Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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. Choosing the wrong litter box can have dire consequences for cats: litter box avoidance is one of the main reasons why many cats are surrendered to shelters.
Keep the following in mind when choosing a litter box:
The 6 Tips to Choose Your Cat’s Litter Box
1. Size matters
Generally, bigger is always better. You want your cat to be able to comfortably 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 the nose to the base of the tail. For some really large cats, even the largest litter boxes may not be big enough. Alternative boxes such as sweater storage or under-the-bed storage containers can make great litter boxes.
2. Covered vs. uncovered boxes
I don’t recommend hooded or covered litter boxes, and most cats don’t like them, either. While some cats seem to like the privacy they provide, these boxes are often too small for the cat to comfortably turn around in and do their business. What’s worse is that they can trap odors inside, making them very unpleasant for the cat to use (the equivalent of a human port-a-potty!) Dust can also be a bigger problem in a covered box, as it becomes more concentrated when cats dig.
A covered box prevents guardians from seeing how the cat acts while in the box. Knowing what’s normal for your cat and being able to detect any changes in litter box behaviors can help detect health problems early. A cat who is straining in the litter box may be on the verge of being blocked, which is a life-threatening emergency.
The bottom line: in most cases, covered boxes are for humans, not cats. If you absolutely must use a covered box, at the very least, remove the filters provided by some manufacturers. They’re designed to trap dust and odors inside the box, which may be nice for the humans, but not for the cat (see my port-a-potty analogy above.)
I do not recommend automatic or “self-cleaning” litter boxes. If the mechanism malfunctions while your cat is using the box, or even if the box goes into its cleaning action while your cat is anywhere near it, she may never use the box again.
3. 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. Don’t place litter boxes near in basements near noisy appliances such as washers, dryers, or furnaces. In a multi-level home, you should have at least one box on each level. This becomes especially important if you have senior cats who may have trouble getting up and down stairs quickly enough to reach a box. Don’t place litter boxes near feeding and watering stations. Cats don’t like to eliminate where they eat.
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.
4. 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. It will depend on the personalities of the cats within a household whether you really need that many boxes, but too many is always better than too few. 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 it according to your individual needs.
The choices for different cat litters are becoming overwhelming, and many of the new offerings are developed with the human and not the cat in mind. Most cats prefer a soft, sand-like, unscented clumping substrate.
Never use scented litter. 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 good 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.
6. Keep the litter box clean
Once you’ve chosen a box, keeping it clean will ensure that your cat continues to use it. Boxes should be scooped at least once a day, preferably several times a day. 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.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.