated themselves. They also have to worry about being ambushed by fellow cats that live in the house with them. It seems strange, I know, but I’ve watched my own cats do this to each other. Apparently it’s a great game, unless you have one cat that doesn’t think it’s so great. Also, as cats age, they like to have that nice, safe place to relax and do their thing. Speaking of elderly felines, location is important for them not only for the above reasons, but also because they may not be able to go down that flight of stairs to the basement anymore like they used to. That’s definitely something to keep in mind. Another aspect of location is noise. This is why it is highly, HIGHLY recommended not to put your litter box next to the washing machine or the dryer. Think of your cat, squatting, relaxing, about to go, and WHOOSH! The washing machine starts to refill or spin or the dryer timer goes off. So much for feeling safe.

2. Let’s move on to the substrate itself. There are all sorts of litters out there. How do you know which one is the right one? It depends on the cat. With a new cat, there can sometimes be a bit of a trial and error period with the litter. There’s clumping, clay, paper, corn, flushable, pine, wheat, you name it seems to be litter! My cats prefer a nice clumping litter (Tidy Cats Scoop) and that works just fine for me, but I did go through a period where they let me know they preferred one brand of clumping litter over another. So, how do cats let us know whether they like their litter or not? The biggest sign is urinating or defecating outside of the litter box. This can be due to other things, too, and we’ll talk about those in a moment, but this can be a sign that they don’t like their litter. Also, failure to bury their leavings in the litter box can be a sign that they don’t like the feel of the substrate on their paws. Think about it, a lot of us have a preference for toilet paper, so why shouldn’t cats have a texture preference for litter? This requires some patience on your part and changing around of litter brands and types until you find the one that works for your cat. Not all cats will bury their leavings, though, so after much observation, you may discover your cat simply doesn’t care about burying.

3. Size of the litter box can make a difference, as well. My male cat was always defecating just outside the edge of the litter box. I just couldn’t figure it out until I saw him using the litter box one day. He swung his tush around and plop right outside the litter box they dropped. The litter box was too small! He wasn’t doing it on purpose, it was purely accidental. I went out that day and bought a flat-ish Rubbermaid tote that was wider and longer than the litter box and we haven’t had that problem since. I got my two cats when they were already a year old, but if you started with a kitten, think of the little kitten litter box you may have had. An adult cat, especially if they put on a few extra pounds, may have trouble using such a small box. It’s the equivalent of an adult human trying to use a two year old’s potty training toilet.

4. Cleanliness is very important. Picture yourself at a State fair. The only bathrooms available are port-a-potties. I, personally, will hold it until I’m sick rather than use one of those. My husband will choose one that is clean and use it. Maybe you would see the bushes nearby and use those instead. Others of us will hold our breath, not look around too much, be careful not to touch anything and use a dirty one. We all have preferences and differences in tolerance. Cats are the same. Some cats don’t mind if you don’t clean the litter box for a few days. Other cats will ignore the dirty litter box completely and go find your laundry basket of nice smelling freshly cleaned clothes. And still others will do what I do and hold it until they’re sick. This can be very dangerous for cats and can lead to a prolonged stay at the vet’s or at an emergency hospital. Unfortunately it can even lead to death. The recommendation for litter box cleaning is to scoop it once a day. Compare this to how often you flush your toilet. Not only is this good for the cats, but it’s good for us, too. There is a parasitic protozoan that can be found in cat feces, but it’s not active until 2-4 days after defecation. So, if you clean the litter box every day, you won’t ever come across it. Along with removing the urine clumps and the feces is cleaning the litter box itself. You should do this every time you completely change the litter. I’d recommend maybe once a month or so. It just depends on how often you need to change the litter and how many cats are using it. To clean a litter box, you should use plain, no bleach, no special fragrances, dish soap and warm water. Rinse it out well and let it dry before you refill it. It’s as simple as that!

5. Speaking of refilling the litter box, how much litter should you put in? It’s true that you can put a very thin layer in a litter box and a cat will use it, but they prefer a bit to dig around in. This is probably from their ancestral days of living in North Africa. A depth of 3-5 inches is usually sufficient for most cats. This lets them dig around and bury, but doesn’t give them so much litter that they’re digging forever or sinking in.

6. Last, but certainly not least is the number of litter boxes you should have. Yep, that’s right, you should have more than one litter box. The general rule is that you have one litter box for each cat plus one. So, if you have one cat you have one litter box + one litter box = two litter boxes. For two cats it’s two litter boxes + one litter box = 3 litter boxes and so on. Have you ever had to go to the bathroom, but someone was in there? Wouldn’t it be nice to have more than one bathroom? Well, cats are right there with us. So, why have two litter boxes if you only have one cat? Some cats like to urinate in one box and defecate in the other. Also, if you space the litter boxes out, the cat may be able to get to one easier than another. For example, your niece is over and she just loooooves to play with the kitty. If your cat spends the day hiding in your bedroom and has to sneak past your niece to get to the litter box, he just might decide to use your closet, instead. If you have another litter box in another part of the house that doesn’t involve going past the cuddly niece, then your cat can go there in safety.

If your cat is using the litter box just fine, then all is good. If for some reason your feline friend decides to go places other than the litter box, you can check out this list and see if anything could use some tweaking. That just might fix your problem. If your cat persists in going outside the litter box, however, it might be time to make a visit to the vet. Something as simple as a bladder infection or a urinary tract infection could be the reason for your cat’s reluctance to use the litter box. It seems silly to us, but if it hurts every time they try to urinate in the litter box, they associate the litter box with the pain and will find somewhere else to go. They have no way of knowing it isn’t the litter box that’s hurting them. So, when in doubt, call your veterinarian. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Well, I hope you have enjoyed the inaugural article for Vet Tech Check and maybe learned a few things you didn’t know before in the process. I’ll be back in a month with a new article. In the meantime, keep enjoying the journey with your pets!

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Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 8:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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