Preventing Litter Box Problems

Unfortunately, cats can be very stubborn. If they don’t like a particular cat litter, or the litter box is in the wrong place, or there isn’t enough litter in the box or it smells strange, they can start to look for other places outside of the litter box to do their business. According to the Bureau of Waste Management, approximately 8 billion pounds of cat litter is dumped into landfills every year! That is over twice the amount of disposable nappies. It may be worth considering a litter that is biodegradable.

A Few Quick Tips on Cat Litter Management 

  • Certain features of cat litter and/or the box influence whether the cat eliminates in or out of the litter box.
  • When cats like the litter given to them, they readily dig and then cover up. When cats dislike the litter, however, they don’t cover up and may dig and scratch on the box or the floor, shake their paws, run out of the box, or place their front paws on the edge while eliminating or digging.
  • For some cats, particularly for large ones, a cover on the litter box may interfere with normal digging/covering behaviour. This, in turn, may increase unpleasant odours in the box.
  • To minimize litter box odour, the litter should be scooped or changed regularly. Offensive litter box odour may cause sensitive cats to eliminate elsewhere.
  • For a multi-cat household, you may need more than one box in more than one location.
  • Don’t use litter boxes that have sharp corners or ridges that can make wet litter difficult or impossible to remove. When using scooping litter, a metal slotted scoop with rounded edges that fit the smooth curved corners of the box allows urine clumps to be removed without breaking up. If you have a good clumping litter and scoop it carefully, you rarely need to change the litter, adding new litter only when necessary.

Location, Location, Location
Most people are inclined to place the litter box in an out-of-the-way spot to minimize odour and prevent cat litter from being tracked throughout the house. But if the litter box ends up in the basement—next to an appliance or on a cold cement floor—your cat may be less than pleased, for a number of reasons.
So you may have to compromise. The litter box should be kept in a spot that affords your cat some privacy yet is also conveniently located. If you place the litter box in a closet or a bathroom, be sure the door is wedged open from both sides to prevent her from being trapped inside or locked out. Depending on the location, you might consider cutting a hole in a closet door and adding a pet door.

Pick of the Litter
Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel. The new scoopable (clumping) litters usually have finer grains than the typical clay litter and are very popular. But high-quality, dust-free, clay litters are relatively small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable to your cat. However, please be careful some litters use bentonite which contains silicon particles which are a known human carcinogen (cancer causing). Not only this but breathing in these particles can cause respiratory illness.
Also within the clay litter there lays an inherent risk factor. When your cat goes to cover her waste, this dust is kicked up and introduced into the room. Distributed on the floor, worktops and anywhere else it chooses to settle, the dust becomes an invasive intruder. Case studies available show that cats with respiratory illnesses have six times the amount of silica in their lungs than cats using a paper based litter do.
Many cats are put off by the odour of scented or deodorant litters. For the same reason, it’s not a good idea to place a room deodoriser or air freshener near the litter box. A thin layer of baking soda placed in the bottom of the tray will help absorb odours without repelling your cat, and odours shouldn’t really be a problem if you keep the litter box clean. If you find the litter box odour offensive, your cat probably finds it even more offensive and won’t want to eliminate there.
If you suspect your cat has spent part of his life outdoors and is likely to eliminate in your houseplants, try mixing some potting soil with your regular litter; pellet-type litters or those made from citrus peels are not recommended. Once you find a litter your cat likes, stick with it. Buying the least expensive litter or the brand that’s on sale any given week could result in your cat not using the litter box.

How Many Litter Trays?
You should have at least as many litter boxes as you have cats. That way, none of them will ever be prevented from eliminating in the litter box because it’s already occupied. You might also consider placing litter boxes in several locations around the house, so that no one cat can prevent the other cats from getting access. We also recommend that you place at least one litter box on each level of your house.
It’s not possible to designate a personal litter box for each cat in your household, as cats may use any litter box that’s available, and that means a cat may occasionally refuse to use a litter box after another cat has used it. In this case, all of the litter boxes will need to be kept extremely clean and additional boxes may be needed.

Should I Use a Hooded Litter Tray?
Some people prefer to provide their cats with a hooded litter tray, but doing so may introduce some potential problems. To discover which type your cat prefers, you may want to experiment by offering both types at first.

Potential Problems of Hooded Litter Trays

  • You may forget to clean the litter box as frequently as you should because the dirty litter is “out of sight, out of mind.”
  • A covered litter box traps odours inside, so it will need to be cleaned more often than an open one. A dirty, covered litter box is to your cat what a porta cabin toilet is to you!
  • A covered litter box may not allow a large cat sufficient room to turn around, scratch, dig, or position herself in the way she wants.
  • A covered litter box may make it easier for another cat to lay in wait and “ambush” the user as she exits the box; on the other hand, a covered litter box may feel more private, and timid cats may even prefer it.

Keeping It Clean
To meet the needs of the most discriminating cat, faeces should be scooped out of the litter box daily. How often you actually change (replace) the litter depends on the number of cats you have, the number of litter boxes, and the type of litter you use. Twice a week is a general guideline for clay litter, but depending on the circumstances, you may need to replace it every other day or only once a week. If you clean the litter box daily, scoopable litter may only need to be changed every two to three weeks. If you notice an odour or if much of the litter is wet or clumped, it’s time for a change. Don’t use strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products when washing the litter box, as doing so may cause your cat to avoid the box. Some cleaning products are toxic to cats. Washing with soap and water and then bleach should be sufficient to kill any bacteria.

Liner Notes
Some cats don’t mind having a plastic liner in the litter box, while others do. Again, you may want to experiment to see if your cat is bothered by a liner in the box. If you do use a liner, make sure it’s anchored in place, so it can’t easily catch your cat’s claws or be pulled out of place. Here in the shelter we line all our litter trays with newspaper

Depth of Litter
Some people think that the more litter they put in the box, the less often they will have to clean it, but that’s a mistake. Most cats won’t use litter that’s more than about two inches deep. In fact, some long-haired cats actually prefer less litter and a smooth, slick surface, such as the bottom of the litter box. The fact is the litter box needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, and adding extra litter is not a way around that chore.

“Litter-Training” Cats
There’s really no such thing as “litter-training” a cat in the same way one would housetrain a dog. A cat doesn’t need to be taught what to do with a litter box because instinct will generally take over. The only thing you need to do is provide an acceptable, accessible litter box, using the suggestions above. It’s not necessary to take your cat to the litter box and move her paws back and forth in the litter; in fact, we don’t recommend it, as such an unpleasant experience is likely to initiate a negative association with the litter box.

If Problems Develop
If your cat begins to eliminate in areas other than the litter box, and you haven’t recently changed the litter or the area where the tray usually is then your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions can cause a change in a cat’s litter box habits. If your veterinarian determines that your cat is healthy, the cause may be a simple behaviour problem that can be resolved by using behaviour modification techniques. Punishment is not the answer, nor is banishing your cat outdoors.