Your Cat’s Litter Box: What Does Your Cat Really Prefer?

cat_in_litter_box

Guest post by Lorie Huston, DVM

When cat’s begin to urinate and/or defecate outside the litter box, there are a number of different suggestions that are made to help convince the cat to return to the litter box. As a veterinarian, I’ve had this discussion and made these same recommendations over and over again to my cat-owning clients. I’ve also spoken about them here: Cat Litter Box Problems: What to do When Your Cat Decides Not to Use the Litter Box.

To be blunt, we make many of these recommendations based on experience. However, there is very little scientific evidence that supports them. This article by Dr. Jacqueline Neilson in Veterinary Medicine examines some of the literature available pertaining to cats, cat litter, and cat litter boxes. These are Dr. Neilson’s recommendations based on her review of that literature:

“It is important for practitioners to provide evidence-based advice to cat owners regarding litter and litter boxes so toileting problems are minimized.

When providing that advice, remember that cats prefer clumping litters and litters with activated carbon. If a fragranced litter is going to be used, data suggest cats prefer a cedar scent to other scents. I caution owners against purchasing citrus-scented litters, which are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace. Finally, based on the trends noted in the box size study, I recommend that practitioners advise owners to purchase large or jumbo-sized litter boxes for their cats or even consider purchasing large plastic storage boxes to use as litter boxes.

Of course, it is important to remember that you may encounter cats with unique preferences. The best way to identify an individual cat’s set of toileting preferences is to offer a variety of litter choices and box styles and retain the litter and litter boxes that the cat preferentially uses. It is also wise to remind clients that no odor-controlling litter ingredients can substitute for daily litter box scooping and regular box washing.”

Winn Feline Foundation is working to identify some of the preferences that cats experience toward their litter boxes also. This recent study looked at covered versus uncovered litter boxes. Here is the conclusion:

“The authors wanted to determine if cats did prefer uncovered litter boxes when all other factors are equal. Twenty-eight cats were enrolled in the study. Nineteen of the cats showed no preference between a covered or uncovered box. Some individual cats did have preferences for one box type or the other – four cats for uncovered boxes, four cats for covered boxes. With a minority of cats exhibiting a litter box style preference, offering a ‘cafeteria’ choice of litter boxes, including a covered box, might be beneficial. ”

These findings surprised me a bit. My own cats (all six of them) do not care for hoods on their litter boxes and I’ve avoided covered litter boxes as a result. The results of this study does make me rethink recommending removing the hood from the litter boxes of all cats with litter box issues though. It seems, as noted in the study, the a “cafeteria” style choice may be preferable.

It is also noted, in the Winn Feline Foundation post, that “Additional studies related to litter box management are recommended, such as evaluating scented versus unscented litters.”

I can’t emphasize enough that if your cat starts urinating or defecating out of the box, the first step should always be a visit to your veterinarian to rule out medical issues. If your male cat is unable to urinate, seek veterinary care immediately. This is a true emergency situation and delaying veterinary care may lower your cat’s chance of survival.

While I agree with the Winn Feline Foundation that more research studies would be helpful, I also think it is important to remember that, regardless of what the “majority” of cats prefer,  your cat is an individual. Like you, your cat may have individual likes and dislikes that do not necessarily correspond to what the majority of cats prefer. Knowing the most popular feline preferences is useful as a starting point. But, in the end, what really matters in your household is what your cat prefers in terms of his/her cat litter and cat litter box.

We’d love to hear your experiences. Does your cat have preferences for the type of litter or litter box? Have you had to deal with litter box issues? If so, how did you handle them?

Lorie Huston has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 20 years. Besides a successful career in a busy small animal hospital in Providence, RI, Lorie is also a successful freelance writer specializing in pet care and pet health topics. 

Photo by Tom Thai, Flickr Creative Commons.

28 Comments on Your Cat’s Litter Box: What Does Your Cat Really Prefer?

  1. Yomar Lopez
    November 19, 2016 at 3:02 am (3 years ago)

    Great post and I hope you follow up with your findings as well as some product comparisons. Surprisingly, I’ve had much luck with Arm & Hammer clump-and-seal litter. I’ve had many cats in my life and, while wood or newspaper-based pellets are great, I find cats generally like the consistent texture of the powder litter.

    With regards to scented or unscented, generally I lean towards unscented. The scented stuff is too strong at times and, if it gives you a headache, imagine our feline friends! If you want to really seal in those stinkies, a little run-of-the-mill baking powder will work just fine.. And it’ll make the litter last longer. Of course, as much as it stinks (pun intended), I find it’s still worth cleaning the litter boxes out completely every two weeks, if not weekly.

    What’s interesting here is the notion of hooded versus open. Some cats do prefer their privacy but I find that’s more rare. When they got to go, they got to go. We currently have four cats and, as soon as I clean the litter boxes out, they jump right in – even with me still tidying up their area!

    For the sake of giving them options, we have two large litter boxes: one with a simple cardboard house over it with plenty of ventilation and the other wide open. It seems they are using both about the same, to be honest. I would need a camera to keep track of which cat is using which box more.

    One thing I can say is that the more skiddish or shy cats do seem to prefer the hooded litter boxes more. For them, it’s more about giving them their own little “safe places” to hide in when they don’t want to be bothered. It’s important to respect their boundaries. If you do so, they’ll feel far less inclined to have oopsies around your home, so long as you keep their bathroom clean!

    I do have one cat that is currently spraying but she is healthy and the litter boxes get cleaned three to five times a day. I finally determined that it’s due to insecurities. We moved to a new home and there’s constantly things changing: babies, new pets, visitors, ruckus, etc. Some cats are just more sensitive than others so you have to work harder to make them feel like they are being accommodated for (such little divas, I know).

    The worst part is that a lot of folks in our neighborhood neglect their cats and let them roam free so we have outdoor cats and strays going around marking territory everywhere. Unless you seal your windows and doors very well, the scent will be picked up by your cats and they’ll mark their territory from inside your home. So now the concerns about potty behavior have expanded more into considerations of repellent and preventative measures.

    It’s a lot of work but I’m still a cat guy.. Though I love our dogs, too. No one ever said having a pet would be easy, folks. Remember: they’re part of the family too – treat them as such!

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on my short novel here. *wink*

    Reply
  2. Tom
    September 7, 2013 at 7:30 am (6 years ago)

    We were using World’s Best litter, but recently switched to Dr. Elsay’s. Much better, in my opinion (and more expensive.) It’s finer, but there’s no dust, and it does a good job of minimizing odor. The clumps are larger, which to me is a good thing. We also sprinkle in Tidy Cats powder.

    As for a litter box, we followed a suggestion we found on the Web: we use one of those large Rubbermaid storage boxes, the kind you’d keep in the garage or attic. It’s 16 inches high, 24 inches long. I don’t know how easily a kitten could jump in, but for a grown cat, it’s simple. And, because the box is so tall, there is zero chance of any spray going over the sides. We keep it uncovered, but I’ve seen that people will cut a hole in the lid large enough for the cat to get in and out.

    Reply
  3. Carolyn
    July 1, 2013 at 10:49 pm (6 years ago)

    We have four litter boxes for our three cats. Three are hooded and one is open. They’re all large and the open box has high sides to accommodate the “sprayers”.

    We empty the “solids” including the clumps twice a day and we’ve rarely had an “out of box” 🙂 experience. Our cat really like World’s Best Litter (ten years running) with success and it’s flushable, but conventional clay based litters work fine as well.

    Reply
  4. Tami Amburn
    July 1, 2013 at 9:40 pm (6 years ago)

    Most interesting….I use all hooded boxes with regular clay and everyone seems to be fine with it. My 4 cats are inside/outside and do use the great outdoors. My male poops outside most all the time. Don’t know how he holds it all day when he is inside. Its always important to scoop the box daily and change litter every few weeks. I have always wanted to switch to the newspaper litter because of the dust, just never have gotten around to it.

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth
    July 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm (6 years ago)

    I just wanted to address two points that I think are really important:

    1. Just because a litter is listed as “unscented” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have perfumes or dyes in it. Case in point: Up until recently we had two cats, and we had been using Arm & Hammer’s Multi-Cat litter with no problems. However, it always bothered me that we used scented litter, and I thought I should switch them to a non-scented litter. So, one day, I brought some unscented litter home and began the process of switching to this litter. That very day our kitty Isa sat down on our bed, but she couldn’t get comfortable: she kept scratching, twitching, and generally acting itchy. We were concerned and thought she might have fleas, so I went ahead and gave her some non-expired Advantage: no luck. This continued to progress, and over the next twelve hours it got so bad that my husband took her into the vet’s office, and while they figured she was having an allergic reaction they did not have any guesses as to why she was having this problem so suddenly.
    After some thought, we realized: she must be reacting to the new cat litter! We got some old litter, I cleaned her box thoroughly and gave her the old litter back, and she started improving immediately. Turns out that that “unscented” litter has a “nonscent” perfume added to it to make it unscented, and that was what Isa was reacting to. Poor baby. Be careful, and read labels!

    2. If your cat is using the box but it spills over (ew, right?), a high-sided litterbox may be the answer. For several years after we got one our cat Isa we saw urine going over the sides of the litter box, and we couldn’t figure out why for the longest time! The boxes were plenty high, we tried adding more, we tried switching the locations, we put “puppy pads” underneath the litterbox, everything… We knew that she was using the litterbox, but we didn’t know why urine was going over the side.
    About a year ago I was reading somewhere about the idea of the “elevator butt” that some cats have when they’re being stroked on the back from front to back, and then it clicked: My cat’s got “elevator butt” when she pees! I went out the next day, bought a REALLY high-sided litterbox to see if my theory was right, and haven’t cleaned up urine over the side of the box since then. I haven’t seen a lot of people mention this particular phenomenon (this isn’t the only quirk that Isa has), so others are having that problem, a really high-sided litterbox may be just what you need to solve it!

    Reply
  6. Sue Brandes
    July 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm (6 years ago)

    My cats don’t care for covered boxes either. And I only have one that will use a pine scented litter. The others refuse it. My kitties are picky.

    Reply
  7. Minakitty
    July 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm (6 years ago)

    We are lucky that with daily cleanings, two boxes are enough for our quartet (though for some unknown reason they favor the one on the left). Previously we attempted a hooded box and were met with protests (the messy kind). The same happened when we tried one of those litters made from recycled newspaper formed into pellets. We only have to be “told” once!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 1, 2013 at 3:58 pm (6 years ago)

      Your kitties have you well trained! 🙂

      Reply
      • Minakitty
        July 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm (6 years ago)

        Indeed! 🙂

        Reply
  8. Cecilia
    July 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm (6 years ago)

    I have 3 cats, and I use 4 large plastic storage boxes for litterboxes. I have babyscented clumping litter in the boxes, and use 20 kg litter in every box so they can dig all they want.

    2 of my cat’s was rescued from homelessness, and came to me from living outside all their life and used their litterboxes from day 1 without any problems. No accidents. It seemed they were content with their litterboxes from the start and enjoyed using them.

    My first cat had a covered litterbox the first year. She started to urinate in the shower sometimes so after a visit to the veterinary that cleared her, I bought her a large plastic storage box and filled it with 20 kg litter. Since that day there hasn’t been any accidents. She clearly didn’t like the covered box, it was probably to smelly inside and she couldn’t move around as she liked.

    I would love an article on the subject cat’s and owners who get rid of their cat when they urinate och defecate outside their litterbox, and who accuse their cat of being jelous, evilminded, obstinate etc. I find it difficult to reach these people, their mind is set and I can’t persuade them to take the cat to a vet.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 1, 2013 at 3:58 pm (6 years ago)

      Thanks for the article suggestion, Cecilia!

      Reply
  9. Cindy
    July 1, 2013 at 11:39 am (6 years ago)

    I have 4 cats and only one is a problem child when it comes preference of litter. For at least a year he stopped pooping in the box and pooped on the floor next to the box. We tried every kind of litter, multiple boxes, etc. One day we just happened to buy Costco litter (not clumping). Problem solved! Although he still poops on the floor when we are gone on vacation…just a reminder to us, that he still can!

    Reply
  10. Jenny | Floppycats.com
    July 1, 2013 at 11:00 am (6 years ago)

    My mom had major litter box problems with her kitties, Caymus and Murphy, both 8 year old Ragdoll cats at the time.

    After talking to an animal communicator, we found out that they wanted double the amount of litter boxes and also wanted two more added to another place in the house.

    Since Murphy was spraying over the side of the box, she also got storage boxes for litter boxes and those have worked out really well – NVR Miss Litterbox is also an excellent choice for elevator pee-ers…meaning, kitties that lift their buttahs when they pee.

    My mom uses Cat Attract – but I am not sure if it’s entirely necessary now that they have their litterboxes where they need to have them.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm (6 years ago)

      We’re big fans of the NVR Miss litter box here, Jenny. Ruby is a vertical pee-er, and it’s solved our problems.

      Reply
  11. Average Jane
    July 1, 2013 at 10:46 am (6 years ago)

    We have five cats, so I’ve just kept adding litter boxes of various styles. They seem to prefer open boxes – we have a jumbo one, a regular one and a high-sided one. There are also two hooded boxes in the basement, one of which sometimes goes unused for the entire week. Finally, we have two top-entry boxes – one for a cat that lives in another part of the house (it’s in my office and this cat was notorious for kicking litter everywhere) and the other in our kitchen (an option for a cat with territory issues). I don’t know which cats use which boxes, but they do seem to have a wide range of preferences.

    Reply
  12. Lisa Davis
    July 1, 2013 at 10:03 am (6 years ago)

    I have only one cat but I get a litterbox which is big enough so she can turn around in it. She is actually a very neat cat and wants to cover her droppings as much as possible. I live in an apartment and the bathroom is so tiny that there is no way a litterbox would fit inside so I have her box in my bedroom with a rug underneath it. I make sure the sides are not too high so she can easily get in and out of it. She does prefer the clumping litter and wants it to be cleaned out.

    Reply
  13. Carol K
    July 1, 2013 at 9:38 am (6 years ago)

    I have two rescues that came from the same location. They’re best friends, possibly littermates, and have been using the same litterbox since they were born. The apartment I’m in doesn’t have a lot of space, so they’re sharing one medium-large litterbox with clumping litter. When I had fosters I had a variety of different litterboxes with a few different things in them. My two do not seem to have a preference, unless it’s for a clean litterbox. My smaller of the two lets me know if the litterbox is not up to her standards of clean by pooping right next to it.

    Reply
  14. erin
    July 1, 2013 at 9:07 am (6 years ago)

    with a multicat home, & small rooms, we do have 3 types of boxes (pan, hooded, & convertible – the hood can be flipped up in the front & it has a high back). the occasional issue here is somecat lifting his/her butt as he/she is peeing in the pan & it goes all over the bathroom floor. it’s a tiny bathroom & there isnt enough room for a taller box between the sink & toilet

    Reply
  15. Celia G
    July 1, 2013 at 9:04 am (6 years ago)

    Right now, I have 2 cats. one senior and one recently feral. I have two boxes, one hooded, one open and both large. Both have clumping litter. I prefer the hard-to-find “unscented” version so that I don’t have to taste it when kissing kitty paws. (The scented tasted terrible to me, so I can only imagine how kitty felt when grooming.) The hooded box is used more frequently. It has a huge door slot and I removed the actual door so it’s just a big opening. The one thing I’m finding now is that my senior, who is very petite, seemed to be a little uncomfortable climbing in, even though it’s a low entry of about 4 inches. So, we added a small “step” (phonebook under the mat) to make it easier for her.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm (6 years ago)

      What a great idea to add that “step” for your senior kitty, Celia!

      Reply
  16. Sue
    July 1, 2013 at 8:00 am (6 years ago)

    My four cats prefer uncovered with clumping litter. However one keeps missing when she urinates. I solved this with pulling the box, which is large, away from the wall.
    They also dislike anyone, cat or human watching them do their business!

    Reply
  17. Joanne McGonagle
    July 1, 2013 at 7:10 am (6 years ago)

    Gracey preferred an uncovered litter pan and I too thought uncovered was preferable over covered. I wonder if cats living in multiple cat homes prefer uncovered over covered? Perhaps a single cat feels more relaxed and is not worried about being cornered in a covered box. I of course and just speculating.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm (6 years ago)

      That is an interesting question, Joanne.

      Reply
      • Lorie Huston, DVM, CVJ
        July 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm (6 years ago)

        That is an interesting question. And one I don’t know the answer to either. It would be interesting to see some comparisons done in single-cat households versus multi-cat households.

        Reply
    • Miss Y.
      July 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm (6 years ago)

      I had my first and only cat from a shelter where I noticed the covered litter boxes (i.e. with a hood). I don’t like the look and smell of the litter box, so I got a large covered one. First day at home I had it uncovered so my cat could get used to the new smell, as soon as she had used it I put the hood on and I never had any problems.

      Also had different types of grit so far just to try them out and she also doesn’t seem to prefer one over the other.

      Reply
  18. michelle wolff
    July 1, 2013 at 6:59 am (6 years ago)

    We have 1 bottle raised feral, 2 socialized ferals and 1 stray who wss found as a kitten. We have taken the cafeteria approach. There is 1 jumbo hooded which gets used the least. 1 cement mixing pan that gets used regulary and 2 regular size pans which seem to be used the most even though those are in the same small bedroom as the food & water bowls. We use feline pine pellets and clumping and there doesn’t seem to be a preference although since they all get used I decided to just keep up with both kinds. We have only had problems when the 2 older ferals were learning about litter boxes so that was only a few days. I like giving them options since they can’t tell me what they want.

    Reply

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