The Optimal Litter Box for Your Cat

cat_in_litter_box

The average cat uses the litter box three to five times a day. It would make sense that something that is used so frequently on a daily basis requires that we humans put a lot of thought into it. Unfortunately, cat guardians often select a litter box for all the wrong reasons – or at least for the wrong reasons from the cat’s perspective.

I was delighted to see that the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) devoted an entire section of its new Feline House-Soiling Guidelines to designing the optimal litter box. Their recommendations closely mirror what I’ve been telling my readers and clients for many years. When it comes to finding the perfect litter box for your cat, keep the following in mind:

How many boxes?

The rule of thumb has always been that the number of litter boxes in a home should equal the number of cats, plus one. To some extent, it will depend on the personalities of the cats within a household whether you really need that many boxes. Some cats don’t mind sharing, while others won’t even urinate and defecate in the same box. Use the rule as a guideline and adjust according to your individual needs. Some households may be able to get away with fewer boxes, others may need even more.

Location, location, location

Don’t put the litter box in out of the way places. If the box is hard to get to, your cat may not use it. Have at least one box on each level of a multi-level home. This becomes especially important if you have senior cats who may have trouble getting up and down stairs quickly enough to reach a box. Avoid placing litter boxes near feeding and watering stations. Cats don’t like to eliminate where they eat. Don’t place litter boxes near noisy appliances such as washers, dryer, or furnaces.

Don’t locate litter boxes right next to each other. Cats tend to view that as one large box, and if they don’t like to share a litter box, you loose the advantage you’re trying to gain by having multiple boxes in the first place.

Size matters

The size of the litter box is almost as important as the location. In this case, bigger is always better. You want the cat to be able to comfortable turn around in the box. A good rule of thumb is that the box should be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat from nose to the base of the tail. For some really large cats, even the largest commercial litter boxes may not be big enough. Alternative boxes such as sweater storage or under the bed storage containers can make great litter boxes.

Covered vs. uncovered boxes

I am not a fan of hooded or covered litter boxes, and most cats don’t like them, either. They’re often too small for the cat to comfortably turn around in and do their business, and they trap odors inside, making them very unpleasant for the cat to use. Dust can also be much more of a problem in a covered box, as it becomes more concentrated when cats dig. If you must use a covered box, at the very least, remove the filters provided by some manufacturers. They’re designed to trap dust and odors, making it nice for you, but not so nice for kitty inside the box!

I also don’t recommend automatic or “self-cleaning” litter boxes. They’re designed for the human, not for the cats who need to use them.

Litter

The choices for different cat litters are becoming overwhelming. How is a cat guardian to know which one is the best choice? Most cats prefer a soft, sand-like, unscented clumping substrate. I believe that the most important choice you can make about the litter you use has to do with scent more than with what the litter is made of. Cats have a much stronger sense of smell than humans, and while a scented product may smell nice and fresh to us, it can be overpowering to sensitive cat noses, and it can cause cats to avoid the litter box.

Despite the availability of many alternative litters, the best cat litter that I’ve found, and have used for many years, is Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat. This clay litter clumps harder than any other litter I’ve tried, it has virtually no dust, and, most importantly, cats like it. If you want to experiment with different types of litters, always make sure you keep the original litter that your cats are currently using in at least one box. A word of caution: if you don’t have litter box problems, don’t tempt fate by offering different litters. You may inadvertently create a problem by confusing your cats.

Avoid using liners or grids – most cats don’t like them. Be careful about using litter mats. These mats are designed to trap litter so it doesn’t track, but the rough surface of some of these mats are hard on soft kitty paws and can lead to litter box avoidance for some cats.

Keep the litter box clean

Remove waste at least once a day, preferably several times a day, and add litter as needed. At least once a month, dump out the entire litter box and thoroughly clean it with hot water and unscented soap. Don’t use harsh chemicals or ammonia based cleaners. Replace litter boxes completely after 6 months to a year. No matter how well you clean, the porous plastic will start to break down and eventually absorb bacteria.

If you must use litter additives to control odor, use enzyme or probiotic based products with no added scent. Baking soda is an inexpensive litter additive that provides good odor control.

Our favorite litter box

NVR_Miss_litter_box

We think the NVR Miss litter box is the ultimate litter box, and we have used it for several years. This high-sided box prevents litter from being scattered all over the place, and it’s perfect for vertical pee-ers. It’s also nicer to look at than a homemade high-sided litter box.

I’m not sure why Ruby likes to sleep next to it, it probably has more to do with the fact that it’s right outside my office than that she actually likes sleeping next to the litter box!

 

43 Comments on The Optimal Litter Box for Your Cat

  1. Lucky The Newborn Little Kitten
    June 20, 2016 at 9:16 am (1 year ago)

    Kittens and cats are individuals so I don’t think that one solution for a litter tray or litter box fits all.

    As kittens and cats get older, they change their minds as much as humans do so this can mean trying out different types of litter tray or litter box.

    As an abandoned newborn kitten who was found unexpectedly and late at night by someone who was not equipped or prepared I was initially trained using a basic litter tray that is open and that I can climb into from any approach. It has no lid and is similar in shape and size to a roasting tray. Very basic and simple but this can be very effective and works extremely well in the beginning.

    I can then start to investigate other potential solutions as I grow and my kitty personality changes.

    I do like my privacy though, so I don’t like being stared at or watched when I am doing my business so my Hudad has placed my open litter tray inside a larger ‘cage’, which is also open. (Those cages that are used to transport a dog in a car).

    It works very well as I feel safe when I use my litter tray but I also know that I still have the freedom of movement and because the cage is also covered in a blanket I am also not being watched either.

    Reply
  2. Tom Randall
    September 27, 2015 at 2:49 pm (2 years ago)

    As usual, great information in both the article and the comments. Folks should remember many of the suggestions in the article e.g. number of boxes are just that, suggestions. Even the ones I’m not following make sense l ike the covered boxes. Our cats don’t seem to have a problem with them but I am definitely going to make sure there are no filters in them. I can also see why some kitties might not like them especially if the humans don’t keep them clean, think about being in one of those portapotty things at a fair in the middle of the summer. Our newest kitty Charlie has just recently started peeing outside the box, he’s going to the vet tomorrow and we are going to completely change out his box today and see if that helps.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 27, 2015 at 5:03 pm (2 years ago)

      Always a good idea to go to the vet when this happens. I hope it turns out to be an easy fix for Charlie!

      Reply
  3. Carmen
    September 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm (3 years ago)

    Hi! I follow this article and I still waiting for my new litter box but I have a question there are two different dr elsey litter which one do you use? because I bought the blue and it’s amazing in the way that it doesn’t make any dust, but I clean the litter daily and i noticed it doesn’t hold odors and the urine breaks really easy … 🙁 I used to use fresh step but it’s very dusty and now this one is smelly … Maybe there is not a perfect litter 🙁

    Reply
    • Vickie
      September 3, 2014 at 10:22 pm (3 years ago)

      I use the tidy cat w/the blue top. U might still find it a bit dusty ? but I find that it’s not that bad, and clumps well, and ppl tell me they can’t seem that I have cats, and I foster too.
      When I have fosters I have auto litterbox, and a reg pan, both w/different litters. I find they like
      the tidy cat, or it’s the auto litterbox LOL . I haven’t had no issues w/the Tidy cat w/the blue top.
      I use it as well cause I find it clumps best w/the auto litterboxes.

      Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 4, 2014 at 6:23 am (3 years ago)

      I use the Precious Cat litter, which does come in a blue bag. I don’t have any issues with odors, and it clumps hard for me. I scoop the box several times a day.

      Reply
  4. Rachel
    July 21, 2014 at 11:19 pm (3 years ago)

    Sadly one of my cats (who is a tiny 6pound nothing btw) still manages to spray over the edge of the NVR miss box… if only it was another 2″ higher and it WOULD be perfect.

    The problem with this particular cat is that she refuses to use a covered box so at least 80% of the time the NVR miss keeps the pee inside, and the rest of the time it sort of dribbles down the side….. its better than shooting across the floor I guess.

    My 2nd cat will ONLY use a covered box so go figure.

    My 3rd cat is perfect and uses whichever box is closest/not in use.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 23, 2014 at 12:55 am (3 years ago)

      There’s a way to stack two NVR Miss boxes to add height, Rachel. Contact the company directly and they can explain to you how to do it and/or send you photos.

      Reply
  5. Monica Ackerman
    July 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm (3 years ago)

    One more thing I forgot to mention: the house next door is also now home to an indoor-outdoor cat so who knows where the poor mice will go this year?

    Reply
  6. Monica Ackerman
    July 21, 2014 at 6:38 pm (3 years ago)

    This is off subject but just had to share it with you all. A few days ago I found the outside cat which is not mine even though she thinks so, playing with a mouse in the backyard which is overgrown with weeds (not my yard, I rent). I went closer to inspect and saw that mouse was just a tiny little baby shaking in fear and the cat was doing the cat thing which is playing with it. When she brought the mouse up on the chair next close to me I took pity on the mouse and went to swat kitty off the chair to give the mouse a break. She turned around in midair and bit the top of my hand on her way down. I did not hold it against her and went inside to stop the bleeding (I’m on blood thinners and bleed very easily) and never followed up outside. Then I got to thinking: of course, I wanted to save the mouse but at what cost? Two years ago we had a huge infestation of field mice right around this time of year who flooded the house next door. My house stayed unvisited because I’m sure word got out that we have two cats living there, although I seriously doubt if either of them would know what to do with a live mouse. I then decided to encourage the outside cat to go on with her job which I determined to be resident mouser. I’m just such a soft hearted animal lover I wish there was no such thing as a carnivore. Just kidding.

    Reply
  7. Monica Ackerman
    July 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm (3 years ago)

    Hi – before we leave the subject of litter boxes, let me make one little comment. Don’t remember where I heard it, probably here which is where I get all my good information. Last night when I changed my two covered boxes (I use a liner which makes it really easy to change the entire contents twice a week) I apologized to my kitties and removed the filter which fits into the top of the box. It keeps in the smell for them to smell which is nasty even if you change regularly because their sense of smell is so much better than ours. I can certainly put up with that bit of smell which in fact will remind me to check the box. With a covered box it’s easy to overlook things. So, no more filters on the top of the box.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 21, 2014 at 10:35 pm (3 years ago)

      Yes, you probably did see me mention the issue with the filters on this site, Monica. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Meg
    July 19, 2014 at 8:37 am (3 years ago)

    Love reading all the comments!

    We have four cats and currently three foster kittens. I foster orphaned kittens for a no-kill shelter.

    We have two litter boxes and it works just fine. I am a little anal about keeping them clean, scooping poop approx 4-5 times a day. I also use a scoop that I believe is used to clean the sand in reptile cages (got it at Amazon) get the small crumbs out of the litter box after scooping the big stuff. Litter is perfectly clean afterwards.

    I unexpectantly got a call to take in a two-week-old kitten that the rest of the litter had died. Mother was feral and deserted the litter. The person who brought us the kitten used the Tidy Cat Breeze litterbox. I had said I had seen it but was skeptical. She said she loved it and had two for her four cats. She later sent me one as a gift. I have it sitting right next to my regular litterbox and my cats have started using it. I have to say I am sold on it! It takes the

    Reply
    • Meg
      July 19, 2014 at 8:44 am (3 years ago)

      Typing on an iPhone. Somehow I mistakenly posted my reply before I finished writing

      Anyway it takes the pressure off me to have to clean the litter so often. I ordered the refills through amazon and they are much cheaper that way. There are always tips online to save money with this system regarding the refills.

      I am sure glad the wonderful woman who saved a tiny orphaned kitten’s life gave me this gift!

      Reply
      • Kat
        July 19, 2014 at 8:58 am (3 years ago)

        I am glad there are people like you who take in and care for orphaned kittens 🙂 🙂

        Reply
      • Jeff
        September 16, 2015 at 3:05 pm (2 years ago)

        We have that litter box. Unfortunately the droppings stay nice and moist. So if litter comes out of the box (thanks dog), or even just the cat tramping around the box you can end up with a mess outside the box. Just last week I found some on the toilet lid, and the floor (and I don’t mean litter).

        Reply
  9. Sachi Ushihara
    July 15, 2014 at 1:50 am (3 years ago)

    Thank you for sharing this information, Ingrid. Very informative and helpful!

    Reply
  10. Kitty Cat Chronicles
    July 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm (3 years ago)

    We have a couple of different types of litter boxes in our house. A regular low-sided store bought one, and two big homemade ones with high sides. They are made from plastic bins. They work really well!

    Reply
  11. Heather
    July 14, 2014 at 2:43 pm (3 years ago)

    Great post!
    I have 2 cats and they have 2 boxes. Shadow uses the one upstairs only, but Bella pees upstairs and poops downstairs! My cats are not vertical pee-ers but ‘stand up’ when pooping. They put their front legs on the box sides so I must use a tall sided box or they tip it over. I am fortunate that they always use the boxes, and Shadow usually comes and tells us after he poops. Cats are so funny.

    Reply
  12. Rose De Dan
    July 14, 2014 at 11:58 am (3 years ago)

    Hi Ingrid, I wanted to offer my personal opinion on the recommendation of clumping clay litter. There is some debate as to whether the dust from clay litters affects the lungs, but I prefer to err on the side of caution and use a more natural and environmentally friendly litter. Clay litter is the product of strip mining. It also does not compost, ever. I’ve tried a number of the litters made from wheat and corn, but I’ve finally settled on Blue Buffalo’s litter made from walnut shells because the shells are a natural by-product of food, giving it a greener footprint than corn or wheat raised to become litter.

    I also want to say thank you for all the information you provide. Much appreciated (-:

    Best wishes,
    Rose

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 2:16 pm (3 years ago)

      Thanks for offering your opinion, Rose!

      Reply
    • Lyn
      April 8, 2016 at 12:22 pm (2 years ago)

      I tried the Blue Buffalo walnut shells and could not stand the odor of it before my cat used the litter box. Just a thought for others to test that before buying in case it’s an issue.

      Reply
      • Ursula
        June 21, 2016 at 11:35 am (1 year ago)

        I had forgotten about the Blue Buffalo walnut litter. When I first got Mia I bought it and found brown paw prints all over my sheets every morning. It was pretty funny, but I switched of course.

        Reply
    • betty ann beam
      December 29, 2016 at 7:57 am (10 months ago)

      I use the Tidy Cats Breeze litter system but use Feline Pine litter instead of the zeolite pellets. I also line the drawer with free newspaper and change and clean the tray daily. I wash the whole unit twice weekly and scoop out solid waste at least twice daily. With this system and some vigilance, they are not exposed to soggy or dirty litter.

      Reply
  13. Lisa
    July 14, 2014 at 10:40 am (3 years ago)

    Quick question on clumping litter Ingrid: I remember reading years ago that there were some cats who were getting the residue of clumping litter (since some may lick their paws after using the box or stepping in litter residue on the floor) in their digestive systems, causing a dangerous blockage. For this reason, I’ve always been hesitant about using clumping litters, even the natural ones – despite knowing those litters do a better job of not having bacteria spread since they clump (mainly when cats urinate). Whey I scoop urine using a non-clumping litter, I do my best to get the moisture soaked urine but invariably I don’t always get it all.
    Do you think my concern about clumping litter is exaggerated? I’d really like to try a natural alternative, clumping litter. And amazingly, the litter I’ve used for years – a clay, dust free and fine sand litter, believe it or not, I’ve always been able to flush the waste down the toilet, never had a back up! I wouldn’t be able to do that with the clumping.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 10:46 am (3 years ago)

      That is a myth that has never really been substantiated, Lisa. There are some flushable clumping litters on the market, but I haven’t tried any of them, so I can’t comment on whether they’re any good.

      Reply
      • monica ackerman
        July 14, 2014 at 6:39 pm (3 years ago)

        Clumping litter is a good thing. Flushable is not. We here in the San Francisco Bay Area are encouraged never to flush litter down the toilet because it can get into the ocean and make sea lions really sick. We are admonished to always put litter into the trash. I have switched to natural corn husk litter 2 years ago and love the natural smell and the kitties like it too. Plus, it’s a lot lighter to carry than clay. They also don’t seem to mind the covered boxes although they are not that big. Charlie can’t turn around in it all the way because he’s a little bigger than Chelsea who has no problem. So he goes in to potty and then sticks his upper body and head back in to bury stuff. Chelsea does not ever cover anything so I always light a match after she poops to dissipate the odor. I’m lucky enough to have two well-adjusted cats who are not picky.

        Reply
      • Belinda
        July 14, 2014 at 7:15 pm (3 years ago)

        Oh my gosh that’s not true at all!!! Kittens 6 months and under just CANNOT use clumping. I have actually known a couple of know different kittens who passed away after suffering blockages caused by the owner ignoring advice and using clumping.

        I don’t like unnatural litters, so I use one called OzPet, made from eucalyptus sawdust. It’s brilliant for odour and the cats seem to like it.

        I also disagree about hoods. I’ve done trials with my own 4 cats and several foster cats and they will go for the privacy of the hood every time. In fact, it has shaped my choices of tray placement and I now locate my trays in corners in little used rooms, out of the way. The cats seem to enjoy their privacy and run away from the waste they’ve created like they’re happy to only go in that room for one reason! Of course, seniors are different and need special accommodations. As with baby foster kittens, I would go for a litter tray, water bowl and food bowl in every room if I had a senior cat.

        Reply
  14. Lisa
    July 14, 2014 at 10:22 am (3 years ago)

    We actually made our own litterbox from a container purchased at Target so that it would have a high back like the litterbox you have featured in the article. I really like the featured one though b/c we had to saw the opening of our box — hard work (and use duct tape along the opening edges). I love your quote “vertical pee-ers, lol – so true and the high back works so well, plus it’s roomy!

    Btw, since I started mostly raw feeding our two cats, there is far less waste for me to scoop – it’s true what I’ve read — that raw cuts down on stool waste, amazing! It has also cured Mikey of his IBD – no more large, stinky stools that look like Play-Doh – great article Ingrid, thx!!!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 10:47 am (3 years ago)

      That’s one of the first things people who feed raw notice, Lisa – less waste, and what little there is doesn’t smell! It’s because the cats absorb all the nutrients from the food.

      Reply
    • Kat
      July 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm (3 years ago)

      My next cats will be raised on raw – I think it is so awesome when people BARF their cats….wish I had known about this when I got my two 7 years ago!!

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        July 14, 2014 at 5:13 pm (3 years ago)

        It’s never too late to change, Kat.

        Reply
        • Belinda
          July 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm (3 years ago)

          Really? Pray tell how to do this! My youngest 3 just love raw meat (having all come from the pound via the street) but my eldest (and the most finnicky and sensitive in every respect), Peanut, will not eat anything but “cat food”. She was bottle raised by a shelter that has a deal with Hill’s Science Diet and thus getting her to eat even wet cat food was an uphill battle.

          Judging by the other cats, I’d say raw is the tastiest option. How do I convince Peanut to give it a go?

          Reply
  15. Kat
    July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am (3 years ago)

    I have two cats (and a three-story house) – we only have the one box, and that works just fine for my kitties! I don’t necessarily agree with that rule of thumb – I think a lot of cats (who get along) will be jut fine with sharing a box. however, I think people should just see what works for them, and if I had very old kittees, I would probably put out a box on each floor.
    I also disagree with your assessment that cats don’t like covered boxes – I have made the opposite experience; my cats have always preferred a bit of privacy – plus, there is a lot less tracking,which I absolutely HATE!!!
    I guess every cat is different!!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 10:47 am (3 years ago)

      You’re absolutely right, Kat, every cat is different. I’m glad your set up works for you.

      Reply
  16. Diana
    July 14, 2014 at 9:17 am (3 years ago)

    I must say my girls are spoiled. I’m a cleaning out machine when it comes to the box when I’m home. 🙂

    Diana, rikki, and lucy

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 5:13 pm (3 years ago)

      LOL Diana! I’m the same way.

      Reply
  17. Vickie
    July 14, 2014 at 6:24 am (3 years ago)

    About the auto litterbox, I’ve been using them since 1997. I’ve had no issue w/cats not wanting to using them. It’s nice that my cats have clean litter all day long while i’m at work, or asleep. I’ve been fostering kittens, and have no issue w/them using it, and it’s wonderful, when I have big litters.

    I use to use littermaid, was great, but they changed it. my first 2 lasted about 13yrs. Littermaid took back control of designing, and bldg, so they are in the process of making a better box again, since the updated one was awful. I have now the Natural Miracle multi-cat box. I’ve had no
    issue with it, no jamming. it’s like when the first littermaid came out. Has a removable rack.

    I’ve had a few surgery’s, and i’m so glad I had the auto box. It’s way I bought it in the first place, cause was having foot surgery. then I had others. Then I lived up 13 stairs, and i’m glad again, I had my auto box. I feel I use less litter. I don’t go through as much clumping, unlike when I use a reg litterbox. .

    so as u see I disagree, w/the report and they don’t go into why.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 14, 2014 at 6:43 am (3 years ago)

      Thanks for sharing your experience with the automated litter box, Vickie. I’m glad it’s working for you, and this is good information for our readers. The reason why I don’t like the automated ones is that I worry about the mechanism malfunctioning just when a cat is using it, or getting ready to use it. All it takes is one “scare,” and the cat will never use the box again. I also tend to prefer things that are simple.

      Reply
      • Diana
        July 14, 2014 at 9:18 am (3 years ago)

        Good points on both sides.

        Reply
      • Vickie
        July 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm (3 years ago)

        I’ve had felines of all ages since 1997. I started fostering last Jan many kittens. I’ve never had an
        issue with a cat get caught up in the cleaning process. The box has a sensor, that alerts a cat is in the box, and will not start, or if a cat got in seconds before, the rack goes back to home base.

        I know many state not to use w/kittens, but I have to types of litterbox in my foster room, and in the end they all choice the auto cleaning box.

        The sound doesn’t bother the cats of all ages, sure they check it out the first time it goes off, and watch it, but never had a cat not use it.

        No yes, I have had were the rack got stuck, or stop etc, but again, no harm to the cat, the cat can get out. As well, the rack depending on the brand doesn’t start to clean until 10 or 20 min after use.

        I pop the container and pour it into the bag. U can reuse the container over and over.

        off topic, but while I speak about cats and their choice, mine also choice water fountains over water bowls too.

        I have to say it’s really nice, to have a auto litterbox, just a bit more time w/my fur kids. I always
        tell ppl to invest in a litterbox. Cause I know how lazy people can be, and the auto box is best for
        the pets. I’ve seen litterboxs at peoples homes, and wonder how the hell the cat even uses the litter box. ugh. I have 2 stray cats, that are now part of my indoor family. They have been here for a month, they had no issue using the auto box, then again, i’m sure they heard the sound of it, out the window LOL

        hope my info helps. my only thing right now, don’t buy the Littermaid, until the “NEW ONE” comes out. they handed it over to a crappy Co, that made it a bad product, that was crap. I even wrote a nice, and ended it off w/letting them know what the hell I thought of there box changes and breaking down, and it was past the 1yr, and they sent me 2 new box, but yet again, broke down. I can’t wait to see there new model. I like the Nature Miracle so far, but the Littermaid maga was a bit bigger, and longer.

        As for cat litter, well to ea there own on that one. But I have used the Tidy Cat w/the Blue .
        seem to hold the smell good, and clumps well. I haven’t had a cat sick from the litter. The only other litter I used before was Fresh step, but never really on sale where I live.

        When I was fostering, I was given a few bags of wheat litter, I used to the reg box, I don’t know but
        when I use the last of it, I stop being so sick. Don’t know if it was just me, sick all that time, or I
        was bothered by the wheat litter, just something to think about.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          July 14, 2014 at 2:15 pm (3 years ago)

          Thanks for the detailed information, Vickie.

          Reply

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