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Litterbox Management
How to Keep your Litterboxes Cat-Friendly

Inappropriate urination or defecation, or eliminating outside the litterbox, is one of the most common husbandry problems of cats.  In order to prevent problems with elimination, it is important to understand cat elimination behavior.  Following is a brief overview of litterbox management considerations.

 First and foremost, it is important to understand that inappropriate elimination often happens due to a medical problem.  This includes, but is not limited to: lower urinary tract infection, urolithiasis (bladder stones and kidney stones), crystalluria (crystal formation in the urine), feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), cancer, and pain. If your cat is urinating or defecating outside the litterbox, the first step is a visit to your veterinarian to rule-out a medical problem.  Typically, our doctor start the investigation with obtaining a history, physical examination, urinalysis, and sometimes radiographs (x-rays) of the abdomen, and/or urine culture.  We may also recommend screening bloodwork or other diagnostics, depending on what is found with the initial work-up.

Natural cat elimination behavior

When left to their own devices outdoors, most cats prefer to eliminate in a fine-grained, loose material such as sand.  Many cats will choose to urinate and defecate in separate areas, and prefer to eliminate in a clean location.  It is important to note that there is a difference between voiding (urinating to empty the bladder) and marking behavior.  In general, voiding is done on horizontal surfaces and a fair amount is released each time (usually a small puddle).  In contrast, marking tends to be on vertical surfaces or objects and with small amounts at a time (a few drops).  Although any cat may mark, by far, the most likely to mark are unneutered (intact) male cats.  Neutering male cats cuts down on marking behavior substantially.


How many litterboxes?

A good rule of thumb is to keep one more litterbox than the number of cats in the household, and also at least one litterbox per level of the house.  For example, a two-story home with two cats may have at least three litterboxes total, with at least one on each level.

Litterbox type and size

There are several types of commercial litterboxes available: covered vs. open, disposable vs. reusable, small vs. large, and even automatic scooping litterboxes.

When choosing a size, consider the size of your cat.   Your feline must be able to turn around in the box freely and sit up tall without being crowded by the walls or ceiling.  The cat should be able to walk easily into and out of the box.  Commercial boxes are typically on the smaller side, so you may consider buying short-sided under-the-bed plastic storage containers or a small kiddie pool in order to give your cat adequate room inside the box.
Covered litterboxes are popular because we may find them more aesthetically pleasing and they may prevent litter from scattering around as much.  However, some cats may not tolerate covered boxes because natural cat behavior is to eliminate in an open area.

Automatic scooping litterboxes may be appealing to cat owners due to convenience.  They were designed with a great idea in mind: clean the box frequently, thus keeping it clean for the cats.  These boxes use a motorized grate to remove clumped litter frequently, which may backfire by scaring some cats.  Also, litter is removed to a collection bin next to the litterbox.  Due to the proximity of the removed litter, the odor may be aversive.


Litter Type

Commercial litter is available in many shapes and forms, including clumping and non-clumping, scented and unscented, absorbent crystals, wood pellets, recycled newspaper pellets, and more.  It is important to realize that many litter types are created due to consumer demand and have little to do with feline preferences.  According the popular vote of felines, the number one pick is clumping, fine-grained, non-scented litter.  Remember, felines have a keen sense of smell and will be sensitive regarding the odor around their personal toilet areas.  After all, they must immerse their paws in it in order to scratch in the litterbox.  Clumping litter helps keep daily cleaning easy and efficient.  Small grain size is likely preferred due to the natural behavior of eliminating in sand.


Cleaning

There are two basic things to consider with litterbox cleaning: 1.) Frequency, and 2.) Type of cleaning solution.  Waste should be removed from a litterbox at least one to two times daily.  Ideally, waste could be removed after each elimination.  After all, when you use a public restroom, do you want to use an unflushed toilet?  Clumping litter is helpful in making daily cleaning a success, since the waste is easily scooped out from the surrounding litter.

Scooping the box alone is not enough!  The litter must be changed completely once weekly in order to remove small "crumbs" of material and scent that may be left behind.  When making a complete litter change, also take the chance to scrub out the box.  When choosing a cleaning material, use a non-scented cleaner, in order to avoid leaving a residual scent with the box itself.  Many litterboxes are made of plastic, which may retain odors.  Dilute the cleaner down to a "disinfecting" level, per label instructions.

  Location

Many cats do not get their way when it comes to the location of their bathroom.  The litterbox is commonly banished to the basement with the clothes washer and dryer, furnace, and water heater.  This is one appropriate location if the household cats choose to spend time in the basement and enjoy being there.  However, there may be things in the area that may be aversive to cats, such as cold floors, strange odors, and unpredictable noises from machines and plumbing.  Even if the cat does not show outright fear, it may not particularly like the surroundings.

 Please consider giving your cat several litterbox areas to choose from.  You may be surprised to discover his or her preference.  When choosing for your cat, consider locations that your cat will feel safe in (no lurking animals, children, or scary noises) and will not feel trapped (such as a closet or small, confined area).