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The Unabridged Guide to Litterbox Problems –
Part One: How to Prevent Housesoiling Problems

Nothing puts Kitty in the proverbial "doghouse" like a urine spot on the carpeting. Feline behaviorists find that inappropriate elimination problems (i.e. inconsistent litterbox use) top the list of the behavior aberrations with which they deal. It is also a major reason for cats to be surrendered to shelters or pounds. The good news is that housesoiling problems are preventable.

An understanding of what Kitty looks for in a desirable toilet area reveals preferences that are not unlike our own. For example, it must be clean, private, and easily accessible. They also have some requirements that are based on innate survival instincts--it must contain an easily-raked substrate and it must offer escape potential. Although our pets live in the safety and comfort of our homes, from their point of view these considerations are still vital to their well-being. This survival know-how is pre-programmed in your cat's brain just as it was in his ancestor, the North African Wildcat, Felis Silvestris Libica--a cat who had unlimited access to a sandy substrate. By covering his waste he was able to elude detection by prey or potential predators. He was also alert to the danger of being caught in a vulnerable position so escape potential was a life-saving priority.

How does all this translate into setting up the ideal litterbox situation in your home? If we look at it from the cat's point of view, we will make decisions that will be in harmony with the cat's basic nature and it will optimize the likelihood that Kitty will find it acceptable. New products are popping up every day suggesting that they can take the mess, smell and work out of litterbox maintenance. For most people the litterbox regimen is the most unappealing aspect of cat ownership. Manufacturers of litter and litterboxes capitalize on this fact and offer a dizzying array of products meant to make this onerous task more agreeable. It can all be very confusing to the well-meaning, but not well-informed, cat owner. Should the litterbox be open or hooded? Should the litter be scented or fragrance-free? Should the litter be clumping or non-clumping? What about liners?

Decision-making should always be based on what is most natural from the cat's standpoint. What would Kitty use if he were in the great outdoors? He would look for a soft, rakeable substrate (e.g. garden soil). There would be no artificial fragrance and of course, no liners. He would have plenty of room to perform his elimination ritual of sniffing, digging, squatting and turning around. A clean spot would be selected each time--at least six inches from the last location used.

Now how do we meet these requirements in the indoor environment? Let's start with the litterbox. Select a box that is at least 16" x 22". Avoid boxes that have rims that slant inward--they cut out a lot of interior space for the cat and are awkward for the cat to enter. The sides can be six inches deep unless the litterbox is for a small kitten or a handicapped cat. Some of the best litterboxes are not sold in pet stores but are labeled as "all-purpose tubs" in hardware stores. People whose cats like to throw the litter out of the box or who overshoot the box by not squatting down enough while urinating, have found that a large, high-sided storage box (minus the cover) works well to contain the mess. An entryway can be cut into one side to allow for easy access.

Hooded, or covered, litterboxes are popular with consumers, but if cats did the shopping, they would be left on the shelves. Humans do not want to see or smell what Kitty leaves behind in the litterbox, but for that matter, neither does Kitty. The hooded litterbox forces him to enter a cramped, cave-like structure that concentrates odors inside giving it an "outhouse" effect. Since the cat's sense of smell is at least 14 times more sensitive than ours, this may be all it takes to send Kitty packing and in search of a fresher smelling toilet area--quite likely a corner of the diningroom. Unlike the hooded litterbox, the diningroom offers a spacious area with escape potential. This is especially important to felines in multi-cat families where litterbox ambushes are likely to occur.

Feline behaviorists agree that the ideal number of litterboxes in the household is one per cat, plus one. So even if there is just one cat in the home, there should be two litterboxes available to him. Many cats have a strong instinct to urinate in one area and defecate in another. The litterboxes should not be grouped together, but should be placed in different parts of the home, preferably on different floors. For people without a lot of extra room in their house, a corner litterbox is a space efficient way to fit in that extra box. SmartCat makes a well designed one. Once the placement of the boxes has been decided, it is unwise to move them. Cats are very location oriented and will continue to visit an area previously used. The chosen locations must be convenient and cat-friendly. Cats like to see all around them when eliminating--especially the entrance to the room. If the litterbox is in a room that is very dark at night, it is a good idea to install a small night light. (Cats don't see any better than we do in complete darkness, however, they see very well in low light.)

The true story of Susan and her cat Sammy illustrates the advisability of providing litterboxes on different floors of the home. Susan called the Cats International's Feline Behavior Hotline one day when she was truly at the end of her rope. Her best friend and companion, Sammy, was totally out of control and she had no idea why. For three years he had never missed his litterbox which was located in her beautifully refinished basement. After arriving home from work this fateful day, she discovered to her horror that Sammy had eliminated all over the main floor of her house. She immediately whisked him off to the veterinarian, expecting to hear that a serious health condition had precipitated this bizarre behavior. To her relief and dismay, Sammy was pronounced perfectly healthy. "So why would he do this after years of impeccable litterbox manners?" Her question was followed by a series of probing questions from the counselor. During the course of the conversation, it became clear to the staff member that sometime during Susan's absence Sammy had become frightened of going into the basement. She was reluctant to accept this explanation because he had always been happy and comfortable on the lower level.

Under protest Susan agreed to humor the counselor and check out to the basement to see if anything was amiss. The culprit was found lying not far from Sammy's litterbox. It was an old scrolled up calendar that she had stored in the rafters. Our guess is that it took flight from its resting spot in the ceiling at the same time Sammy was attending to business. Convinced that a large predatory bird had invaded his sanctuary, he ran for his life. Poor Sammy. Poor Susan. This whole mess could have been avoided if there had been a second litterbox upstairs.

Cats are almost neurotic about their need to feel safe and secure while they are eliminating. They live in a sensory world entirely separate from ours. They hear things we can't hear and they smell things we can't smell. They are far more sensitive to vibration than we are. The slightest sound or disturbance can convince Kitty that his bathroom is a dangerous place--a furnace kicking in, clothes clanking in the dryer, a thunderstorm rattling the house. Even the family dog can make the cat nervous about using his litterbox, especially if Fido has access to the litterbox area. (Pet gates that Kitty can scoot under but which the dog cannot negotiate work well to keep the dog's nose out of the cat's business.)

The selection of a proper and appealing litter substrate is high on your cat's priority list. To please Kitty the litter must be absorbent, unscented (cats dislike perfume), soft to the touch and familiar. In preference tests the majority of cats choose the sand-like clumping litter over the traditional non-clumping litter. This is not really so surprising if you have ever stepped barefoot on non-clumping litter. Ouch! Declawed cats in particular require the comfort afforded by the finer-grained scoopable litters. Everclean ES (formerly known as Everclean HD) is a litter that has proven to be popular with cats and their owners due to its superior ability to clump firmly. A good second choice is Scoop Away Fragrance Free. * Please note that Cats International does not recommend the use of clumping clay-based litters for kittens under the age of four months. Small kittens often ingest litter particles and this could pose a health risk. A non-clumping clay-based litter is fine for the little ones.

The advent of clumping litters has made the task of cleaning the litterbox much less onerous. However, there is a significant difference in the quality of clumping litters. The poorer quality litters break up easily when scooped, leaving particles of waste behind which will smell to the cat if not to you. These litters should be scooped daily and dumped completely at least a couple times a week. The more firmly clumping litters should also be scooped daily, but they do not have to be totally changed nearly as often--generally only when the litterbox itself requires washing. Since it is impossible to remove the urine from non-clumping litters, they should be scooped daily and dumped every other day (every day would be even better--would you want to use a toilet that was flushed only a few times a week?)

When it is time to wash the litterbox, use very hot water and dishwashing liquid. The use of bleach or other strong chemicals can leave a lingering scent in the box which might repel the cat. Even after a thorough cleaning, Kitty should still be able to detect his own unique scent. This is an important cue to the cat to return to this location the next time nature calls.

For most cats a litter depth of about three inches is satisfactory. With this amount of litter the urine usually does not stick to the bottom of the litterbox. Some cats find too much litter disturbing--much like sinking into quicksand. To discover your cat's preference you can shift the litter in a large litterbox to one side so that there is a gradation of litter depth. Note the areas the cat prefers using and that may be your best clue as to the level of litter with which he is most comfortable.

At least 80% of the callers to our Feline Behavior Hotlines find that their housesoiling problems are completely resolved just by following our very specific recommendations for setting up and maintaining the litterboxes. It is important, however, that the cat owner never abruptly remove what is familiar to the cat. Cats don't like changes but they do like choices; so instead, place the new litterbox and the new litter next to the old one until Kitty has decided to give it a try. If it becomes evident that it has become his clear favorite, then, and only then, can the old litter or litterbox be safely eliminated.

Sometimes our recommendations for litterbox improvements are met with, "but he has always had only one litterbox" or "he has always used the same litter". Adam Bauknecht, the coordinator for our Madison Hotline offers this explanation, "All cats have a certain stress threshold. The level may vary among cats depending on their individual personalities and temperaments. When everything in the cat's life is going smoothly, a few discomforts can be tolerated. If additional stressors enter the cats experience, stressors that cannot be eliminated, such as a new baby, houseguests, or the move to a new home, then suddenly the stress threshold is exceeded and Kitty's misery is expressed in wet and not-so-wonderful ways. We can reduce the possibility of pushing Kitty over the top by eliminating the stressors over which we do have control (e.g. the litterbox annoyances). Then we can work to minimize the cat's stress by gently introducing and desensitizing him to those elements in his life with which he must learn to cope."

Next . . .  Part Two: How to Solve Housesoiling Problems

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