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What makes a cat like or dislike their litter box? Cats have an inborn need to scratch and sniff when they urinate and defecate. That means that the feel and smells associated with the litter, the box and the surrounding environment determines the “likability” of the box to the cat. Some cats learn to turn around in their boxes as they dig and sniff the litter. Some cats are very private in their toilet hygiene and others don’t care if they have an audience. When cats pee and poop outside, they decide where they want to go. However, once we move the cat indoors, the cat has to rely on us to choose the right box, litter type, cleaning products and location. Unfortunately, many commercial litters are produced to satisfy the owner’s need and not that of the cat, which can lead to your cat not using the box.
Kittens learn litter texture preferences from their mothers. This means that they like the feel of certain litters better than others. Litter substrates come in all sorts of textures. Some litters clump (stick together when they get wet) and others are non-clumping. Some substrates are made from paper, others from wood shavings. There are even litters made out of crystals—which to me would seem like walking on rocks to get to your toilet.
Observe your cat’s behaviour in the box—do they make a big mess with the litter all over the place? If so, you are on the right path—vigorous digging of the litter means your cat likes the feel or texture of the litter. If you cat hangs onto the side of the box and either does not scratch the surface at all or makes only tentative paw movements, you need to try out a totally different feeling litter. Also, if the cat shakes its paws a lot after getting out of the box, it can mean that the cat hates the feel of the litter.
Commercial litters are all about eliminating odours by adding lots of chemicals to absorb the smell. Great for humans, bad for cats. Let’s take baking soda: Would like the feel of baking soda between your toes? Well, neither does your cat. Another common additive is chlorophyll: about fifty percent of cats do not like the smell of chlorophyll, yet so many litters contain it to mask the odours. We usually recommend a non-scented litter. What smells good to a human many not smell good to a cat. Cats in addition have much greater smelling powers than us humans. Covered litter boxes also trap smell inside and can become unpleasant for your cat, quickly.
So how do you keep your house from smelling like a cattery? Keep the box clean. This means not only scooping but actually emptying the entire litter box, cleaning it with a mild smelling dish soap and rinsing it out well. Avoid bleach, too difficult to rinse out the odour. Also, how old is your litter box? Plastic starts to break down in time and can give off an odour that can unpleasant for cats. Change your actual box about once a year.
Furthermore, if your cat has already chosen a spot he likes better than his litter, it is extremely important to thoroughly clean that spot with a product designed specifically for eliminating cat urine odors! Otherwise, even if it may smell clean to you, your cat may still identify that spot as a litter area. You can buy such products from us as well as well-stocked pet supply stores.
Big cat, small box, big problem. Let’s look at this from a feline viewpoint — Maine coon, teeny tiny litter box, large open carpeted space … where will I pee? We recommend a large, low sided plastic storage container about 2 feet by two feet. Lots of room to turn, scratch, sniff, turn, scratch, sniff without bumping up against the sides. Covered litter boxes also pose a problem if the cat is not able to turn around inside it.
The ideal location for a cat’s litter box is a private spot, easy to reach and with no loud noisy machines like furnaces, dryers located nearby. If your cat is older or arthritic, make sure to place the box somewhere they do not have to struggle to get to, such as at the top of flight of stairs. The surface you place the box on is also very important! Let’s say you put it on carpet. One day, the cat’s paw reaches over the side and starts scratching the carpet underneath the box. This cat can develop a new substrate preference, namely carpet. In multiple cat households it is very important that the litter boxes are located in an area with easy access. This will help to prevent one cat from taking over the path to the boxes thus blocking out the other cats and forcing them to pee elsewhere.
Basically, one litter box per cat plus one extra box. Cats are very sensitive to odours of other cats that can be quite concentrated in the urine. There is no way that us humans can detect these odours so by having multiple boxes preferably in more than one location, we can avoid cats urinating outside their boxes. Even if we do our best to clean it every day, a single box for more than one cat can become offensive to their delicate sensibilities quite quickly!
If you find that, despite following all these guidelines, your cat is still exhibiting unwanted litter box habits, there may be an underlying medical or behavioural issue. Infection and sickness can cause cats to associate the litter box with pain, and they may avoid using it. Additionally, changes in habit such as much more frequent urination in smaller amounts or meowing while using the litterbox, can also indicate serious medical issues. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and if you are unsure, you can always give us a call and we will help you decide if a visit to the clinic is warranted!
 Spooner, Sherlyn K. Master’s thesis. L’Universite de Montreal, F.M.V.: Determination of the normal ethogram of feline micturition. 1991