Litter Boxes

The Basics * Medical Problems * Cleaning * Litter Choice * Litter Depth * Box Type & Size * Number & Location

From time to time you may need to review and rethink your litter box strategy. The type of box you use, the location of the box, and the litter that goes in it, can all have an effect on your cat’s health or their recovery from illness or injury.

The Basics

First, you need to think about the litter box from your cat’s point of view. Nearly everything related to litter boxes is designed for humans, not for the cats who have to use them. Cats have an excellent sense of smell and a strong desire for cleanliness.

The main reasons a cat will stop using their litter box are:

  • Medical problems
  • The box is too dirty to use
  • The litter itself is one the cat doesn’t like
  • The depth of the litter in the box is wrong
  • The box is too small, or is a shape that kitty doesn’t like
  • Too few litter boxes are available
  • The box is in a bad location
  • The cat is blocked from using the box by another kitty in the house
  • Something prevents them from being able to relax and get to the box (strangers in the house, dogs, children, loud noises, etc.)

Medical Problems

One of the first, and most obvious signs that your cat has a medical problem is that they will stop using their litter box and will go to the bathroom in other places.

If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box and nothing has changed as far as your box setup, litter type, and cleaning routine, then a medical problem should be your first consideration. Cystitis or urinary tract infections are two very common reasons for a cat to stop using the litter box, but they’re not the only possibilities. It’s important to get your cat to vet as quickly as possible to figure out what is wrong.

Cleaning

Litter boxes should be scooped out twice a day at a minimum. Ideally, you would scoop the box ever time your kitty goes to the bathroom, the same way you would flush your own toilet after each use.

You can make frequent cleanings a part of your routine by adding a small trash can or a diaper pail next to the box. Every time you walk by the box you can quickly scoop out any fresh lumps or clumps.

If you use a non-clumping litter you will want to have 2 types of scoops available at all times. You need a slotted scoop that will allow you to pick out solid waste and a solid scoop (large spoon or mini shovel) for picking out urine soaked patches of litter.

When scooping the box with clumping litter, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to shake the scoop. It might be habit to shake the scoop back and forth to drop the clean litter back into the box, but when you do this you’re also breaking of small parts of the clumps, dumping dirty litter back into the box. The dirty litter you drop back into the box won’t be able to clump effectively and will increase odor in the box. When you scoop, don’t shake the scooper. Just hold it level until the clean litter drains away on its own, then dump the clumps and scoop again. You will throw out a very small amount of clean litter doing it this way, but you will dramatically extend the life of the litter in the box. You won’t need to dump and scrub your boxes nearly as often if you prevent your clumps from breaking up in daily scooping.

How to Scrub the Box

From time to time you will also need to dump the entire contents of your litter box, scrub it clean, and fill it with fresh, clean litter.

  • Dump out all of the contents
  • Scrape away any stuck on litter material
  • Using a wet paper towel wipe away as much remaining dust as possible
    • This step is important because it will help prevent any clogs in your pipes when dumping dirty water down the drain
  • Put your box in the shower or tub
  • Fill your box with hot, soapy water
    • Unscented dish soap is best
    • If you need to use a scented soap avoid the citrus scented (lemon, grapefruit, etc.) varieties because kitties do not like citrus
    • You do not need to use bleach, vinegar, or any harsh chemicals to scrub the box
    • I use a grooming hose shower attachment to make filling and rinsing the box as easy as possible (this also makes cleaning the shower super easy too!)
  • You can let the box soak a few minutes or start scrubbing immediately, it’s entirely up to you
    • If you have only one litter box in your home then you need to finish the scrubbing process as quickly as possible so you won’t want to let the box soak
  • Scrub the entire box, inside and out. I use a scrub brush for this but any kind of brush, sponge, or cloth will work
  • Rinse the box thoroughly to remove all the soap residue
  • Dry the box completely, inside and out
  • Return the box to where it belongs and refill with clean litter
  • Don’t forget to clean your shower when you’re done

Litter Choice

Choosing a cat litter can be surprisingly complicated. In most cases the best litter for any cat will be a totally unscented, fragrance free, clumping litter. There are a few exceptions to this though.

Kittens, especially young kittens less than 3 months old, need a non-clumping litter for safety reasons. Young kittens tend to get diarrhea often, and tend to step in it in the box. Kittens using a clumping clay litter often end up wearing cement shoes when the poo + clumping clay litter combo dries on their feet. Some kittens may also try to eat clumping clay litter.

Cats recovering from surgery or injuries may need non-clumping litter. Cats in recovery tend to have the same issue as kittens with not being able to keep themselves clean enough when using the box and could end up wearing and then grooming off too much litter. If your cat is wearing a cone the edges of the cone may drag in the litter and get dirty (this litter may also end up in their water dish or on their food). Another concern with clumping litter is that your cat may have issues with walking, standing, or squatting normally. If that happens they are more likely to soil themselves when using the litter box. Clumping litter will stick to your cat any time they have a wet spot that touches the litter. 

A dust-free litter may also be important for cats who have stables, sutures (stitches), or open/uncovered wounds. Any dust that’s kicked up in the litter can settle on your cat. If they have uncovered wounds this dust can greatly increase their chance of infection. Eliminating dust from the litter box will help their wounds to stay clean. The only litter types that are virtually dust free tend to be non-clumping pellet litters.

Litter Depth

For most cats the ideal litter depth is somewhere around 4-5 inches. The litter should be deep enough that they can dig a little, do their business, and bury the evidence at the end. For urine, if you’re using a clumping litter, the litter should be deep enough that the clump does not form on the bottom of the box.

When you scoop out the used litter you should also be replacing that amount by adding more fresh litter to the box. I like to move the oldest litter in the box to the areas where my cats pee the most, and then put fresh litter on the opposite side of the box. Doing it this way seems to make the litter in the box last longer before it needs a total dump and replace.

There are some scenarios where having less litter in the box may be more appropriate for your cat:

  • Young kittens might have trouble walking in the box if the litter is too deep
  • Cats recovering from surgery or injury may feel more steady on their feet with less litter in the box
    • Shallow litter will also reduce the risk of litter getting stuck to their bodies or their protective gear
  • Cats with arthritis, pain, or mobility problems may not be able to handle walking in deep litter
  • Some cats just don’t like deep litter

Box Type and Size

The box you choose to use should be the right size and shape for your cat. People sometimes try to choose litter boxes that will take up the least amount of space, or will look the best in the room. Litter boxes are meant for function, not style. To function properly your cat needs to comfortably fit inside them.

Litter boxes should be 1 and 1/2 times the length of your cat’s body. If you have multiple cats, the litter box should be sized based on your largest cat. Most commercially available litter boxes simply aren’t large enough to meet this basic size requirement. The ones that are available tend to be incredibly expensive.

Hooded boxes are popular with humans who don’t want to see the evidence of box use, but are rarely good for cats. The hood will trap odors inside, and even if you’re cleaning the box multiple times per day the lack of circulating air can cause an offensive buildup of odors inside the box. A very shy cat might appreciate a hooded box, but be sure to have hood-free options available for them to use as well.

Top entry boxes seem to be popular with people who have dogs or young children who might be tempted to investigate the contents of a litter box. Top entry boxes can be very difficult for many cats to get in and out of. They are particularly bad for cats with arthritis or mobility problems.

Automatic, self-cleaning boxes are popular with humans and can help with cleaning the box after every use, but may not be best for all cats. Automatic boxes tend to be too small for most cats to use comfortably. Shy or nervous cats may not like automatic boxes because of the noise they make when cleaning. Sensors in automatic boxes can also malfunction, allowing the box to begin cleaning while the cat is still inside using it. This can be super scary for any cat.

Toilet training cats seems to be increasingly popular, but there are a lot of very valid reasons not to do this. Preventive Vet gives some great information about why toilet training kitties is a bad idea.

If you have a hidden box inside a piece of furniture you may need to ditch the furniture and bring the box out into the open. Some hidden box options are very difficult for cats with arthritis or injuries to navigate.

Cats with arthritis, injuries, mobility problems, or those who are very ill may have trouble climbing into large boxes. For them you may need boxes with wide openings and shallow entries.

  • If the lip of your box is too high off the ground you may need to cut a lower entry space or buy a box with lower sides
  • Puppy pads make a great option for some cats instead of using a box at all

For most cats the best box to use will be a large storage bin with an entry space cut out. These also happen to be the cheapest to make too. The benefit to cutting your own boxes is that you can customize them to meet your cat’s needs.

To make my own litter boxes I use Hefty Hi-Rise 72qt storage bin because Thomas and Cow both like to pee standing straight up. The high sides save me from disaster on a daily basis. These boxes are available on Amazon or in some local stores. I usually buy them from Target cheaper than I can find them on Amazon. To cut the boxes I use a cordless dremel tool.

Number and Location

If you have only one cat you can probably get away with having only one litter box. If you have multiple cats you should follow the “cats + 1” rule and have one litter box for each cat, plus one extra. If you have two cats that’s three boxes. If you’re like me and have five cats, that’s six boxes. But even a single cat may appreciate having multiple boxes available, so don’t limit yourself!

Box location is very important. Having multiple boxes is great, but if they’re all shoved in the same corner of the same room then you effectively have only one box. Spread the boxes out around the house as much as you are able to. You may still need to have a couple boxes grouped together in some rooms, but aim to put one box in every room before doubling them up in other rooms. Exceptions are that you probably don’t want to put a box in the kitchen, and if you have a small bathroom a box in there would be impractical.

If your cat is recovering from an injury, has arthritis or mobility problems, or if your cat is very sick and not moving around well you need to focus on box accessibility. Make sure you have enough boxes in good locations so your cat can get to them.

If your cat is having trouble making it to the box you may want to put some pee pads near the litter box. If they have any issues with incontinence you’ll also want to put some pee pads on their bed. A towel over the pad may make your cat more comfortable and help to keep the pads in place when kitty moves around. 

If you typically use covered, high sided, or small litter boxes you may need to switch to a low sided, large box. High sides or narrow openings may be difficult or impossible for your cat to navigate, particularly if they are wearing a cone. But, if your cat likes to pee standing up then you need a high-sided box that has a large, low opening.

In multilevel homes you should, at minimum, have one box on every level of the home. You should also have one box in every room your cat likes to spend time in. If it’s a very large room you may want more than one box available, so that your cat can easily access a box from any part of the room.