That Stinks!

Avoiding bad litter box habits

Written by Sparrow Marcioni

Cats know that because of their high protein diet, their scent will attract predators. Therefore, they instinctively prefer to eliminate where they can bury or cover. They also know they must keep their hindquarters fastidiously clean or risk drawing predators to themselves. It is not known how much of this sanitary behavior is instinct or taught by their moms. Understanding the litter box from the cat’s perspective will help prevent future accidents and issues.

Litter box tips

Size matters. It’s important that the entire cat can fit in and turn around in the litter box, so choosing the correct size is critical. Most litter boxes sold in retail stores are too small, but lower-sided plastic storage bins, like those used to store things under a bed, can work very well and are quite cost effective.

Escape room. Cats are most vulnerable when they’re in the litter box position and are easily threatened. Being interrupted by children, pets or loud noises such as a washing machine can cause them to choose a location other than their litter box if they feel they can be cornered.

Privacy, please. The box should be located where they are not easily visible. Some may prefer a covered box for more privacy, but starting out with the cover off is usually best.

Once you have chosen the box and determined proper placement, litter choice should be as close to natural dirt as possible. Most cats prefer clumping litter with no fragrance. If you are bringing a new kitty home or retraining a current one, Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract is an excellent choice. It smells a little like fresh dirt to your cat and can entice him or her to use the new box.

Determining the number of boxes depends on the number of cats in the household. One box per cat, provided they are frequently cleaned, is enough. However, some cats prefer to urinate and defecate in different boxes, and this can require having two for each of them. While cleaning and disinfecting is important, it’s best not to use bleach or ammonia-based products to clean as residual odor can be offensive to their highly sensitive sense of smell. Vinegar and water will work just as well, provided you are not treating them for any illnesses or parasites.

One of the more difficult cat problems to resolve is inappropriate litter box issues as there are many variables that can be involved in diagnosing this problem. It’s best to start the process with a vet visit as this can eliminate urinary tract infections, constipation and other health issues that can cause them to associate the litter box with pain. If the vet determines there are no health issues, examine other causes.

If you cat has been declawed, you may need to change to softer litter as declawing, though no longer an acceptable practice, can cause lifelong paw pain. Declawed cats may even need to avoid stepping on litter altogether. Sometimes a puppy training pad can be used in place of litter inside the box. If your kitty is not spayed or neutered, having that surgery performed can return them to proper litter box habits.

Observe what occurs when they approach the litter box. Are there other pets or loud noises nearby that cause them not to relax? In this case, relocating the litter box may solve the issue. If they have repeatedly gone outside the box, the area needs special scouring with a good enzymatic cleaner as they will look for their own smell to decide where to go the next time. If they continue to return to the same location, you may need to block access with a baby gate or cover the area with crumpled aluminum foil or a chair runner with the spiky side up. Sometimes placing a bowl with a few treats on the spot will deter them as most cats won’t eliminate near food.

Decoding the psychology behind proper litter box behavior can be complicated, but it is very important to remember there is always a reason, and getting even with you is not one of them. As frustrating as it is, don’t yell or scold them when they are near their box, and remember, stress can be the cause as well. There are medications for stress-related problems, but you don’t want to increase the stress by adding yours. Be sensitive to your reactions to their inappropriate behavior. Cats are extremely good at reading our gestures and body language, especially if something is already bothering them.

Sparrow Marcioni is chief animal behaviorist at La Maison du Chat, a Reiki practitioner and co-founder of CatRangers Rescue. She is available for consultation by emailing or by calling770.831.5513.