Litter Box Do’s and Don’ts
I have been taking care of cats professionally for 11 years as of December 2022 and I have seen ALOT of litter boxes. Over the years I have read articles, watched webinars, taken courses, and followed cat behavior experts. I obsess over my cats’ litter box situation and get excited about new litter box designs. All that to say that I want to share my observations and what I have learned from experts so that you can use that information to improve your cat’s life. That may sound dramatic but creating a good set up for your cat will help keep them happy and healthy, which is good for you both. So, back to cat litter. What’s in the box?
Do’s – the ideal feline toilette
- Clean your cat’s litter box twice a day
The human equivalent: Would you flush your toilet only once a day?
- Use a box that is larger than the full length of your cat
The human equivalent: Would you try to poop in a toddler’s training toilet? would you want that tiny toilet in the airplane every single day of your life? Cats like to stretch out and have some space like we do.
- Set up an extra box for those times where they just need some variety and a clean spot (ideally in a separate area of your home)
The human equivalent: When you go into a public toilet stall and see poop or pee in the toilet do you stay since it’s already been used? or do you try the next door and hope that it is not disgusting? or if it’s really gross do you just leave and hold it?
- Set up a soft mat outside the box to catch debris, cats paws are very sensitive
Would you like to step on sharp spikes with your bare feet after you got out of the shower? or worse, get a bunch of dirt stuck to the bottom of your wet foot?
If you can improve your cat’s ‘toilette’ they will be so much happier and may even show their appreciation with a good nap!
Types of Litter
There are pellets, absorbant crystals, clay and alternatives. What works best? I think that is up to you BUT I will say that most experts say that the traditional ‘sandy’ or granular cat litter is best. Here are some pros and cons of the different kinds I have seen.
Pellets: typically pine, but I have seen wood and recycled paper too
Pros – highly absorbant; does not smell bad; pine and wood in particular is also very affordable
Cons – pine and wood bags are heavy to carry; many cats will not like the feel of the pellets on their paws; a bit cumbersome to sift
Clumping clay litter: the most commonly used cat litter, ‘sandy’ or granular texture
Pros – easy to find, sold in grocery stores and wherever you buy your pet supplies; reasonable price; most cats will be used to this kind of litter already, preferred ‘sandy’ or granular texture
Cons – heavy to carry; may not clump well (brand/design dependent); can get very smelly if not replaced regularly because it absorbs the pee over time; litter tracking can be extensive (brand/design dependent)
Clay alternatives: this includes many recycled or reused materials including corn, grass, paper, walnut, wheat
Pros – similar granular text to clay based litter so most cats will find it comfortable to use; many options to choose from; considered more eco-friendly since it is highly biodegradable
pssst! My favourite is a grass-based one, just as an FYI!
Cons – Some brands are not as readily available as the typical clay options and may require going to a specific store or ordering online; how well the litter clumps and smells ranges wildly between brands and materials used; tracking can be extensive (lighter than clay litter); tends to be more expensive depending on the brand and availability
Non-clumping litter: typically crystals or clay based
Pros – less maintenance needed, just remove the poop; may be less expensive than clumping, particularly the clay based options; easier to use with certain self-cleaning litter box models
Cons – must be fully replaced more frequently than clumping litter; may not lock in the smell like some clumping litter can; you may need a special scoop to get the poop out; some cats may not like the texture on their paws
What’s right for you? Here are some things to consider:
Can you find it where you shop? Is it in stock regularly? If it is difficult to find you may need to change brands often which may be off-putting to your cat.
Can you afford it? What fits in your budget? Your cat prefers to have a house to live in and food so don’t go too overboard with the litter since there are so many options available.
- What your cat is used to
If you do want to try a different litter your cat may not like it. One way to check is simply to test it out in a separate box and see if you notice a preference. If they never use the new kind stick with what they are comfortable with.
- What is easy for you to maintain
Will you be able to clean the litter box daily (or ideally 2x per day)? Can you carry a box or bag of litter from the store to your car, and then inside, up or down stairs to the litter box? If you use non-clumping cat litter can you carry it all out again maybe a few times per week? If you have clumps where do you dispose of the waste? Think about what is realistic for you and adjust to what works best. The main thing is to maintain it daily, so do whatever it takes to make it easier for you to do that.
- What will annoy you the most or least: cost, smell, weight, tracking, disposal
Are you sensitive to smell? Do you hate tracking because you walk around barefoot? Do you want something you can buy with the groceries? Do you need something easy to lift? Think about what annoys you the least and find a litter that ticks the majority of those boxes so to speak.
This really comes down to your personal preferences, what your cat seems to tolerate, budget, and availability.
My personal preference is a very light weight litter due to many many stairs and a shoulder injury. I am very sensitive to strong smells so I prefer unscented litter. And, I prefer clumping litter that stays clumped no matter what. That all ended with me finding a brand at Bosley’s that is grass based, Fresh 4 Life. I love it (cause I am a crazy cat person who obsesses over litter) however the down side to it is that it tracks litterally (get it?) everywhere. I have to sweep a lot. And, it is only available at Bosley’s here in town so requires a special trip across town. But I am okay with that part because I prefer the rest of it’s features, over the other brands I have tried.
There are so many innovations, alternatives, and improvements happening in the world of cat litter there is no need to settle for what you have been doing if it does not work for both you and your cat. I only advise you to think about some of the factors I mention above, and then if you decide to try a totally different kind of litter do a test run with a second box to see what your cat thinks. Their opinion should count too!
What’s that smell?
Another and often more noticeable consideration is smell. Many people put their cat’s litter box in a remote location like the basement or garage far away from where the cat spends their time because of the smell. And, when your cat does a fresh poop or pee there is certainly a smell. However I believe the smell you are smelling is not always that smell.
The bad smell is more often then not the litter itself or the dirty plastic litter box. If you use a litter that does not make the most amazing long lasting clump guess what is happening to that pee? It is getting absorbed back into the litter.
The visual cue to this is that the fresh litter you add to the box is noticeable lighter in colour, that means the old litter has absorbed urine and will be smelly on it’s own. You may also see the clump disintegrate when you try to scoop it and those bits all get mixed in back with the rest of the litter in the box. When that happens it is important to fully replace the old litter with brand new litter.
The frequency will depend on the brand and your sensitivity to smell. But I would guess monthly or at least every few months would help significantly.
The Litter Box
And, finally that brings us to the box itself. I have seen a lot of litter boxes and one of the most common problems is that the litter boxes people buy are too small. I think this may be for many reasons, perhaps it was bought when they were a kitten and it is never thought of again. Or perhaps it is simply all that was available at the big box store and an alternative was not seen. I think there is also the consideration of size, if you have a large adult Main Coon you will need to find something much bigger than a petite Munchkin or Siamese. And, if you have multiple cats you will need to maximize your space so they each have their own (plus 1).
One radical idea is to NOT get a litter box from the store but use a large bin and create a litter box out of it. Cats absolutely do not care if it supposed to be a litter box or not, they simply want something they feel comfortable using. If you go this route, which I recommend, the main thing to look at is the size that will work for your cat and space, and to find something that has as flat of a bottom as possible to make scooping easier.
Google ‘diy cat litter box’ for ideas!
If you prefer something a little more design conscious and you have the budget for it I highly recommend checking out Modkat. Their designs are top notch and I was so excited to get one of these, yes excited! We got the open litter box model with the ‘splash guard’ because Ziggy and Moxie can make a mess. There are definitely other brands out there and some people are really investing in better cat products so just take a look online and see what your options are. You and your cat are no longer limited to what is offered at your local store.
Things to consider when setting up your litter box area:
- Where does your cat spend time?
It is extremely common for people to put the litter box far out of the way so they don’t have to see or smell it. But, if you can change your litter more regularly consider moving it to a location where your cat actually spends time. If they spend most of their time upstairs on the 2nd floor set up the litter box upstairs on the 2nd floor. If they always join you in the bathroom when you pee set up a litter box in the bathroom so you can pee together in harmony. If you have a large home consider setting up boxes in a few different spots so that your cat doesn’t have to squeeze their legs together to make it all the way to the far side of the house.
- How old is your cat?
If you have a senior cat they may have arthritis or other health issues and they can no longer make it all the way down stairs to the basement. Their age will also play into the accessibility of the box. A senior cat with arthritis will need easy access to get into and out of the box. You may need to switch to a really low litter box or create a lower opening for them.
- How many cats do you have?
Experts recommend you have one litter box per cat, plus one extra. So for 1 cat you should have 2 boxes, and for 3 cats you should have 4 litter boxes. Some crazy cat people even set up 2 per cat, including myself. If you do have multiple cats set up litter boxes in different parts of your home to avoid resource guarding and resulting health or behavioral issues. If you provide options your cat can avoid the stress of passing the other cat every time they need to use the litter box.
Can you spend $20 on a basic storage bin? or $100+ for something fancy? The important thing is to have the right size for your cat so find the best option that works with your budget.
Self-cleaning litter boxes
I admit that my personal preference is a regular litter box, however I have seen many of the self-cleaning options and I think it is a fine alternative if it helps keep the litter box clean for your cat. Will it make it easier for you to maintain a clean litter box? If it helps than go for it. Your cat will be happier with a clean litter box, rather than a dirty old one you never bother to clean manually.
It looks like most models have sensors and safety measures to prevent any issues when your cat enters the box. The problems would come with loud noises if you have a very sensitive cat, and if there are any technical issues particularly as the model ages. So I would just recommend researching the options, figuring out what works best for your cat, and then follow the maintenance instructions the company provides.
Cleaning the Litter Box
Regardless of whether you get a new box or keep the one you have please clean it! You can wipe the edges regularly and spot clean as needed, but also give it a thorough cleaning at least once in a while. I would avoid using strongly scented household cleaners as cats are very sensitve to smell. You can use a specific pet urine cleaner, good old soap and water, or just a vigorous scrub. This will impact the smell and the cleaner the actual litter box is the less smelly overall.
Once the inside of the litter box is covered with scratches it is time to replace it. Bacteria gets in there so once you replace the box you will notice the smell diminishes significantly!
Resources to check out:
Our Modkat litter box choice: https://modkat.ca/products/modkat-litter-tray
Example of DIY Litter Box bin: https://youtu.be/0JaVrsy-RgY
Mike Delgado blog posts about cat litter boxes http://whatyourcatwants.com/