Litter Box Solutions
by Margaret Schill
Cats need litter boxes, even indoor/outdoor cats. It is not fair to a pet cat to force it go out in the rain or freezing cold to eliminate, or to go outside to eliminate when the cat is sick. Of course, no one needs to be told that strictly indoor cats must have litter boxes! Cats have an instinct to eliminate in soft substrate, such as fine grained cat litter, so cats will naturally will use a litter box if they were introduced to one as a kitten. Adult cats who had no experience with litter boxes previously do get used to them, once they know what they are for.
Monitoring a cat's eliminations gives valuable health information, and may be the only way you are alerted that there is a health problem, before it gets so severe that the cat's life is at risk. For example, if you see a cat straining to eliminate, you would know that the cat has a problem, which might be due to a urinary or intestinal blockage, or some other disease or condition such as a severe urinary infection. Or, you might see blood in the urine or stool if the cat can eliminate. If you do not have a litter box in the home, or if you do not pay attention to a cat's eliminations if you do have litter boxes, you will miss those symptoms of a serious medical problem with your cat.
Since a cat going out of the litter box can be due to health or medical reasons, that must always be checked on by a vet before assuming a problem is "behavioral" (unless you know it was YOUR behavior problem due to you not having scooped the box(es) and the stinky mess made the cat too disgusted to step in the dirty box). Assuming one has been keeping the litter trays very clean on a regular basis, any cat that had been using a litter box regularly, but then does not, NEEDS a vet exam. If a vet does not do tests, it cannot be known that the cat does not have a medical problem. Some medical problems only show up on blood tests, urinalysis, or ultrasound.
Medical reasons a cat might urinate out of the box include urinary tract infections, urinary or bladder crystals or stones, cystitis, kidney problems, (which can include kidney stones), and diabetes. There are some other medical reasons besides those listed. A cat may defecate out of the box due to pain for some reason while defecating, or if the cat had pain while urinating. If a cat has pain when urinating or defecating, the cat usually blames the litter box for it. So the cat will try going somewhere else, hoping it won't hurt.
Cats do not stop using a litter pan due to being "angry" or out of revenge. When a cat starts going out of the box, it is due to either a medical issue, or some problem regarding the litter box. Punishing a cat for going out of the box is the wrong thing to do, and won't help, especially if the cat has a medical problem. That old idea of "rubbing his nose in it" is really wrong, cruel and unhealthy for the cat; all it does it make the cat think you are doing something mean and disgusting to it. It does not make a cat no longer eliminate out of the litter box. Why would it? The cat knows where it eliminated and what it smells like.
Instead, the people need to play detective and go through the list below on this page, making modifications, until all is well again. The most important point is to get a cat to the vet if the cat stops using a litter box. A cat can look and seem to act like it is fine, yet the cat still may have a medical problem. Cats hide illnesses and pain very well, and don't tend to look or act ill until the problem has progressed to a serious level.
Some links about some medical issues that can lead to a cat eliminating out of the litter box or pan:
After you read this article, if you have any questions and want a personalized answer, post on the W.V. Cats forum at http://wvcatsforum.tuxedocatwebs.com
General Litter Box Guidelines
Cleanliness of litter pans is of extreme importance. If one does not keep the litter box cleaned out, checking several times a day and scooping out eliminations as soon as they are noticed, a cat often won't use that box. They do have to walk in it, after all, and they don't want to step on urine or feces, understandably. Cats also have a very keen sense of smell, and are put off by fecal odors, just as humans are. One also needs to completely change the litter and wash the box, ideally every week. Unwashed litter boxes will retain odor.
More than one litter box.
The general "rule" for litter boxes is one more box than the number of cats. Many cats do not like to urinate and defecate in the same box. Some cats won't use a box that has eliminations from another cat in it, and some cats won't use a box with even their own past eliminations in it. Although one hopefully checks the boxes and scoops out any eliminations promptly, very few people are home or awake at all times to check the boxes. Having several boxes, especially in a multi-cat home, can result in at least one clean box being available.
Location of boxes.
The litter trays should be in separate areas of the home. This will help avoid the problem of a cat not using a litter box due to being intimidated by another cat, a pesty child or dog, or being put off by some noise or commotion in the area of a litter box. In a multi-cat home, one cat may "claim" a room or litter box, and will then intimate the other cat from that area, so there needs to be another litter tray in another area of the home. Cats intimidate each other in ways that humans often don't notice, using body language, so even if you think your cats are fine together, they still may have a territorial dispute going on. One cat seeming to be "just lounging in the doorway", might actually be sending a "Don't pass by me. This is MY area" message.
In a multi-level home, there should be a litter pan on each level. The litter box should be kept in a spot that gives a cat some privacy, yet is also conveniently located. The litter boxes should not be next to noisy appliances or in high traffic areas of the home.
Litter box enclosures, or hiders, can be desired when a litter box is needed in a room where one does not want a litter box on view. See below for many options for litter box disguises.
Type of litter
The type of litter used makes a difference. Cats do not like perfumed, deodorized litters that have strong scents. Cats have a much more acute sense of smell than humans. If a litter or deodorizer smells strong to you, it will be overpowering to a cat.
Cats prefer softer, fine grained litter, such as clumping clay litter (however, do not use clumping clay litter for kittens under 12 weeks, as they sometimes ingest it, which can then cause a blockage when it clumps inside them). If one chooses to try the larger pellet litters, such as Feline Pine, it must be gradually mixed with the previous type of litter or most cats will not use it. If a cat stops using the litter box after you tried a new litter, simply go back to the kind of litter the cat liked and did use.
The best depth to fill a litter box is 2 inches. Cats do not like it higher than that, as they sink into it up to to their thighs. If you use too low a level of litter, the cat won't be able to dig in and then cover it's eliminations.
After the above guidelines are in place and medical causes have been completely ruled out, there still may be some problems that need to be addressed, as discussed below.
Extra large litter box for a large cat. Photo courtesy of Mark.
Some cats are too large for the standard sized litter boxes sold. If that is the case, the cat may overshoot the side of the box unintentionally, winding up leaving urine or feces on the floor. Or, the cat may just not bother trying to cram into a too small box. Getting a larger box will help with that problem. Some stores sell jumbo sized boxes, sometimes called extra large, or one can find them at online pet stores. What is often labeled as "large" is actually not large enough at all for many adult cats.
In lieu of using a traditional litter box, one can buy a large plastic storage tote either with low enough sides, or cutting down one area so the cats can easily step into and out of the box. Many cats don't want to jump up over a high side when they really need to eliminate, (imagine doing that yourself with a very full bladder!) so it is best to have a small area cut down on a high sided storage tote so a cat can simply walk into the box.
For a truly extremely large litter box, see our Giant Litter Box page.
Some cats wind up lifting up their rear while urinating, thereby wetting the wall behind the box. This is not the same as territorial "spraying". A cat might stand and lift it's rear to urinate rather than the normal squatting due to stiffness in the hips where squatting for too long is uncomfortable. But, some cats with no apparent hip or arthritis problems will do it as well. Cats that are urinating great amounts at one time will lift their rears to keep all that urine from pooling around their feet before it gets absorbed by the litter. (Note that urinating large amounts at a time can be a symptom of a medical problem such as diabetes or kidney disease, so a cat doing that needs to be checked by a vet.)
A covered litter box can help with this problem. However, in a multi-cat home, covered litter boxes sometimes don't work out, as one or more of the cats tease or terrorize the cat trapped in the covered box. A cat who becomes distressed while using the box will eventually stop using it.
Getting a high sided storage tote, cutting one small area low for the cats to easily step into it, can solve that problem. It is not recommended to put the lid on the tote and cutting a hole in the top for the cat to enter and exit, as getting out is more difficult for the cats. Also, many cats will not like being in a small enclosed and smelly place. Good airflow is important so the ammonia fumes from urine don't build up. Many cats will not use a box if there are fecal and urine odors present.
The Rubbermaid high sided litter box has a cut out, so you don't have to try to cut a storage tote. It is 23.4L x 18.25"W x 11"H". A removeable cat litter caddy with scoop can be purchased separately. The coordinating litter mat is nice and large to catch litter scatter, and has a non-skid backing. It measures 26L x 23.2"W". It could be used under most litter boxes.
Petmate Hi Back Jumbo Litter Pan This high backed litter box measures 21.2 x 10.3 x 17.3 inches. Microban (R) antimicrobial product protection. Lower front allows easy entrance. Made in the U.S.A.
Cat's Rule makes a litter box named the Priscilla's Pan with a higher back that can keep "high rise" urine in the box, provided the cat aims towards the high back of the box. The boxes are 16" wide x 18" deep by 4" high in front, 13" high in back. Coordinating scoops and holders as well as coordinating litter mats are available. The mats are 25" x 40", and can be cut to any desired size. They also make kitten sized litter boxes, which measure 12" wide x 15" long, 7-1/2" Back Depth x 3" Front Depth.
Another solution is building or adapting a cabinet to put the litter box in, with a liner on the walls to direct the urine back into the box. On the left is a litter box cabinet that was designed to help the problem of one cat (Galen) lifting his rear while urinating, but also a member of a multi-cat home where there needs to be a very open area so no cat gets trapped inside by a mischievous or bully cat. (Note: Galen was later diagnosed with Chronic Renal Failure, so his lifting his rear to urinate may have been due to his urinating excessive amounts at a time in the initial stages, and his not wanting his feet to get wet in the urine pool.)
Some litter box disguises or enclosures made are beautiful enough to have in your living room or bedroom, such as the tall cabinet on the left with the stained glass upper door! If one uses a high quality clumping litter, scoops promptly after the cat has eliminated, and if one completely changes the litter every week, it won't smell. If you are not using a clumping litter, you will need to completely change the litter sooner than every week.
Litter box concealers also help to keep dogs and toddler humans out of the litter boxes.
See some more decorative litter box hiders, some with choices of carved wooden doors!
Other litter box hiders can be found at the following:
A litter box disguised in a large planter. Several styles to choose from with choice of two types of artifical plants. Diameter's are approximately 18 inches, and interior heights are approximately 17 inches.
Hawks Will Custom Wood Work- (http://www.hawkswillwoodwork.com) Has many styles to chose from, and will make custom designed pieces according to your desires to fit existing spaces in your home! They also make furniture to hide the LitterMaid and Litter Robot automatic litter boxes. In addition, they make outdoor cat homes and feeding stations for stray and feral cats.
Links for more information on litter box problems
Pet Education.com: http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?cls=1&cat=1310&articleid=158
Oregon Humane Society: http://www.oregonhumane.org/pet_training/documents/LitterBoxTraining.pdf
The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.hsus.org/pets/pet_care/our_pets_for_life_program/cat_behavior_tip_sheets/