Litter Box Basics

By Sharon Billings, CVT
Associate Veterinary Information Specialist

So, you’re preparing to bring home your new purring bundle of joy!  Congratulations!  No doubt you’re shopping for supplies including items for kitty’s commode.  As you stroll down the aisles at the local pet supply store, you are overwhelmed by all the choices.  You really want to get this right to make sure kitty has perfect litter box manners — but where to start?  Well, start here and we’ll help you sort out LITTER BOX BASICS!

The Box

There are many sizes and shapes to consider when choosing a plastic cat litter box.  All the little details really matter to kitty, so let’s get her set up for success.  An open box, rather than hooded, is preferred by most cats.  That way kitty can look around and feel secure that no one is sneaking up behind her while she’s busy in the box or lurking to ambush her when she steps out.  Kitty will also appreciate an ample sized box so she doesn’t feel as if she’s trying to aim at a spot the size of a postage stamp.  A roomy box can go a long way to prevent “near misses”.  A box with deep sides will help contain the litter and give kitty plenty of litter depth in which to dig, BUT if kitty is older or arthritic choose lower sides so it’s easier to climb in and out.  Most boxes are designed with one wall much lower than the other three to be used as an access point.  Oh, and one more thing:  something we call the one-plus rule!  Your home should contain one box per cat PLUS one more box so everyone has easy access and choices with no squabbles or territorial disputes.  So just go ahead and bring home two of those perfectly-proportioned boxes for kitty.

What Goes In The Box . . .

Edward Lowe first marketed a clay product for use in cat boxes in 1947.  Lowe’s family business sold sand, granulated clay, and sawdust for use in cleaning up oil and grease spills in factories and machine shops.  At this time, people used dirt, sand, ashes, or cinders in their cats’ boxes.  One fateful day, Lowe’s neighbor, Mrs. Draper, asked Lowe for some sand to replace the ashes that her cat kept tracking all over the house after using the cat box.  But it was mid-winter in Michigan and the sand piles were frozen solid.  So, Lowe gave Mrs. Draper a bag of the granulated clay and forgot all about it.  Two weeks later, Mrs. Draper was back for more!  And other friends were requesting the clay product as well!  So Lowe named his product Kitty Litter – the first commercially marketed product for use in cat litter boxes.

Now, of course, we can select from an abundance of litter products made from a variety of materials including clay, silica beads, corn, wheat, and newspaper (just to name a few!) offering us a dizzying selection of textures, fragrances, and features.  Which is the right litter for you?  All of these products are designed to deodorize and absorb liquid.  Clumping clay products are very popular but many of the newer products have great consumer appeal as they are lighter in weight, less dusty, and more environmentally friendly.  If you’re bringing home a new purring bundle of joy, stick with whatever kitty has been using, at least initially.  After all, cats can be stressed out by changes (even good changes like a new home and family), so it’s nice to provide stability where possible to help kitty put her best paw forward with consistent litter box use, right?

Once kitty has settled in and is showing off her litter box proficiency, you can certainly try out a different litter option but you will want to introduce the new product gradually.  Try mixing a bit of the new product in with the old product, gradually increasing the new and decreasing the old over time allowing kitty time to adjust.  Or you could offer side-by-side boxes, each with its own litter option, and remove the unused box once kitty has made her preference clear by consistently choosing one box over the other.  Although we may like fragrances in cat litter products, most cats prefer unscented litter and do not like scented litter additives.

Whichever litter you and kitty decide upon, remember to scoop regularly and keep the litter box neat, tidy, and odor free – this will help ensure kitty’s continuous use!  Cats are reluctant to use a box without adequate room to scratch and dig or a box with a strong odor.  For most clumping litter materials, it’s a good idea to scoop once or twice a day and periodically empty the box, clean it with liquid dish soap, rinse thoroughly, and fill it with fresh litter.  Bear in mind that older cats, who may have health issues, may fill up the box more quickly than younger cats.

Location, Location, Location!

Just as it is in real estate sales, location is extremely important to ensuring litter box success!  I shudder to think of my childhood cats, Fang, Cotton, and Kitty Witty (folks, consider carefully before letting the kids pick the pets’ names) and the egregious litter box placement they were made to endure!  Not only was there just the one small box but it was downstairs in the musty basement in a little cubby hole between the basement wall and the furnace and water heater, adjacent to the washer and dryer.  It was dark, damp, cramped, and smelly with lots of foot traffic on laundry day and occasional sudden and strange noises!  Just imagine how you’d feel to be at your most vulnerable moment and have an unexpected thumping, whooshing, or beeping noise start up inches away!  It’s a wonder they used the litter box at all!  My current kitty, Theo, enjoys a much more agreeable situation:  two litter boxes on different floors, each one situated in a convenient yet quiet and cozy corner offering seclusion and privacy but with easy view of surroundings – in short, ideal locations for taking care of business!  One final note on location:  we humans like to keep our kitchens and bathrooms separated by some space, and the same goes for kitty!  Kitty will appreciate a little distance between these two important areas!

Litterbox Training?

Cats are very neat, tidy, fastidious creatures!  By nature, cats dig in soft substances like sand or soil for elimination.  Kittens begin to demonstrate this instinctual practice around 3 to 4 weeks of age.  Generally, this makes potty training with cats much easier than with, say, dogs.  Your kitty may already be fully up to speed on litter box etiquette upon arrival in your home and all you need to do is show her where the boxes are located.  But if not (or if in doubt), consider the following steps.  When kitty first joins the family, temporarily confine her – when not supervised – to a single room with access to food and water dishes at one end, “toilet” area at the other end, and of course bedding and toys, too! Throughout the day, gently place kitty in the box first thing in the morning and after meals, naps, or play sessions (times when she might normally need to use the box).  If she takes care of business, offer some praise!  But don’t be disappointed if she hops right back out; she’ll soon catch on!  Once you’re confident she’s got the hang of it, kitty can have the run of the house, and she’ll find her way to her litter boxes as needed on her own.

Litter Box Lapses?

So, let’s say all is going well and kitty has been using her litter boxes like a champ until . . . uh oh!  you spy a dark wet spot on the carpeting.  What to do?  Don’t panic!  And don’t scold kitty.  First, review this checklist and make sure there haven’t been any sudden changes:  Same boxes?  Same litter?  Same location?  Boxes clean?  Next, consider any new stress factors including new family members or house guests, changes in schedules or routines.  Your veterinarian may recommend you try a pheromone-based calming product to help kitty deal with the stress.  These products are available in a variety of forms including collars, sprays, and diffusers.  The odd occasional “oops” doesn’t necessarily indicate a serious problem but if litter box lapses are frequent, it’s time to have kitty be seen by her veterinarian.  There are many medical conditions that may cause a break in litter box habits, so your veterinarian can help determine the cause and treatment to get kitty feeling better and back to her normal good habits.  One final note on this topic:  if there is a sudden absence of urine in the litter box and no evidence of accidents outside the box, this can signal a potentially life-threatening emergency (urinary tract obstruction) requiring prompt attention by your veterinarian.