For animal lovers, adding new members to the extended family can be exciting and challenging. It’s a time of transition and getting acquainted so you can share the sometimes limited space without driving each other crazy.
With kittens and cats, that challenging aspect is multiplied by the question of how to get the cat to use the litter box. Even experienced parents of felines sometimes run into issues when it comes to setting up the toileting station, keeping it clean, and preventing the litter box odor from taking over the house.
Litter box-related behavior issues are also one of the biggest concerns expressed by pet owners during veterinary visits.
Our goal is to further the best interests of pets and their caretakers by addressing common issues and demonstrating best practices for litter box management. This will make set up and cleaning a lot easier and support the long-term health and happiness of your fur babies.
Ready to build a great litter litter box experience? Let’s begin with the basics.
Location, location, location
One of the first things to consider is where you’re going to put the litter box. Obviously, you don’t want to place it somewhere that has a lot of noise and activity. You also need to consider that what works best for you may not be the ideal placement for your cat.
Second, you should consider litter box size and accessibility. Kittens and senior cats with mobility issues need to be able to get in and out of the little box without injuring themselves. Avoiding setting up litter boxes in areas near food, water, and pet sleeping, rest, or recreation areas.
Access is also a consideration when it comes to placement within your home. For example:
- Is the entrance and exit obstructed in some way?
- Is it accessible for older cats or those with mobility issues?
- Does your home have more than one level?
If it helps, create a map of your home and mark spots that would work for setting up the litter box.
How many litter boxes do you need?
Ideally, the number of litter boxes should be one more than the number of cats. For instance, households with two cats need three little boxes, and those with three felines would need four boxes.
Why so many?
Seasoned cat owners know that cats can sometimes seem finicky or picky about their environment. They aren’t being irrational or any of the other motives sometimes attributed to felines. However, factors like illness, fear, anxiety, or age can make the process of elimination difficult.
They also don’t like sharing their toileting area with another cat. However, if space in your home is limited and your cats are well-socialized, fewer boxes can work.
In other words, your cat needs options according to their personalities and requirements. If you don’t provide them, he or she will make their own adjustments.
As for litter box placement, cats need at least two possible entry/exit points. Place the box either against a wall or in a corner of the room. The goal is to allow easy access without obstruction by other people and pets.
Boxes should be set up on each level if you have several floors in your home and scattered so that there is no more than one box per room whenever possible. The only exception to this is if you have small kittens or older cats that have trouble climbing stairs or navigating different flooring levels.
In the event that you don’t have the room in your home, try to place the litter boxes at least one foot apart or against different walls.
Make sure that openings aren’t facing each other. Right angles are the preferred placement so that a cat exiting the box is less likely to encounter another cat waiting to use the facilities. Scent-sensitive cats might avoid the litter box if they receive an aversive scent signal from another cat.
For your own sake and the well-being of your cats, place the litter boxes in a room that has decent light and good airflow. Cats are very sensitive to their environment, and they don’t like being restricted to a dingy, smelly closet or the basement any more than we do.
Although cats enjoy being close to their families, they also like their privacy during toilet time.
Keep your litter boxes in a relatively quiet area of the home where they won’t be disturbed by visitors, repairmen, small children, and other animals. Avoid locations that are near washing machines and other noisy appliances.
Don’t place the box in front of patio doors, large windows, or transparent cat flaps where they may feel threatened by kids, dogs, or outdoor animals peeking in.
How to set up a litter box
Litter box setup isn’t as simple as putting a box in the corner and filling it with litter. Size and material are important, too. The litter box should be large enough for the cat to turn around in and eliminate comfortably. When training kittens, you could start with a slightly smaller box at first to keep them from feeling overwhelmed.
General guidelines state that the box should be at least one and a half times the length of your cat from nose to tail, with plenty of room on each side. One study found that the preferred dimensions were 34 x 15 inches (86 x 39 cm). However, smaller than average cats and kittens can use a box as small as 27 x 18 inches (69 x 46 cm).
Kittens and cats with ambulatory problems should have a box with sides that are low enough for easy entry but high enough to keep the litter from spilling out. The ideal depth is about 1.5 inches of litter with an inch between the top layer and the rim of the litter box. Mats will keep any spilled litter off the floor.
It’s tempting to line the litter box or add deodorizers to the litter to control odors. These are more human preferences than in a cat’s best interests.
Although each cat is different and has its own unique personality, they generally prefer to have uncovered litter boxes that they can jump in or out of easily. This also helps to reduce odor build up and makes human monitoring easier. For your own sake, choose one that’s untextured so that you can clean it without a lot of unnecessary scrubbing.
Avoid self-cleaning boxes that are more gimmick than anything. Extra noise from the motor is frightening to most cats. The same goes for those crystallized cat litter products, which can make a popping noise when wet.
The best type of litter is a fine, natural material because it’s more comfortable for cats to walk on and scratch. Sand-like, unscented clumping litter is ideal. Use baking soda or other odor-control additives with caution. The particles in these products may cause respiratory distress in cats, and they may contribute to urinary tract infections.
Avoid litters made with wheat or similar base materials, Cats will not eliminate where they eat, and these products smell like food to them. One additive that is okay, at least for kittens in the learning stage, is pheromone-based drops that attract them to the litter box. Just make sure that the product is natural, non-toxic, and approved for use with pets.
The box itself doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. Simply choose a litter box that’s the appropriate size and crafted from heavy-duty plastic. These are the easiest to keep clean, they don’t cost a lot, and they stay in pretty good shape over time. You should purchase a new litter box annually.
How to clean a litter box
The litter doesn’t need to be changed daily, but solid waste and clumped urine should be scooped after each elimination or at least twice a day. Top-up the litter to bring it to previous levels.
If the box is properly maintained, it can be washed and refilled with fresh litter once a week to once a month. Let your nose and your cat’s habits/behavior be you guide.
Regular monitoring and cleaning will keep odors down and prevent elimination-related behavior issues. It will also allow you to notice any changes in color, consistency, or frequency. These are usually the first signs of a health problem.
When it’s time for a thorough cleaning, don’t use strong detergents, bleach, or other chemicals. They aren’t necessary with proper litter box management, and the strong smells might drive your cat toward eliminating elsewhere. Keep in mind that cats are more sensitive to smell and sounds than we are.
Wash with a mild, unscented soapy solution and rinse with boiling water. Follow up with a thorough drying before you add new litter.
The TL;DR version for litter box management
Want to make sure that the litter box is clean and presentable for your cat(s) while protecting your home and personal hygiene? Follow our step-by-step guide to litter box management and cleaning.
1. Purchase one more box than the number of cats or kittens in your home; heavy-duty plastic is best. The box should be about 1 1/2 times the length of your cat and wide enough for room to turn around. The height should be large enough to accommodate up to three inches of litter. Allowing an extra inch from the surface of the substrate to the rim will avoid spillover.
2. Place each box is a quiet, well-lit area that’s free from drafts. There should be at least one litter box on each floor of a multi-level house. A mat made of natural materials is fine to line the floor under the litter box. It should be about four inches larger than the litter box on each side.
3. Scoop solid waste at least once daily. Change the litter completely once a week, and give the whole box a thorough cleaning once a month. Do any cleaning or litter replacement after the cat uses the box so there’s little chance they need to use it again during the cleaning process.
4. To clean the litter box, put on a pair of rubber gloves and use a scoop to remove any solid waste and clumps of urine. Carefully dump the remaining cat litter into a plastic garbage bag, seal it, and put it into your trash receptacle.
5. Wash the box out completely by rinsing with boiling water and spraying all surfaces with a solution of mild, unscented detergent and water. Scrub to remove any residue.
7. Rinse again with more hot water or by spraying all surfaces with a second bottle of plain warm water. Wipe with paper towels and discard.
8. Refill with fresh litter and replace the litter box in the latrine area.
Now that you’ve got the basics down for proper litter box selection and maintenance, we’ll cover litter training and deal with any toileting-related behavior issues in future installments.
Please keep in mind that your needs and your cat’s needs are different. When properly conducted, these best practices will keep your litter box cleaner and all family members happier.
Wanting a clean, well-behaved pet is normal, but don’t allow it to become an obsession. Your job is to provide an accessible, safe, and hygienic toileting space that allows them to do their business with fewer of the unpleasant aspects that make cat ownership a challenge.
Using litter box management best practices and your pet’s own personality as guides, you’ll find that you and your fur babies can happily co-exist in an environment that’s healthier for all.
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Heath, S. (2019). Common feline problem behaviours: unacceptable indoor elimination. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 21(3), 199-208.