Thursday, December 1, 2011

Feline Inappropriate Elimination: Lovin’ the Litterbox


A longhair dilute calico half in and half out of a litterbox
There is something about this litterbox that this cat doesn't like.
 One of the most common reasons that we see cats here at Exclusively Cats is for inappropriate elimination – either urinating or defecating outside the litterbox. There are many reasons that a cat may be avoiding the litterbox, but the reasons tend to fall into 3 categories:

1)      Husbandry issues: “I don’t like something about my litterbox!”
2)      Medical issues: “I don’t like something about how I am feeling!”
3)      Behavioral issues: “I don’t like something about my environment!”

Most people assume that their cat is eliminating outside the litterbox for behavioral reasons, but more commonly, it is either an issue with the litterbox itself or a medical issue. Fortunately, husbandry and medical issues are much more easily solved than behavioral problems.

In the image above, the cat is standing half-in and half-out of the box. This indicates that there may be something about the box that the cat doesn't like. It looks like this box may be too small for the cat, or there may be something about the litter texture that she doesn't like.

What is husbandry?  Husbandry is a fancy term to describe the care and management of animals.

Many experts have discussed the issue of cats and litterboxes over and over again. Most experts agree on a few key facts about litterbox maintenance that will help keep cats happiest about their boxes.

--The number of litterboxes: x=n+1 where n = the number of cats in the home
Yes, math lovers, there is actually a mathematical formula for determining the best number of boxes in your house. The ideal number of litterboxes that you should have is 1 more litterbox than the number of cats you live with. This does mean that ideally, a single cat should have two boxes. This is for two reasons – most cats like to urinate in one box and defecate in another, and most cats prefer to have a litterbox on every level of the home. 

This can especially be true for kittens – although kittens instinctively seek to bury their urine and stool, they’re still babies and may have a hard time judging how long it is going to take them to get to the box if they have to go. If they’re up in the second floor bedroom and have to go all the way to the basement to potty, they probably are going to stop somewhere along the way to go somewhere else because they just can’t hold it anymore!

Three different colored litterboxes in a line
Although we see three boxes, cats generally see this as one box.
--The location of the boxes: Most cats prefer to have their boxes located a little out of the way but not isolated. Most people prefer to tuck the boxes away in a utility room or laundry area, away from public use rooms like the family room or kitchen. Cats like their boxes easily accessible, and away from scary machines like the furnace or the washing machine. If your timid cat is in the middle of using the box when the furnace kicks in, that may be all he needs to convince himself he is never going back there again! The same is true for less obvious scary threats –  walking past the barking dog’s crate to get to the litterbox, or when company is over, having to pass through the noisy dining room on Thanksgiving Day in order to get to the box may be just enough to make your cat decide it’s easier to use the bed or the rug in the front hallway instead of facing her fears.

Also, cats like their boxes to be easily visible. If the box is tucked away in the back corner of a basement storage room with the light off, they may have trouble locating it. Although cats can see in about 1/6th the light that we humans need, they do need some light to navigate – especially as they get older. If they can’t see the litterbox, they may not use it.

Additionally, cats don’t like strong smells, so if your litterbox is located next to a plug-in air freshener, or your child’s sweaty-smelly sporting equipment, they may avoid going near it.

When following the x=n+1 rule of litterboxes, placing three boxes next to each other may look like three litterboxes to us, but to a cat who is more interested in smell than sight (and who likely can't count), three boxes next to each other is still just one big litter area. Each litterbox should be located away from each other - across the room or even in different rooms.
Small gray kitten in small littterbox
This box is the right size for this kitten.

-- The size and shape of the litterbox: Cats generally prefer a litterbox that is 1.5 times the length of their body. This length may become longer as the cat gets older and less flexible.

Most cats also prefer an uncovered box, since the cover tends to keep in odors (much like a Port-A-Potty)  – which is exactly why most people like them. Imagine, though, if the smell we are trying to avoid were magnified by 200 times! Your cat has every reason to avoid a box that to them is oppressively stinky – especially if it smells like another cat’s stool.
A large orange tabby cat in a small corner litterbox
This litterbox is too small for this cat.

Another reason that cats prefer uncovered boxes is that despite being a carnivore species, cats are small enough that they are also a prey species to larger carnivores. They instinctively feel a need to keep an eye out while in a vulnerable position – such as using the litterbox. Many cats that will use a covered litterbox will stand in the doorway with their heads stuck out of the box – both for visibility’s sake and to get their nose out of the stinky litterbox.

An orange tabby cat in front of a converted litterbox
Sometimes a converted litterbox is best.
A third reason that cats prefer their boxes uncovered is spatial issues. Once a cover is on the box, the space a cat has to turn around and scratch at the litter becomes much smaller.

Ideally, under-the bed storage bins or 30-40 gallon tubs with an opening cut out are great litterbox solutions. Many of the litterboxes sold at pet stores are just too small for adult cats, and quite a bit more expensive than the larger tubs.

--The type of litter: Cats prefer unscented litters to scented litters. Again, because of their super-strong sense of smell, the scented litters that are pleasant to us smell overpowering to them (especially if they are used in conjunction with a covered litterbox!).

A litterbox filled with strips of paper
Paper litter may cause cats to stop using the litterbox.
The type of litter may also have a texture or taste that your cat doesn’t like. You may wonder why taste matters – most cats groom their paws after visiting the litterbox. If they come out of the box and their paws taste bad, they may not want to return.


The absorptive ability of the litter is also important. Most cats prefer the scoopable clay litters to the plain clay, the pine, corn or wheat litters. May people express a desire to change their litter due to environmental concerns, but cats just don’t see it that way. Given a choice between a “green” litter and scoop clay, they will choose the clay, and given no choice, they may decide to go to the laundry pile, a plastic bag, a rubber-backed rug, or the couch instead of the litterbox.

A litterbox in a cabinet or end table
This box doesn't really have enough space for a cat when it's closed.
--Additives in the litterbox: Less is best! Cats don’t really approve of plastic liners – their claws get caught, and the texture is adversive. Additionally, the plastic liner can get folded and inhibit scooping the box, so that more urine and stool are left behind, increasing the odor of the box.

Baking soda has a bitter flavor that may deter cats if they lick their paws after using the box, and other additives may change the texture of the litter and make it less desirable.

--Cleanliness of the box: Most cats prefer that the box be scooped daily, sometimes even twice to three times daily. Imagine going into your own bathroom and finding that someone forgot to flush the toilet and left no toilet paper on the roll…

A small kitten drowning in litter
Filling the box too full may upset your cat.
Cats also prefer about 2-3 inches of litter in the box at all times, so when scooping, make sure to replenish the litter to about that level. Sometimes more litter than 2-3 inches can make a cat feel unsteady, so more is not always better.

Try to completely change the litter every 4-6 weeks, washing the box with a mild, unscented detergent like Dawn dish soap. Avoid heavy cleaners like bleach, PineSol or Lysol because the residual chemical odors are a deterrent, and the phenols in some cleaners is toxic if inhaled or ingested by cats. 



More information about inappropriate elimination:
Kidneys and Crystals and Stones, Oh, My! Medical Reasons Why Your Cat May Not Use the Litterbox
Acting Out All Over the House: Behavioral Reasons Why Your Cat May Not Use the Litterbox
Breaking the Cycle of Smell: How to Stop Habitual Elimination Problems

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