The Litterbox: A Relationship Make or Break

Cat urine is horrid and can ruin carpet, floors, and furniture. Thankfully, behaviorists, having dealt with these problems often, have a number of ideas to help cat owners.

Your Cat Makes the Decisions

When it comes to the litterbox, your cat makes all the decisions. After all, if she’s not happy with anything concerning the box, she may not use it at all or will use it sporadically. It’s important cat owners come into litterbox training with the  frame of mind that this is all about making the cat happy. If you’re upset, your cat will know it and the problem will escalate.

Location, Location, Location

The litterbox needs to be in a location near where the cat spends most of her time. If she spends a great deal of time in the living part of the house downstairs but the box is upstairs in a back bathroom, that could be a problem. At the same time, most cats prefer some privacy for their box; a busy family bathroom might not work.  You might want to set up two or three boxes in different locations to see which one your cat likes best. Multiple boxes can also work for a large house.

The Type of Litter is Important

Most cat owners I’ve talked to say their cats prefer the clumping litter; mine do, too. I think it helps keep the cat from stepping in urine or feces when she steps into the box. For young kittens, the clumping is usually not recommended because digestive problems can ensue if the kitten swallows clumping litter while cleaning her paws. Use the old fashioned clay litter for young kittens and then gradually switch to clumping when the kitten is five to six months old. If you have a cat who seems to be sensitive to the type or brand of litter used (and some cats are) choose an unscented clumping litter and once she’s using it, stay with the same litter. Don’t buy a different litter because it’s on sale; stay with what she likes.

When you put litter in the box, make sure there is at least a couple of inches covering the bottom of the box. Cats like to scratch in the litter first and then scratch to cover their mess. If there isn’t enough litter, the cat will just scratch the bottom or side of the box or even the floor outside the box. Give her enough litter to make her happy.

Covered, Uncovered; There Are Lots of Boxes

I use a high-sided box for my two large male cats. It’s made from a large plastic storage bin with an opening cut into one end.  A regular sized litter box wasn’t large enough, seemed cramped, and the cats spilled the litter out of it. This big box works great. Previous cats have had normal height boxes and for one cat who liked privacy, a covered box.

Some cats will use anything with litter in it while others have distinct preferences. If you’re having litterbox issues, I suggest trying a couple of different types of boxes. Set them up side by side and leave them set up, with the same type of litter, for a couple of weeks and see which one your cat prefers. Avoid the fancier litter box options (self scooping or those with a hidden walkway, for example) for cats with litterbox issues. Keep it simple.



Keep it Clean

Scoop the box at least once per day and dump the litter and clean the box once per week. If you have multiple cats you may need to set up multiple boxes and scoop twice a day. In any case, if the box smells bad to you, it smells even worse to your cat. With the good litters available today, you shouldn’t walk into your house and smell the litterbox. If you do, there is a problem either with your cat’s health or with the cleaning routine.

Teaching a Kitten

Using a litterbox tends to be instinctive to kittens but some need a little help. Using a box with lower sides (or one low side) will make it easier for the kitten to get in and out of the box. There are also litters with herbal attractants made specifically for litter box training kittens. I know these work well as I’ve used them for litters of foster kittens. Use this litter for a couple of months then gradually wean the kitten away from it and transition to regular litter. Keeping the kitten confined for a while (such as to one bedroom) until the kitten is using the box well also helps with the training.

Helping the Geriatric Cat

As your cat ages, she may not be as athletic or agile as she once was so make sure she can get in and out of the box easily. If you’ve been using a high sided box, perhaps a lower entrance height would be better. Most veterinarians also suggest keeping an eye on the older cat’s urine and feces while cleaning the box. Anything out of the ordinary should be reported to your cat’s veterinarian.

Most behaviorists believe that 20% of litterbox problems are the result of health issues. Gastrointestinal problems, a urinary tract infection, or other health problems can cause the cat to feel poorly and sometimes to blame the litterbox for that distress. Sometimes, too, the cat urinates or defecates other than in the box as a call for help. Don’t hesitate to take your cat in to the veterinarian if your cat is having difficulties.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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