Litter Box 101: From Basic Tips to Bad Behaviour

August 11, 2021
feline behaviour
litter box tips

For many cat parents and their feline family members, the litter box is a source of frustration. No one is ever really excited to scoop the litter box or to find litter dragged around the house on kitty’s paws. Worse still is when a cat decides the litter box is not their preferred choice. 

Whether you’re a new cat parent trying to figure out what supplies you really need, or your cat is having problems, read on for our top tips and tricks for managing the litter box in your home. 

Litter Box Basics

Cats can be picky, so it’s important to start with the best possible litter box set up. 

How many litter boxes should you have? 

You should have at least one litter box per cat, plus one extra. This is important especially because cats may develop a preference or aversion for a litter box for a variety of reasons. These include territorial behaviour by other cats in the house, noisy or distracting appliances nearby, or even a desire to only urinate in one box and only defecate in the other. 

What kind of litter box should you buy? 

The litter box you choose should be as long as your cat from nose to the tip of their tail, and as wide as they are long with their tail down. Typically, that’s around 12” x16”. If your cat has mobility issues, consider a litter tray with a lower point of entry. 

While us humans might prefer a covered litter box, most cats would prefer we leave the lid off. This is because it can make it harder for them to monitor their surroundings while doing their business, and also because it can trap the smells inside. Cats are clean freaks – they don’t want to use a smelly potty!

For cats who make a mess digging in the litter, or for cats who track litter, there are several options. Mats designed to catch litter can be placed in front of the box, or the box itself can be placed inside a larger plastic bin, like one you might use for gift wrap storage. 

There are also top entry litter boxes which help by providing a surface that your cat must step onto as they leave the box. If your cat has no mobility issues, you can also consider a high-sided litter box.

Where should you put your litter boxes?

When choosing a location for your boxes, select an out of the way corner – but not too out of the way. Cats don’t want to trek into the dark, cold basement to go to the bathroom anymore than you do. 

Consider how much foot traffic the area gets, as well as whether there are any potentially scary sounds (like the washer and dryer being nearby, or the garage door being activated). Make sure to place your boxes away from each other as well. This gives your cat true choice about where they do their business. 

What kind of litter should you use? 

Most cats prefer a kitty litter that is made up of unscented, small particles. This means that most cats are going to prefer basic clumping clay litters. Available in a wide variety of options, you can find clumping clay litters with features like fast clumping, odor absorbency, low dust, and low tracking. 

Crystal or pellet litter can be uncomfortable for some cats to use, leading them to choose other places to do their business. However, you can experiment with different litter types to find one that works for everyone in your family. When trying out new litter types, be sure to slowly transition your cat to the new litter type. 

How often should you clean it?

If you ask your cat, they’ll say they’d like you to clean the box immediately after they use it. If you ask a feline specialist, they’ll say to try to clean the box once a day. As we mentioned before, cats like to use a clean litter box. No one likes to use an unflushed toilet!

Dealing With ‘Bad’ Litter Box Behaviour

First things first: if your cat is not using the litter box properly, they aren’t trying to be bad. They’re trying to tell you something. 

Have you noticed any of these signs? 

  • they pee on your stuff: laundry or dirty towels in the bathroom.  
  • they pee on the walls or the furniture.  
  • they are missing the box and peeing beside it.  
  • you just noticed them going in and out of the litter box repeatedly, peeing small amounts or no pee at all.  
  • they cry when they pee.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is important to contact your veterinarian immediately. They are your partner in solving this problem.  

Most cats that are peeing outside of the litter box have a medical problem.  They are often in pain and they may be at risk of dying in as little as 2 days.  

I can’t state this too strongly: Get help as soon as you notice a problem!

If your cat is going in and out of the box and little to no pee is coming out, this is an emergency and he needs to be seen right away!  

Stop reading this and call your veterinarian immediately!

If they are passing good amounts of urine and not in obvious distress, you still need to book an appointment as soon as possible.

Please don’t try to solve this one on your own. Don’t Google this, or try to change a few things to ‘see what happens’.  This is not a DIY project.  

Got your appointment booked?  Great!

Be Prepared: What to Do Before Your Appointment

Now you can start your investigation.  

This is going to help your veterinarian determine what to do at the appointment.  They are going to ask these questions, so let’s get you prepped!

Think back about your cat, and ask others living in your home if they have noticed any difference in their behaviour, appetite or anything at all.  

Everything is important, so don’t discount even changes that seem trivial.  Sometimes there are changes that are so small they’re hard to notice.  

If there are changes, how long ago did they start?

  • Start with changes in their litterbox habits.
  • Make a list of the items your cat is going on, and in. 
  • Note if the surfaces are flat like the floor, or upright like a wall or table leg? (Some cats that are marking like to use upright surfaces.)
  • Check the litterbox. Are they peeing in the litterbox at all?
  • When they do pee in the litterbox, are the clumps smaller or larger than normal? 
  • Have you noticed if there is any blood? 

Make notes about their diet.

  • Note the name and brand of your cat’s food
  • Do they eat canned, dry or both?
  • Any recent changes in the food type or brand?
  • Is your cat drinking more or less water than before?

Other things to note are those in the household. 

  • Are there new pets in the house?
  • New people?
  • New furniture?
  • A new outdoor cat or animal that your cat is upset about?
  • If there is more than one cat in the house, which cats actually like each other and get along, and which ones just live together with no love lost?  

Together you and your veterinary team will get to the bottom of this.  

With an examination and some lab tests, your veterinarian will be able to identify medical problems, and together, you may save your cat’s life.  

If your veterinarian does not find any medical problems, you can breathe a sigh of relief, and try to get down to what is causing your cat to pee outside of the box.  

There is clearly something bothering your cat, so continue to work with the veterinary team to understand what your cat needs to feel comfortable using his box again!

Supporting Your Cat’s Urinary Health

Depending on what is found during your cat’s veterinary exam, your veterinarian may make a number of recommendations to help you support your cat’s urinary health. Often, cats who are stressed will show signs of urinary tract problems, leading them to pee in places they shouldn’t.  You can help support your cat’s urinary health by doing some or all of the following: 

  • Feed your cat a veterinarian recommended diet. There are diets specifically designed to reduce stress, canned foods, or diets formulated to support your cat’s urinary health. If you will be changing your cat to a new food, follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for a successful transition.
  • If medications have been prescribed, make sure you follow the dosage instructions and complete the entire course. These medications may include antibiotics (if your cat has been diagnosed with a urinary tract or bladder infection), pain management, or other medications specific to your cat’s diagnosis.
  • Provide clean, fresh water at all times.
  • Enrich your cat’s environment by providing a variety of separate places to play, sleep, observe, and hide at various heights. Include multiple scratchable surfaces and toys that allow your cat to engage their hunting instincts. 
  • Ensure your cat has easy access to a safe space, where they can hide from strange smells or sounds, excited or noisy humans, or the unwanted attention of other pets. 
  • Avoid major changes in your daily routine.
  • Make lots of time for positive human-cat interaction. Playtime, cuddletime, treats and praise will reduce everyone’s stress levels.

This article was sponsored by Hill’s Pet Nutrition and written & reviewed by Cat Healthy feline specialists.

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