How to Encourage Litter Box Use

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Most cats are very clean and display fastidious bathroom etiquette, instinctually from a very early age. It is very distressful for cat owners if for some reason their pet loses this very desirable habit. There are some important points to remember in litter box care to help prevent or treat elimination problems in cats.

Cats do show differences in their preference for litter substrate. The most natural substance for cats to use to bury or cover their urine or stool is probably plain, old garden dirt. For owners, though, soil is not the easiest material to work with in litter boxes. Most cats best accept fine-grain, unscented litter substrate. Sand is such a material but clumping cat litter is a more readily available and more commonly used as a litter box substrate. Boxes should be scooped of solid or liquid waster, once or twice daily. Clumping litter should be completely changed at least weekly and more often if more than one cat uses it. Clay litter, another popular choice for litter substrate, should be changed a minimum of every other day (more frequently if multiple cats are using it). When cleaning, the litter box should be washed with warm, soapy water and dried well before adding new litter. Plastic litter boxes are used most commonly these days. They make cleaning and care of the box easier. However, if there is any concern with plastic allergies for a cat, any cardboard box or similar shaped container will work. Lining the plastic litter box with newspaper or another liner of some sort may make changing the litter and other cleaning easier.

The ideal number of litter boxes in a house is one per cat, plus one. Litter boxes should be placed in at least two different locations and preferably more if a multiple cat household. There should be at least one litter box on each living level, where a cat may be found, in the house - basement, main floor, upstairs, if needed. Locations should be private and have easy access. Boxes should not be placed next to noisy household appliances or in spots where loud noises or other activity may startle or frighten the cat. Many cats are reluctant to use a litter box that has been recently used by another cat.

If there is more than one cat in the house, locate the litter box in such a way that entry or exit to it cannot be blocked by another cat. Have at least two ways for cats to enter or exit the box. Never trap or corner a cat in its litter box to give it medication or perform other procedures that the cat may dislike.

Most cats prefer a litter depth of 4 cm (1.5 inches); however, preferences vary. It has been determined cats prefer litter boxes that are 1.5 times the length of their bodies. Many commercial litter boxes are too small for larger cats. Sweater storage boxes, cement mixing tubs and small dog litter pans all make excellent cat litter boxes. The average cat urinates twice daily (+/- 2) and defecates once (and up to 3-4 times in outdoor cats) daily. This is another reason to want ample space in the litter box. Some cats sniff and cover their eliminations; others don't. Both are considered normal behaviour.

Eliminating outside the litter box by a cat often signals an underlying medical condition.  At other times, it may not be a physical problem but strictly a behaviour disorder. Regardless, it is important to bring such occurrences to the attention of your veterinarian. They will be able to help you determine the cause.  The earlier the problem is corrected, the better chance for the cat to return to usual litter box habits.