Frederick Cat Vet 9539 Liberty Road, Frederick, MD 21701 • (301) 898-4009
Gentle, complete veterinary care for the felines in your family
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In general, cats are great about their litter box habits. They instinctively look for loose, sandy soil, dig a small hole and cover up their elimination (urination or defecation). We take advantage of this natural instinct by offering them a litter box with a cat litter that mimics the type of soil they would naturally seek out. As you will see, there is much more about their instinct that plays into litter box preferences.

Unlike dogs, they don’t have to ask to go for a walk to do their business. Instead, they do it neatly and discreetly in the box you gave them. It is not uncommon for cats to have instances of missing the box or completely giving up on the box. There is a wide range of reasons for this and the problem doesn’t always lie solely with your cat. There are a few things you can do to help them out.

Many cats have a less-than-ideal litter box situation. Often, boxes are tucked away in remote, noisy, uncomfortable areas and most cats accommodate to this, but they really would prefer something a bit nicer. Naturally, we want those odors to be as far away as possible and all those little bits of litter to be out of sight and not tracked onto to the carpet, but try for a compromise that your cat will like and can prevent future problems.

Compare this to our typical human bathroom situation with a nice, clean facility on each level of the house. Walk a few steps in their paws, and consider: would you like to share a single toilet next to the furnace, and one that hasn’t been flushed in two days? We pamper them in so many ways-why not provide them a little more for their bathroom?

What cats really want is their own private giant sandbox in a quiet corner in each level of the house, scooped out promptly after each use. What?! We need, of course, a practical compromise. Here then are the top ten sensible items on your kitty’s litter box wish list:

1. A big box: Measure your cat from nose to rump and multiply by 1.5. The box should be at least that long (about 30 inches long is a good size). This allows room for maneuvering and there is a much greater chance of a clean spot to use. Many retail litter boxes are too small-look for a "mortar tub" at your home improvement store, or use a large storage box with low sides.

2. One for each: They will probably all use each box, but a good rule of thumb for the total number is one box for each, plus one.

3. Quiet spots: Cats are natural predators but are small enough to be natural prey as well. Instinct tells them they are vulnerable during elimination, and that there are always larger predators lurking about. Big dogs and small children running down a hallway may not mean your cats any harm, but they will still feel uneasy in an open spot like this. They prefer a quiet corner where they only need to be vigilant of a smaller area.

4. A clean box: Fastidious at all times, many cats simply mutter under their breath when they see how untidy their box is. The spot outside the box with a few grains of litter may be more appealing than trying to contort and perch on the last semi-clean corner. Each box should be cleaned at least daily. If you can only do it every two days, add more boxes.

5. Clumping litter: Like sand, a fine material is more comfortable and easier for burying than that older-style coarse clay litter. Plus, we have an easier time cleaning up if the material clumps for quick scooping.

6. Naturally scented litter: Cats do not like “fresh scents”. Those perfumes in litters, plug-ins and cleaners may mask their odors but are not pleasing to them and sometimes irritate their sensitive nasal passages. A litter made from natural products like pine, corn cob or wheat is much preferred.

7. No harsh cleaners: A litter box should be clean, not sterilized. Bleach is only necessary in occasional circumstances when intestinal parasites are an issue, but any residue of bleach on the box will be quite offensive and objectionable to them. When it needs to be rinsed out, a little dish soap (unscented if possible) is all that is necessary, and a good rinsing afterwards will minimize any scent. A thorough cleaning may only be necessary every 1-2 months with a good scooping litter.

8. Always available: Locations where the door is never closed, or access otherwise restricted is best. Cats prefer a permanent place and don’t want the box moved around. Keep in mind when cleaning boxes, to not have them all drying out and unusable somewhere. Staggering the cleaning is less upsetting to them

9. Inside another box: Thinking of us on this one, a very large, flat item or nearly flat container for one or several boxes is great for catching stray litter and aiming errors. Cats also like a nearby spot to wipe their paws on and get rid of the litter between the toes. Finding a good item for this requires a bit of creativity and experimenting. Sturdy plastic is best. A rubber mat or a carpet remnant could work as well. Cardboard can become quite messy rather quickly. A trash bag may not be tolerated for walking on and will also need regular replacement.

10. Dust-free litter: Litter dust may be a major factor is triggering feline asthma. For those cats suffering from this, it is essential that this be minimized. Every time they stir up the litter, some of that dust can reach their lungs. Unfortunately, a completely dust-free litter does not exist but some come very close. Nature’'s Miracle litter appears to be the best litter on the market. In my experience, it has the lowest levels of dust for commercial cat litters. When you dump a fresh bag in the box, it is nice not to have that huge cloud of dust that takes 15 minutes to settle down. Made from ground corn cobs, it also does an outstanding job of masking odor and clumps very nicely. Other good choices are Arm & Hammer Naturals, Blue Buffalo, World's Best Cat Litter, Tidy Cat Pure Nature and Swheat Scoops.. A major environmental downside to traditional clumping litters is the use of clay, in particular sodium bentonite, which is predominantly collected by strip-mining, which degrades land and waterways.

Different cats like different litters and within multi-cat households, there may be disagreements over what is best. Using multiple boxes gives you a chance to experiment with all of the variables, including height of the box, covered or uncovered (most prefer uncovered where dust and odors are not trapped), depth of the litter, type of litter, box location and so on.

Keeping all of these points in mind can go a long way towards preventing a problem and possibly solving an existing one. If your cat is not using the boxes appropriately, there may be a behavioral or medical problem. Please schedule an appointment with Frederick Cat Vet if you feel either of these is a concern.

-Mike Karg, DVM