Lisa A. Pierson, DVM
Urinating and defecating outside of the litter box, also known as “inappropriate elimination,” is one of the most common reasons for a cat to be relinquished to a shelter or, in some cases, abused. Sadly, in most cases it is the fault of the human in charge of the litter box duties making this an ‘appropriate elimination’ issue because who would want to walk in their own urine and feces?
The “fault” usually involves a dirty box or one that is too small and it is perfectly appropriate for a cat to seek out a cleaner place to do his or her elimination. Wouldn’t you consider doing the same thing if you were not offered a clean bathroom?
Punishing these cats is not only inhumane but is ineffective and will often make things worse.
When someone is asked how often they flush their toilet, the answer is usually, “every time it is used, of course!” We all know how repulsive ‘porta-potties’ are and we are not even asked to walk around in our own waste like humans often ask of their cats!
So why do we expect our cats to use dirty litter boxes instead of just going some place else?
Humans seem to forget that a cat’s sense of smell is infinitely more sensitive than our own. Add to this the instinctive nature of the cat to be clean and it is easy to see how a dirty litter box often spells disaster.
Think about how a wild cat would handle his bathroom duties. He would not be confined to a 1’ x 2’ bathroom. He would not choose to walk around in his own waste. He would simply choose another plot of land and that “plot of land” could be behind your sofa or in another area of your home.
Please click on the links below to read more about the key issues concerning litter boxes.
You will notice that many key statements are repeated several times on this webpage. This is because many people may read only isolated sections.
Top reasons for a cat to stop using the litter box
Gimmicks – Products that promote laziness
In search of the best cat litter
Types of litter boxes, size, number, location
Kittens/new adult arrivals and litter box usage
Cleaning the litter box – method to save time and money (video)
***I frequently receive requests for help from people who have a cat that is not using the litter box. They often state that they have “tried everything” but most of these desperate people have not thoroughly read this webpage and implemented all the suggestions – including the use of Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract which is discussed/linked to at the bottom of this page.
Please do not consider yourself having “tried everything” until you have tried Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract as discussed below. Will it solve all elimination problems? No, it won’t but it has helped bring many cats back to the litter box so it is always worth a try.
If you need more help past what is on this extensive webpage, I am available for phone consultations. No advice can be given via email otherwise I would have to type my fingers to bloody stubs. There are a lot of variables to consider when dealing with this problem.
Top reasons for a cat to stop using the litter box:
- Dirty litter box(es)
- Poor choice of litter form (using pellets/crystals/non-clumping litter which are uncomfortable to walk on and do not allow for complete urine removal)
- Poor location of litter box(es)
- Blocked from the box by a dominant feline housemate
- Unable to relax and get to the box, or use it, due to fear of a strange human, dog, active child, loud noise, etc., in the house environment
- Box size is too small
- Too few boxes
- Medical problem(s) – This should always be a serious consideration.
Many medical issues such as diabetes, cystitis (painful bladder inflammation), bladder stones, and a partial urethral blockage (always an emergency!) can cause a cat to stop using his litter box. Please see Feline Urinary Tract Health for more information.
Please also note that most urinary tract problems can be avoided by feeding canned food – not dry food. The increased water content and the decreased carbohydrate content of canned food are healthier for your cat than dry food. Please see my Feeding Your Cat and Feline Diabetes articles on this site.
- Scoop the litter box twice daily – at a minimum.
- Use clumping litter – except for kittens younger than 6 – 7 weeks of age.
- Use unscented litter.
- Keep the litter deep enough.
- Use large litter boxes.
- Have enough litter boxes available.
- Have litter boxes placed in a quiet area.
- Use a litter mat that is comfortable for your cat to walk on.
- Seek veterinary attention if your cat stops using the litter box.
- Use litters that do not clump – except for kittens younger than 6 – 7 weeks of age.
- Use pelleted (pine or newspaper) or crystal/white pearl litters.
- Use scented litters or any deodorizers.
- Use hooded litter boxes if your intent is to prevent odors from reaching your nose.
- Use plastic ‘grass’ mats.
- Punish your cat for not using the litter box.
- Put a child in charge of litter box maintenance.
Scoop litter boxes at least twice daily removing both feces and urine.
It is critical to be able to remove both the feces and the urine each time the box is cleaned. Clumping litter is the only type of litter that allows for this to be done completely. Complete removal of the urine is not possible with the non-clumping clay litters, the white pearl litters and any type of pelleted litters such as newspaper or pine.
Remember, even a small amount of urine smells strong to a cat! With non-clumping litters, only the feces are removed and some, but not all, of the urine, thus only ‘flushing’ half of the cat’s toilet.
EXCEPTION TO ABOVE: Kittens (younger than 6 – 7 weeks of age) often have temporary bouts of diarrhea for various reasons. They are also more apt to step in their feces and then end up with messy cement boots. Very small kittens may even attempt to eat the litter.
For this reason, I advise using a NONclumping litter for small kittens. This is the only time I will use a pelleted litter (I prefer newspaper pellets over the pine pellets) or the non-clumping clay litter – always UNscented. To maintain strict cleanliness, discard the entire amount of litter as necessary (2-3 times daily) and wash the litter box before re-filling. Do NOT just simply remove the feces – the urine MUST be discarded also.
It seems as if more and more products are coming out on the market to allow humans to avoid maintaining a litter box properly.
Here is an example of a product that a lazy human may try to use to avoid keeping a litter box clean. Littervent is a venting system to remove foul odors from a litter box but what is wrong with this picture (product)? If there is enough waste material in your cat’s litter box to generate a foul odor – enough to necessitate setting up an exhaust system to remove the air from the box – just what are you expecting your cat to walk through?!
‘Together’ is another example of a product that is, once again, catering to a person who is not taking the time to keep their cat’s litter box clean and/or who is not using a clumping litter that allows for removal of all of the urine. This product claims to be “eco-friendly because it eliminates the formation of ammonia gases” and to “help dry all waste material faster.”
Now why would we want to “dry” the waste matter when *removing* it makes so much more sense? No matter if it is dry or not, your cat will still have to walk through it until it is removed and it will still smell like urine and feces!
Please do not use products like these in lieu of keeping the litter box clean.
Keep in mind how much better your cat’s sense of smell is when compared to yours. They have incredibly keen noses and just because your nose cannot detect an odor, this does not mean that your cat’s nose cannot smell the waste products.
PLEASE……just clean the litter box and do not try to use gimmicks that promote doing otherwise.
Types of Litter
First of all, there is no perfect litter. I think that I would give my right arm if there was but they all have their drawbacks. Some of the problems associated with the various types of litters are inconveniences for the human and some are strong negatives from the cat’s point of view. Given how common inappropriate (appropriate??) elimination (IE) problems are, I will always choose the litter that will be the most inviting to my cats.
I spend a great deal of my behavioral-consulting time dealing with the nightmare of IE. ‘Inappropriate elimination’ is a fancy term for a cat that is urinating and/or defecating outside of the litter box. Given the fact that *most* of these problems are man-made (illogical litters like pellets being used, dirty litter boxes, non-clumping litters, small or enclosed boxes that are scary or stinky, etc.), I do whatever I can to provide my cats with the most natural and inviting litter available and that happens to be an UNscented clumping litter.
Do I get frustrated with the negatives of clumping litter? You bet that I do! I get very tired of stepping on it and seeing the dust on my furniture. I would rather not have a Swiffer Max in my hands so often. I keep thinking that there *must* be a better system but, in the end, I always stick with what I have written on this webpage.
I will continue to complain when doing housework but I will keep in mind how much worse it would be if my cats went on strike – urinating and defecating elsewhere – all because I tried to force them to use a litter and litter box system that was not to their liking. I love my cats and a bit of housework is simply the price that I have to pay to give them a very inviting litter box set-up. Now that I have voiced my very strong opinion that a clumping litter is the only sanitary way to maintain a litter box, what are the options in the clumping litter department?
Clumping litter comes in several forms
– (examples in parentheses):
- clay (Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Ultra, or the loose litter in the big bin at Pet Co)
- corn (World’s Best Cat Litter)
- wheat (SweatScoop)
- pine (Feline Pine – not the pellets but the clumping version)
- grass (SmartCat by Pioneer Pet)
For the past 20 years, I have used Dr. Elsey’s which is a clumping clay litter but I recently tried SmartCat, a clumping litter made out of grass and have decided to switch from Dr. Elsey’s to SmartCat.
Comparison of Dr. Elsey’s clumping clay with SmartCat clumping grass:
- SmartCat is lighter than Dr. Elsey’s and I am getting too old to carry 40 lbs of litter. I would rather carry the 20 lbs bags of SmartCat.
- They both track equally so no improvement there.
- They both clump well.
- Odor control – I don’t pay attention to this because to control odor, CLEAN THE DARN BOX! Do not look to litter as a way of controlling odor. That said, both are equal in odor control. A clay urine ball does not smell any different than a grass urine ball.
- SmartCat is slightly less dusty than some batches of Dr. Elsey’s and more dusty than other batches. Do not believe any company’s claim that their litter is “99% dust free.” 99% of what? Believe me, they are all dusty.
Note that the dust situation is not just important from a house cleaning standpoint. It is also important in terms of causing an allergic response in whatever living being is breathing it in. We know that corn and wheat litters are more hyperallergenic than clay which is relatively inert.
(We see more feline asthma with the corn and wheat litters when compared to the clay litters.)
As discussed elsewhere on this page, I do not favor the use of covered boxes – no matter what litter is being used – because they force the cat to inhale more dust.
If you do try any plant-based litter, monitor your cat for any signs of respiratory problems (coughing or increased respiration rate or effort).
Note: I found World’s Best Cat Litter to be much dustier than SmartCat.
- SmartCat is ‘renewable’ so it is more ecologically-friendly.
- SmartCat is biodegradable.
- One area where a heavier litter like clay wins out is that it is more firm to walk on. A couple of my cats had serious reservations about walking in 3″ of SmartCat because it gave way easily and they sunk down pretty far. However, even at this relatively shallow depth (compared to how I have always kept the Dr. Elsey’s at 3.5-4″) the urine reached the bottom of the box.
I have always been a stickler for keeping the litter box full enough to not let the urine reach the bottom but that is a little more difficult to accomplish with SmartCat due to its light density. The point of clumping litter is to allow for the urine to clump *before* it reaches the bottom of the box.
When that happens, the bottom of the box does not come in contact with the urine (plastic is porous and will absorb urine odor) and you won’t have to be scraping urine clumps off the bottom of the box which can break up leading to contamination of the litter with small pieces.
With a very light litter like SmartCat, the urine percolates down to the bottom of the box rather quickly. If I keep the litter 4″ deep, the urine is less likely to reach the bottom which I definitely want to avoid. But, it is a catch-22 in that some cats will not be happy about walking in deep litter that gives way.
Fortunately, all but one of my cats have gotten used to ‘wading through’ deep litter and it does not seem to bother them now but some cats may not like SmartCat and would prefer a firm clay litter.
If you decide to switch litters, do not remove your old litter until you are sure that your cat has accepted the change.
If SmartCat does not work out for you or your cat, all of the members of our rescue group have been very satisfied with Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Ultra clumping litter for the past ~20 years. (I have been told by a company representative that the Classic version is pretty much the same as their Ultra product. Also, see below for information on Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract products for inappropriate elimination problems.)
Please be aware that all litters vary from batch-to-batch in terms of dust levels. Sometimes I get a great bag of Dr. Elsey’s with very little dust and sometimes I get a bag that contains more dust. This is the nature of a natural product. It will vary.
Another litter that I have used on occasion is the clumping clay litter that can be found in the free-standing bins at Pet Co. I think that it used to be called “Pet Gold” but I am not sure what it is called now.
I have found this Pet Co litter to be fairly low in dust and it clumps very well. You need to purchase an original container of the product and then return with that empty container for (cheaper) re-fills.
In July 2012, I had the opportunity to try a litter called Boxiecat. This litter is completely UNscented and is very low in dust – comparable to Dr. Elsey’s. However, it did not clump as well as Dr. Elsey’s which is a significant issue for me. Dr. Elsey’s clumps so strongly resulting in the removal of every speck of waste, whereas Boxiecat litter breaks up a bit.
You will note under the “Cleaning” section below that I never completely empty my litter boxes. I simply add to the boxes to maintain a 3.5″ – 4″ depth. Therefore, it is imperative that I use a litter that forms strong clumps.
Boxiecat litter is available only as a home-delivery product making it a very expensive choice due to shipping costs. That said, if cost is not an issue for you and you prefer the convenience of not having to schlep heavy litter home from the store, Boxiecat is a very good choice. I love the fact that it is completely unscented and low in dust.
Prior to our rescue group’s discovery of Dr. Elsey’s litter, we had good luck with 3 litters made by the Clorox company but a few years ago, their “unscented” litters were anything but unscented!
Their EverClean, EverFresh, and ScoopAway litters started carrying a heavy perfume smell despite the word “unscented” printed on the containers. Added perfume is simply a way for lazy people to not clean the litter box frequently and I refuse to use any litter with perfume.
Always use unscented litters and do not add any deodorizers to the litter or around the litter box. Cats, because of their extremely keen sense of smell, are often put off by scented litters and perfumed environments. In addition, they do not need to be grooming perfume chemicals from their coat. There is absolutely NO need for special perfumes or additives if a cat box is maintained correctly. The best way to keep the box odor free is to clean it! Odors should be removed, not attempts made to cover them up.
Also, I highly recommend not using plastic liners. Liners are very annoying to the cat when they get their claws stuck in them and do not work with the best system to use for clumping litter as outlined below in the Cleaning section.
Always In Search of the Best Cat Litter
In 2007 I decided to give World’s Best Cat Litter (WBCL) Extra Strength another try even though I do worry about the hyperallergenic nature of corn dust. I had tried this corn-based product several years prior and found it to be quite dusty. I had it in a room with dark paneling and it was not too long before I could write my name on the walls. It was no better than the Dr. Elsey’s litter in terms of dust and there was also NO improvement with regard to the tracking issue. In fact, I found it to be a bit worse in the tracking department.
But….I decided to give WBCL one more try.
I took a bucket of Dr. Elsey’s Ultra litter (the very-dusty product that was coming from the company at that time) and a bucket of WBCL out into my yard. I took handfuls of both and let the litter run from my hands about a foot above the bucket. They were about equal in the dust department.
When I compared WBCL to Dr. Elsey’s Precious cat (non-Ultra), I found WBCL to be dustier.
Here is where they do differ: I attended a seminar on feline respiratory diseases a couple of years ago. The speaker noted that they see more asthma in cats on corn and wheat-based litters than they do on the more inert clay litters. I did not find this surprising given that corn and wheat are hyperallergens. For this reason, I am very reluctant to use WBCL.
WBCL makes this claim on their webpage which I strongly disagree with:
“With WORLD’S BEST CAT LITTER™ there is no need to worry about a cat or its owner inhaling problematic dust.”
I don’t see how they can make the claim that breathing in corn (or wheat in the case of SweatScoop) dust is not “problematic.”
I recently had to cage one of my new foster cats for 2 days. I used WBCL in her very large cage. This is the amount of dust and litter that she tracked into her bed in just 48 hours. When I shook her bed out, there was a considerable amount of dust in the air. I just do not see how anybody can refer to this litter as “low in dust and tracking.”
All of the above said, I really do not have a huge problem with people using WBCL. At least it is a clumping litter. However, if a cat has asthma, this is not a litter that I would be using and, given the dust issue, I would not be using it in any hooded litter boxes. It is bad enough that they are going to breathe in the corn dust even when digging in an uncovered box but a covered box will increase the amount of corn dust that will end up in their lungs. Of course, the same can be said for clay litter dust and covered boxes.
WBCL has a strong corn smell that puts some cats off or confuses them. I have consulted with clients who have switched to WBCL or SweatScoop only to have their cats refuse to use the litter box. Some cats may not view corn or wheat as litter and some cats will even eat it. This latter problem is not surprising since many cats are being fed a terribly species-inappropriate diet of corn- and wheat-laden dry foods. Please see Feeding Your Cat – Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition for reasons why you are not doing your cat any favors if you are feeding any dry food.
I once bought some Feline Pine Scoopable litter but I did not even put this in a litter box. The minute I opened the bag I decided that this litter would never be used for my cats. The pine smell was terribly strong and it was very dusty. People talk about how wonderful that pine smell is but *my* nose is not what is important here. Considering how sensitive a cat’s nose is, I do not recommend this litter.
Several years ago I tried SweatScoop and was not satisfied with the clumping ability or the dust levels of this litter. Others have commented on the fact that once it is stuck to the litter pan, it is like trying to remove hardened cement. This is also a litter that I cannot recommend.
Types of Litter Boxes, Size, Number, and Location
The size of the litter box is very important. It is very common for people to pick out a litter box that is too small which can result in the cat stepping in his own waste. This can result in a litter box aversion causing the cat to urinate and defecate elsewhere.
The bigger the box, the more inviting it will be to your cat. The more inviting the litter box is to the cat, the more apt he will be to use it instead of soiling your home.
Keep in mind that conventional litter boxes are not your only options. Storage containers often make much better choices since they are larger and often less expensive.
If you go to this Sterilite website, look at the 30 gallon Basic Tote (my preference) or the 18 gallon Basic Tote. Always look for a storage container with the smoothest inside.
I need a very tall (17″ – 19″) box because a couple of my cats stand up to pee. They are what I not-so-affectionately refer to as “elevator butt pee’ers.”
I keep my litter 3.5 – 4 inches deep so I need another ~14 inches of height to keep the urine contained in the box.
Here is a picture of the Sterilite storage container (litter box) that I use in my home ($15 from Target):
The internal dimensions of the container are 19.5″ wide x 29.5″ long x 19″ high. My cats LOVE their roomy bathroom!
Of course, you do not have to use bins this big but this size works for my home and my cats and actually takes up less room than the two covered boxes that I used to have side-by-side. Pick the size that works for you keeping in mind that the bigger the bathroom, the more inviting it will be for your cat.
If your cat does not stand up to urinate, then sweater boxes work well for litter boxes The one linked here is 12″ tall so I would suggest cutting a section in the side of the box so that the cat can comfortably step into it. This will be especially important for an older cat that may not be comfortable jumping in and out of it. I would cut the door in the long side and not the short side (the end)….hoping that this would entice the cat to turn left or right to get his body parallel with the long axis of the box and not urinate out the door.
The storage bins that I use would not exactly make it into ‘Better Homes & Gardens’ but I love my cats and I will do anything to make them love their litter box. I am deathly afraid of any inappropriate elimination issues and my cats have always been perfect with their litter boxes and I want to keep it that way.
To me, this less-than-aesthetically-pleasing litter box is a very small price to pay for a home that does not smell like cat urine.
If you have a cat that stands up to urinate or have one that really likes to dig to China and fling litter around, I urge you to consider a deep storage container that is at least 17″ wide and 22″ long and 17″ – 19″ deep. The height will be determined by you and your cat – depending on how high his or her rear end goes when they urinate. I need my boxes to be 19″ high but you may get away with using one that is 17″ high.
The depth of the litter is maintained at 3.5″ – 4″. ~68 pounds of clumping clay litter ends up giving a 3.5″ depth. ~80 pounds of litter gives a 4″ depth. Obviously you will not be dumping this litter on a regular basis so you must be careful how you clean the box.
The bottom of the door is 8″ from the floor. The door is 9″ x 9″ and I used a utility knife (aka “box cutter”) to cut the door. It was very easy to do. I just drew my lines and then scored the lines with the utility knife several times and it cut right through it. If you get a clear plastic box, however, the material is brittle and may crack so be careful.
Definitely cut a door in the box and don’t ask your cats to jump in and out of it. Jumping into it is easy for young cats but pushing off of sand that gives way is not going to be a good thing for the joints in their hind legs or their back – no matter the age of the cat. An older, arthritic cat would probably end up refusing to use the box if forced to jump in and out of it.
Note regarding door placement: I have had reports that some cats will walk into their litter boxes and then urinate out the door. If you put the door on the *end* of the long side, versus in the middle like I did, then your cat will be more apt to go into the box and make a 90 degree turn and….hopefully….not urinate out the door.
Or….you can put the door on the end (short side) of the box and hope that your cat walks into the box far enough from the door to not urinate out the door. (The Kat Kave shown below has the door on the end of the box versus on the long side like my box.)
Here is a picture of a light that I recently added to the box:
The light is a $10 ‘under cabinet’ light from Home Depot that takes 8 AA batteries. In the interest of staying ‘green,’ I use rechargeable batteries but regular alkaline batteries are fine and will probably last a couple of years considering that the light will only be used for a few minutes each day for scooping the box.
The only negative about these boxes is that I can’t use my cleaning method shown in the movie below so I have to be careful as I scoop so as not to break up any urine or fecal balls. I am very fastidious about the cleanliness of the boxes and breaking up the urine balls would not make for a very clean litter box.
Other than not being able to tip the box as shown in the video, I clean the box in the same manner – being careful to always clean any urine or fecal residue from the sides of the box. I do this at each scooping versus letting it build up and then scrubbing the box once a week.
If you have an elevator butt pee’er and cannot find a suitable storage container in a store near you, the Kat Kave is a great (albeit, more expensive) option.
The Kat Kave is a bit smaller (without the lid = L 27.75″ x W 18.5″ x H 17.5″) than my storage container but has plenty of room even for the largest cat.
Personally, I would not use the lid that comes with the Kat Kave for 3 reasons:
1) I clean my litter boxes 2-3 times each day and it would drive me nuts to have to remove the lid each time.
2) I am not a fan of covered boxes due to the fact that there is less ventilation and light.
3) People tend to not clean them as often due to the ‘out of sight; out of mind’ issue.
I realize that the Kat Kave is a bit on the pricey side but I really like the size of it and, if properly cleaned and maintained as I discuss below, litter boxes can last for a very long time so I consider it to be a very good investment.
The Kat Kave discusses having a smooth floor but as noted many times on this webpage, you should be keeping the litter deep enough so that no urine balls get stuck to the bottom – making a smooth floor a non-issue.
Covered vs Uncovered:
As mentioned above, I strongly prefer UNcovered litter boxes.
Update December, 2007:
The covered box shown above is no longer being made. It was Petmate’s old ‘Jumbo’ – internal dimensions = 20.5″L x 15″W x 19″H. Petmate changed the design of the box and the new version of the Jumbo is not as big as the old one. (Despite the measurements they give on their website, the new pan is not as large as the old pan.)
I used the Petmate covered box shown above for many years but then got tired of seeing my cats scrunched up in it – especially as they were getting older and possibly arthritic. Also, the fact that the litter dust is contained in these covered boxes – adding more insult to their lungs – started to bother me more.
If you really want to use a covered litter box, I urge you to consider purchasing the Kat Kave due to its nice, roomy size. You will have the option to leave the lid on or take it off and it has the convenience of already having a door cut in it.
Of course, you can also use a storage container with its lid if you want a cheap, large, covered litter box.
The decision to use a covered versus uncovered litter box involves issues from both the human’s and the cat’s perspective. I would encourage you to always consider your cat’s wishes first and foremost since if a cat is not pleased with his bathroom accommodations, the human will usually suffer for it in the form of a ruined house from cat urine/feces.
Covered boxes – negative issues:
When comparing covered and uncovered boxes of equal size, a covered litter box takes up the same amount of floor space that an uncovered box does but is effectively much smaller for your cat since his head cannot extend beyond the perimeter of the pan.
Some cats become very claustrophobic in covered boxes which causes a sense of feeling trapped – especially if there are ‘bully’ feline housemates waiting to pounce on the cat after he leaves the litter box. Often the scratching in the litter box will entice the other cats in the house to come over to see what the noise is. Then…the poor cat in the box may not feel comfortable exiting the litter box because the other cats are too close. Soon, the more timid cat will start doing his business elsewhere.
Covered boxes are also just too small for most cats – forcing them to contort their body to urinate/defecate and dig/bury without stepping in their waste. Often they do not succeed in missing their waste (especially as they get older or have medical problems such as diabetes or kidney disease) and end up stepping in it which results in them tracking urine/feces around your house and upsetting the cat. And remember – if your cat is upset with his litter box experience, he may just decide to go elsewhere.
I especially dislike the Booda Clean Step box because the actual size of the usable space for the cat to ‘do his business in’ is very, very small.
Covered litter boxes can also present a problem of ‘out of sight; out of mind’ in that some people are less apt to scoop the litter box frequently enough when the box is covered.
Some people have actually commented that they like covered litter boxes because there is “less odor!” This is very dangerous thinking, not to mention inconsiderate for the cat’s comfort. Covered boxes will trap odors which can lead to the cat’s refusal to use it.
If you are using a covered litter box to minimize odor for yourself, you must re-evaluate your thinking and consider the fact that your cat’s sense of smell is MUCH more sensitive than yours.
Stick your head inside the box and take a deep breath. If you are unwilling to do this, why would your cat want to use the box? And even if it smells ok to you, that does not mean that it smells clean to your cat.
Dust is also trapped in covered boxes instead of being dissipated a bit more as it will be in an uncovered box. This can be very hard on your cat’s lungs. Of course, cats do breathe in dust in any type of box since their noses are very close to the litter as they are digging but the problem is accentuated in a covered box.
I highly suggest that you remove any filter from the top of a commercially made covered litter box for better ventilation of odors and dust. Filters are useless gimmicks that the manufacturers claim “trap odors.” Odors should be removed – not “trapped.”
Some covered boxes are not well-constructed with respect to how the lid fits on the box. This can result in urine leaking out between the box and the cover and onto the floor if the cat stands up to urinate. This also leads to urine collecting in the seam which causes a lingering urine odor.
This will never be a problem with a tall storage container or the Kat Kave.
Covered boxes – positive issues:
Covered boxes offer privacy to a timid cat but you will have to watch him carefully to make sure that he is not being stalked by other cats in the household. Otherwise, he may start to feel trapped.
Covered boxes are neater – keeping the litter inside the box and also the urine if your cat tends to stand up to urinate. However, a tall-sided storage container – with or without the lid – works better for these issues since there is no seam for urine to gather between the lid and box.
As I outline below in the Cleaning the Litter Box section, you are defeating the purpose of clumping litter if you keep the litter shallow enough for the urine to reach the bottom. So, to prevent this problem, you need to have your litter at least 3.5″ deep and if your cat digs to China, you may need 4″ like I keep in my boxes. A covered box does contain the litter better than a shallow, uncovered box.
Petmate’s Giant Litter Pan is a good choice for a large, uncovered litter box.
The Biddy Box shown below has the right idea in terms of size but I do not like the design. The sloping ends make the litter very shallow in that area. Because of this, the urine balls get stuck to the bottom of the litter box. See the Cleaning section below for why this defeats the purpose of clumping litter. (The litter should always be deep enough so as to prevent urine balls from sticking to the bottom of the box.)
The same problem can occur with cement mixing containers which are cheap options for large litter boxes.
Please note that I strongly disagree with the dialog in the movie that you can view on Biddy Cat’s website. In fact, this is a great example of how not to maintain a litter box as it pertains to litter depth. The movie discusses “scraping the waste off of the bottom of the litter box.”
Again, if you allow the litter to get so shallow that the urine and feces stick to the bottom, you will be defeating the purpose of clumping litter which is to remove the waste in total.
Miscellaneous litter boxes:
I strongly dislike the Clevercat Top Entry litter box – please do not use this product. This box is an example of humans inventing a product that is very clearly not made with the cat’s best interest in mind.
This box has a hole in the top of it and the cat has to jump down into the box. This box is too small and too confining especially for an older cat and because they have to jump up at an acute angle and push off of a surface that gives way, it is very hard on their joints, tendons and ligaments.
I also wonder what happens when one cat in the household does not bury his waste and now the housemate has to jump down through this hole and try to miss any uncovered urine or feces. Please do not use this litter box. There are much better options for your cat.
Number of Boxes and Location:
The number and location of the litter boxes are very important issues. Many cats will not use a litter box if it has been used by another cat. In addition, some cats prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another. Also, a common cause of inappropriate elimination stems from a more dominant cat blocking the pathway to the litter box. The more passive/timid cat is forced to look elsewhere for a bathroom. In this situation it is critical to have enough boxes in safe areas to minimize the potential for problems.
Don’t put all of the litter boxes in the same spot if you have a bully cat that may be blocking a timid cat from the box. Place the boxes in quiet, low traffic areas. The laundry room is often not a suitable place due to the noise from the washer and dryer and has led to many litter box aversion cases. Also, it is best to not place litter boxes near the cat’s eating area.
A very common problem arises when people allow young kittens or frightened adult cats that have recently been adopted to have access to too large of an environment without enough litter boxes close by. Often the scared cat or kitten is hiding in one part of the house while his litter box is in another part of the house.
Keep in mind that these animals are not going to suddenly become brave when their bladder gets full and venture out to look for a litter box in a strange environment.
Humans often expect far too much from a young or scared kitten or a scared adult cat!!
In the case of a recently adopted kitten or cat, keep his world small (a single room) until you know that he is using the litter box and is comfortable in his room. Depending on the kitten or cat, this may take several days or a couple of weeks. Only when he is comfortable in one room should you open up the door and let him venture out. Do not carry him to another part of the house. Instead, let him pick his own path so that he will know how to get back to his litter box.
Even if a new kitten is brave and sociable, please do not just turn this kitten loose in a large area and expect him to know or remember where his litter box is if he gets to playing at a distance from that box – or if something does scare him and he ends up hiding in a part of the house far from his litter box.
They should not be expect to remember that their bathroom is ‘down the hall…second door on the right.’ When a kitten has to go….he has to go now and they often will not hold it while they go and search for their litter box. Please remember that human children take a long time to potty train and be thankful that kittens are much easier to train! However, even though kittens are much better than human babies when it comes to being litter box trained, don’t push your luck and stress the kitten by allowing him access to a large environment without his litter box very close by and easily accessible. Otherwise, you will end up fostering very bad habits in the kitten if he gets used to urinating and defecating in areas other than his litter box.
Cleaning the Litter Box
I will repeat the question that I posed above: How often does a human flush their own toilet? Please keep the answer to this question in mind as it pertains to just how clean you should be keeping your cat’s litter box.
Cats should not have to dig around in their own waste – or that of their housemates – looking for a clean spot. I am sure that people think I’m nuts for making a video about cleaning a litter box but this is the method that I have found that works the best for cleaning a litter box with clumping litter. This method results in the waste material being removed in total without being broken up.
Note: I purposely let the litter box get extra dirty (I actually consider it to be unacceptably filthy) for the filming of this great event. In my opinion, a litter box is plenty dirty once there are 2-3 ‘items’ in it.
PLEASE do NOT let your litter box get as dirty as the one shown in this video! If you cannot stick to the ‘2-3 item’ rule because of your work schedule, then please add more boxes.
The purpose of clumping litter is to be able to remove the urine balls and feces intact and completely. This means that the litter needs to be deep enough so that you can get the scooper under the waste material so that the urine balls and feces do not stick to the bottom of the litter box. You can’t remove the waste material intact and in total if you are scraping it off of the bottom of the box This is a Catch-22. People who discard their litter on a regular basis tend to not keep the litter deep enough and then the box is a mess to clean because litter is gummed up on the bottom. This results in waste residue ending up stuck to the bottom of the box for your cat to dig around in. This is not sanitary and it defeats the purpose of clumping litter.
In my old covered jumbo litter box like the one shown above, I used between 30-40 pounds of clumping litter to get it to a depth (3.5″ – 4″) where my cats could not reach the bottom. In the storage container (grey 39 gallon container shown above), I keep 80 pounds of litter in the box.
If using an uncovered box, you need to strike a balance between having too much litter in the box so that you end up with beach-front property surrounding the box, and not having enough litter so that your cat’s urine or feces ends up stuck to the bottom. If your cat is an aggressive digger and is flinging litter over the edge, you will need to get a deeper litter box.
If the urine balls get stuck to the side of the box, move the litter away, remove the urine ball and then clean the area with a dilute (1:30) bleach solution and a paper towel. (The bottle below says 1:20 which is what I use….but this strength will ruin most sprayers so stick to 1:30.) Rather than using my scooper to scrape off the urine ball, I usually just hit the side of the box and the urine ball dislodges and falls into the scooper. That way, I don’t have to clean the scooper when I am done.
Also, clean any fecal material from the side of the box. I prefer light colored boxes which allow me to see the soiled areas easier. Don’t forget to clean the cover if soiled. Dry the area and move the litter back. Keep a roll of paper towels and a dilute bleach solution in a spray bottle next to each litter box. I find that the Spraymaster, an industrial grade spray bottle from Home Depot or Smart & Final, works the best for a bleach solution. The cheaper spray bottles do not hold up well when used for bleach. Also, bleach degrades when exposed to light so an opaque bottle is needed.
Many people choose to discard the litter every week or two and start fresh but their litter box and litter are often very dirty by the time they get around to dumping all of the litter and scrubbing the box. There is a more sanitary alternative to this method as shown in the video.
My feeling is that I want my cats’ bathroom to be very clean on a daily basis. I do not allow the box or the litter to get to the point that it needs a once-a-week or even once-every-two-weeks discard/scrubbing.
Throwing litter away on a frequent basis is expensive, time-consuming and hard on the back. There really is an easier and cheaper way to maintain a clean litter box – but you must be thorough in your cleaning, and scoop frequently (2-3 times/day) – which your cat will appreciate. You also must use a litter that clumps very well.
For the method shown in the video, you will need a scooper made out of metal or sturdy plastic. Some brands of plastic scoopers are too brittle and often break.
A covered container is convenient to hold the waste.
Several members of our rescue group really love the Magic-Scoop – formerly known as the Litter-Lifter. It not only comes in bright, fun colors but it gets rave reviews for picking up very small pieces of soiled litter. However, keep in mind that if you keep the litter deep enough and use the method shown on the video, your litter box should not become contaminated with small pieces of soiled litter.
Clean the scooper as needed. Allowing a scooper to stay soiled simply drags more bacteria through the litter. If a person is careful about cleaning the box thoroughly as shown in the video and scooping carefully so as not to break up the urine balls, it may be acceptable to forego regular discarding of the litter – saving you time, money and a backache. Instead, add to the litter to keep it at the proper depth (3.5 – 4 inches).
However, if in doubt as to the cleanliness of the litter, it is important to discard it on a regular basis. If you do choose to discard the litter on a regular basis, it is still advisable to spot clean the sides of the box and hood with a dilute bleach solution daily rather than to let any soiling build up for a once-a-week scrubbing. Your cat will appreciate this regular freshening-up of his toilet.
If you have more than one cat, you should always have more than one box so that if one cat defecates or urinates but does not bury it, the other cat will have another litter box to use.
Litter mats are often used outside of the opening of a covered box or storage container to decrease tracking of the litter. Do not use the plastic ‘grass’ mats or the mats with raised bumps on them as they are very uncomfortable for your cat to walk on, often leading to litter box avoidance. Some people use carpet sections or towels but I prefer to use this litter mat shown below. This mat allows the litter to fall into a lower tray so that you only have to tend to it every couple of weeks and this design also keeps your cat from walking on the litter. Also, the lower tray will catch any urine if your cat accidentally aims out the door.
2012 update: Unfortunately, the link that I had to this litter mat is dead; I do not think that it is being manufactured anymore.
Here is a picture of another type of mat that is very useful. This particular brand is not made anymore but the Booda Litter Mat is close to it in design. Whatever you choose to use, just make sure that your cat is comfortable when walking on it and is not reluctant to enter the litter box.
Please do not force your cat to suffer with a dirty litter box because you’ve designated cleaning it as your child’s responsibility. Children often cannot be trusted to maintain a litter box properly and your cat will suffer for it and, in turn, so will you when you are faced with an inappropriate elimination problem/soiled home.
First of all DO NOT PUNISH YOUR CAT. Punishment will NOT help the situation and will often make matters worse. Few things upset me more than when I hear about people actually rubbing their cat’s (or dog’s) nose in the waste as if this will help the situation!
Seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
There are many medical reasons why cats stop using the litter box – many of which are strongly linked to the dry food that is fed to cats. (Please see Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition)
Diabetes, kidney disease, cystitis (painful inflammation of the bladder), bladder or kidney stones are some of the more common medical problems that can lead to a litter box aversion.
Please see Urinary Tract Health.
VERY IMPORTANT: If your cat is getting in and out of the litter box and is unable to pass any urine or is looking like he is distressed and wanting to urinate outside the box this is a MEDICAL EMERGENCY! A cat with a blockage of the urinary tract can rupture his bladder within 24 hours resulting in death. You may also notice a blocked cat or one with cystitis licking the genital area frequently.
A cat with cystitis will pass SMALL amounts of urine FREQUENTLY so also make note of the size and number of the urine balls on a daily basis. A 100 percent canned food diet with its high water and low carbohydrate content must be included in the treatment for any cat with cystitis, diabetes, or bladder stones. In fact, all cats should be on 100 percent canned food or homemade diet. Dry food is an illogical food source for a cat and causes many health problems. Dry food, with its species-inappropriate water content, is not a friend of the urinary tract system – especially the bladder.
Once you have ruled out a medical issue, you need to evaluate your cat’s litter box system:
1) Are you using an UNscented clumping litter?
2) Is his box kept very clean? Less than 3 items at a maximum?
3) Is his litter box big enough?
4) Is it in a safe location as far as he is concerned?
5) Are there any feline housemates that may be tormenting him in the litter box – not allowing him to enter or exit?
6) Are there enough boxes? Some cats like to urinate in one and defecate in another one.
7) If you are using a covered box, have you tried taking the cover off?
8) Have you tried using Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract product? It comes as a ready-to-use litter or as an additive that you will need to add to an UNscented clumping clay litter. It must be UNscented clumping clay since this type of litter has absolutely no odor to it.
Many people have had great luck with the Cat Attract products. Fair warning…..many cats love this litter so much that they will roll in it at first. I have never heard of a cat that keeps rolling in it or that rolls in it after the box is used. I actually consider it a good sign when they roll in it since it is obviously very ‘attractive’ to them! This behavior is usually temporary.
9) If you are having problems transitioning an outdoor cat to an indoor cat and he is refusing to use the litter box, or if your cat prefers using your potted plants instead of his litter box, try using potting soil instead of clumping litter. Once the cat has used the potting soil on a regular basis for a couple of weeks, you can gradually add a small amount of clumping litter to see if you can change him over.
You will need to empty the box at least twice daily when using potting soil and scrub the box each time. Also please understand that by using this non-clumping substrate, the urine will soak into the litter box (plastic is fairly porous and easily impregnated with odors) with only a few urinations so I strongly suggest that you get a new litter box when you switch over to using the clumping litter and start with a fresh, clean box.
It is much easier to prevent an inappropriate elimination problem with a proper diet and sound litter box practices than it is to fix one once it starts. Not all of the issues that cause cats to stop using the litter box are within our control but many factors are as outlined in this essay.
Partial update November 2016
Lisa A. Pierson, DVM