Every week I deal with frantic owners who are upset about their cat not wanting to use his or her litter box.  Good litter box habits are something every owner expects from their cat, but in turn, a proper litter box environment is expected by every cat.

What does your cat want with his or her litter box?  This may sound like a silly question, but owners don’t always keep their cat’s box up to an acceptable standard of cleanliness.  We humans don’t like using crowded, smelly or unclean toilets; and the same holds true for our cats.

The following is taken from The American Association of Feline Practitioners, Feline Behavior Guidelines, a resource for owners and veterinarians. I was a member of the veterinary panel that produced the guidelines, and we worked with other experts and studied research to create these recommendations:

  • Most cats prefer a fine-grained, unscented litter substrate (e.g. clumping litter).
  • Boxes should be scooped at least 1 to 2 times daily.
  • Clumping litter should be completely changed at least weekly and more often if more than one cat uses it.  Clay litter should be changed a minimum of every other day (more frequently if multiple cats are using it).  Wash litter box with warm, soapy water and dry well before adding new litter.
  • The ideal number of litter boxes is one per cat, plus one.  Litter boxes should be placed in at least 2 different locations, and preferably more if a multiple cat household.  Locations should be private and have easy access.  Boxes should not be placed next to noisy appliances.
  • Prevent blocking litter box exit or entry of one cat by another.  Have at least two ways for cats to enter and exit the box.
  • Never trap or corner a cat in its box to give it medication or perform other procedures that the cat may dislike.
  • Many cats prefer a litter depth or 1.5 inches; however, preferences vary.
  • Cats prefer litter boxes that are at least 1.5 times the length of their bodies.  Many commercial litter boxes are too small for larger cats. Sweater storage boxes, cement mixing tubes, and small dog litter pans (for dogs up to 35 pounds) all make excellent cat litter boxes.

Many cats are very adaptive and don’t demand that all of the above be followed, but if you have a cat that stops using or doesn’t always use his or her box, you need to think about every one of these items.  One other item that is not listed above is the height of the sides of the box.  Arthritic or overweight cats often need more shallow sided boxes to comfortably get in and out.

There are dozens of types of litters and litter boxes, and sometimes you need to experiment with different things to see what your own cat prefers.   I have trained my own cats to use the Cat Genie, a self washing litter box (www.catgenie.com), but this is not for everyone.  It is much easier to train a young cat to an alternative type of litter box than an older cat who is more set in his ways.

Certain litter manufacturers claim that other litter types, such as clumping litters, are unsafe because they cause intestinal blockages and other problems, but in over two decades of practice, I have never found this to be true.  Some litters are more environmentally friendly, smell better, stick less to a cat’s feet, or are less dusty, but just because we like them doesn’t mean our cats will feel the same way.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic