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Litter box basics: The right setup to prevent behavior problems

A clean, easy litter box is a non-issue, allowing the focus be the joy pets bring into our lives.
A clean, easy litter box is a non-issue, allowing the focus be the joy pets bring into our lives.
©Kateland Photo

One of the most frustrating behavior problems in the wonderful world of cat ownership is a cat that eliminates (urinates or defecates) outside of the litter box. You may be surprised to learn what high standards some cats have when it comes to litter box selection. While most don't require fine hand towels or classical music, there are certainly things to keep in mind when selecting the box, litter, and placement to set your cat up for success.

Thinking Inside the Box

Many people are drawn to the covered litter box option. It certainly does look less like a litter box, which is generally a plus. But, if your overall goal is that the cat use the litter box and only the litter box for elimination, you want to think like a cat. While some cats do seem to be drawn to privacy and will use the covered boxes, more often they can cause problems. It is easier to forget to clean a covered box, and odors can be trapped inside (think of any portable blue outdoor potties you've encountered). While keeping the odors in might initially seem like a plus for you, keep in mind that if the box isn't suitable for use, you may get a "reminder" when the cat locates somewhere else that seems like a better option. Also, covered boxes can be especially difficult for larger cats, as they may not have sufficient space to enter, turn around, cover, etc. But if a covered box is your preference, give it a try. Your cat may find it plenty workable. And if a problem does develop, a good test to see if the difficulty could be as simple as uncovering is to offer a second uncovered litter box right next to the covered--give your cat the "Pepsi Challenge" to see which she prefers.

Pick of the Litter

There are many types of litters on the market, but the most common are clumping, clay, and crystal/gel litters. If the cat or kitten is using a litter box without problems, it is great to ask what sort of litter is being used and go with that. Generally, cats tend to prefer the clumping litter because it has a finer grain and is thus softer, so that is a good place to start. Clumping litter needs to be scooped daily and changed out completely every two weeks or so. Clay and crystal or gel litters should be completely replaced twice a week, though if odor or usage problems begin, you may need to change it more frequently. When you change out the litter (of any kind), scrub down the box with a mild dish detergent and rinse it out before refilling. Once you find a litter that works, stick with it. Changing litter can result in a cat going outside of the box. There are reports that the synthetic gel/crystal litters can be off-putting for some cats, given its foreign texture. If you suspect that your litter may be the root of any litter box issues, try putting two boxes with different litters side by side so your cat can tell you, in the most sincerest of fashions, which he prefers.

Location, Location, Location

While it can be tempting to hide a litter box off in the depths of the basement, again it is important to think like a cat. Remember, your goal is to make this an inviting place for the cat so he utilizes the box and not your clean laundry. If your home has multiple levels, it is a good idea to have a box on each floor. The key is that the cat can get to the box without tremendous effort. A good rule of thumb is to have one box for every cat, so if you have three cats, you will want three boxes.

Your best bet against behavioral problems is always prevention. Once a cat gets into the habit of eliminating outside of the litter box, you will have to break him of the habit. Spend a little time thinking about what your cat wants will help prevent him from having to show you in any other way.


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