In “Litter Box 101: How to Choose the Best Litter Boxes for Your Cats and Why You Need To,” I gave some pointers for choosing the best litter boxes for your cats, but now I’m going to show you how best to set up and maintain your cat’s boxes. Follow these tips, and you’ll be able to avoid all sorts of common litter box problems (like wayward peeing and pooping outside the box), and you’ll also be prepared to identify painful or potentially life-threatening conditions.
You Need More Litter Boxes Than You Might Think
Though I’ve previously mentioned the importance of an appropriate number of litter boxes, it’s a topic that bears repeating. Even in solo-cat households — including small apartments and “tiny homes” — there should ideally be more than just one litter box.
Why would one cat need more than one box? Because there are a ton of factors that might block their access to a single litter box and other things that can cause them to develop a stressful or painful association with it. If you’ve only given your cat a single, solitary option, it’s not going to be good for either of you (this is a polite way of saying that they’ll find somewhere else to do their business, or suffer from a painful bout of constipation of even urinary obstruction). So try to adhere to the “n+1 rule” for cat litter boxes by making sure to provide one more litter box in your home than the number of cats you have.
Where to Put Your Cat’s Litter Boxes
When it comes to litter box placement, your cat really wants you to remember the three “L”s: location, location, location!
The Best Places for Litter Boxes
- Easy access and exits: Ideally, your cat should have at least two ways to get to and from each box. This is to keep their box from becoming completely blocked (e.g., by the family dog, a bully cat, a closed closet door, etc.). If they can’t get to or away from their box reliably, they’re not likely to use it reliably.
- Plenty of space between: Even if you have the right number of boxes, it’s just as important to spread out your cat’s litter boxes to prevent problems. I shudder each time I see a home with the right number of boxes, but they’re all lined up in a row in the same room (close, but no cigar). It’s best to spread the litter boxes across different rooms, and definitely have at least one litter box on each floor of your home. But if the boxes absolutely have to be in the same room or area, be sure to provide plenty of space between them.
- Good air circulation: Your cat’s nose is quite sensitive, and cramming their litter box in a small cupboard or a dingy basement is likely to force them to deal with scents and odors that could stress them out and dissuade them from using their box. (Learn about other ways to reduce litter box odors.)
What to Avoid When Placing Litter Boxes
- Drafty vents: Heating and air conditioning vents can create unpredictable (as far as your cat's concerned) drafts of air that can startle and stress out your cat. Try to avoid locating their litter boxes near such vents.
- Foot traffic: If your cat has to cope with the possibility of a bunch of people walking (or running, especially if you’ve got small children in your home) by their loo every time they’ve got to go, it definitely won’t be comfortable or fun for them. Try to find a place that doesn’t get too much foot traffic.
- Noise: Going to the bathroom is a fairly vulnerable scenario for cats, and they can often be on “high alert” when in their box. If they’re doing their business in an area where there’s a lot of noise — especially if the noise is loud or sudden — then your cat isn’t going to be able to go in peace. Though laundry rooms are common places for people to put their cat’s litter boxes, the noise from a clunking clothes dryer or the end-of-cycle alarms from either machine can be enough to stress out your cat when they’re feeling exposed. Try to avoid the laundry room if you can.
Bonus Tip: Try Pheromones
To help your cat unplug, try plugging in. More to the point, consider plugging in a Feliway calming pheromone diffuser near your cat’s litter boxes. The Feliway calming pheromones can help reduce or prevent stress and anxiety in cats and — since stress and anxiety can be a common contributing factor in urinary problems with cats — prevent problems from ever happening in the first place.
How Much Litter You Should Use and What Type
Filling your cat’s litter boxes is mostly straightforward, but there are a few things you should know to help get the right setup for your cat.
- The type of litter: First, of course, you’ve got to choose your cat’s litter. Given all the options and cool marketing buzzwords out there, I’ve dedicated an entire article to help you find the litter that’s best for your particular cat. Check out “Litter Box 101: What Type of Litter is Best for Your Cat.” But, generally speaking...
- Cats tend to prefer fine particle litters to large pellets
- You should avoid scented litters
- Use a low-dust litter to avoid irritating your cat’s sensitive nose and lungs.
- How much litter to use: The right depth of litter for your cat’s box will depend on their preferences and digging habits, your scooping habits, and the type of litter you’re using. You could get away with an inch or two in the box for cats that don’t do a ton of digging, if you’re diligent with scooping multiple times per day, and if the litter clumps up solidly and quickly. But those are ideal litter box maintenance conditions and, even then, 1–2” of litter might not be enough. To play it safe, I recommend starting with 2–3” of litter in each box and then adjusting as needed and always replenishing to maintain that depth.
- You might consider a litter attractant: For kittens who are just learning to use their litter boxes, you may want to add a bit of litter box attractant, such as the Cat Attract Litter Additive linked below. This additive may also be useful in helping a previously litter-box trained cat to fall back in love with their litter box — but with these guys, it’s also important to have them checked out by your veterinarian to ensure that there isn’t a medical reason that caused them to abandon their litter box in the first place.
How to Maintain and Monitor Your Cat’s Litter Boxes
The importance of scooping the “deposits” — both urine and stool — out of your cat’s litter boxes at least once daily truly cannot be overstated. Multiple studies (like this one) have shown that cats routinely and strongly prefer clean litter boxes to those with “stuff” already in them. After all, would you prefer to use a freshly flushed toilet, or mostly full Porta Potty?
A note about “self-cleaning” litter boxes: Enough cats are terrified of the noise and movement these things make to recommend against their use. Add to that the importance of actually seeing the trends in what your cat is putting out — which “self-cleaning” boxes deprive you of — and you can see why I’m not typically a big fan of these types of automatic boxes.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
To avoid the buildup of caked-on litter, fecal matter, and bacteria, try to do a complete litter box wash and refill about once a month. Use soap and water to clean the boxes but do not use bleach or other harsh cleaners. The smell of bleach and other chemicals can cause your cat to avoid their box even after it’s clean. To finish up, dry the boxes and add fresh litter. Depending on the number of cats you have, and how stinky and messy they are, you may need to do complete litter change outs in-between these monthly litter box washings, or wash the litter boxes more frequently.
Keep an Eye Out
Changes in your cat’s urinations and/or defecations can be some of the clearest signs of certain diseases and other medical or behavioral conditions. This is why it’s so important that you monitor the number and size of the urine clumps and fecal deposits in your cat’s litter boxes each day when you scoop them.
If you notice changes in your cat’s litter box, here are some potential causes:
- Urine: more clumps/larger size
- Urine: fewer clumps/smaller size
- Fecal: more stool/larger size/looser
- Change in diet
- Intestinal infection
- Intestinal worms
- Food allergy
- Fecal: fewer stool/smaller size/more firm
- Digestive obstruction
- Your cat might also be pooping outside of their box
Avoid Actual Toilet Training
Lastly, I want to make a quick note about training your cat to use a human toilet: don’t do it.
You might not be thrilled about the prospect of scooping your cat’s litter box, or any aspect of having a litter box in your home, but before you think about toilet training your cat, take a moment to consider the consequences. I’ve outlined several important (and hopefully compelling) arguments against toilet training in “7 Reasons NOT to Toilet Train Your Cat.”
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