The Litter Box


Kittens and cats have an instinct to utilize litter for elimination.  The behavior starts at three weeks of age, as soon a kitten can wander a little from the nest.   It can be reinforced by watching mother…kittens learn by copying other cats’ behavior (thus the term “copy cat!”)

 Kittens do not have the control over their bladders and bowels that adults have and also need to go more frequently then adults.  Therefore litter boxes should be close enough for a kitten to reach when the urge arises.  If you have more then one story, be sure to have litter boxes on each floor.

 The products in the litter box should be well formed small stools that are dark and not terribly malodorous.  Loose, foul smelling stools indicate a problem that should be addressed with the veterinarian.  Causes can range from simple dietary indiscretion, to parasites, bacterial overgrowth, to food allergies, improper diet or enzyme insufficiencies.


There is a wide range of litter available today.  The most important aspect of litter from the perspective of your health and the cat’s health is to find a litter that is as dust free as possible.   Your cat’s preference is the final arbiter of which litter you will ultimately use.

Sand or scoopable litters are long lasting but still should be scooped daily.  Most cats prefer this substrate under their toes.  Very small kittens should be observed for any propensity to ingest their litter (tasting is a way of exploring the world) and in kittens who do this, this type of litter must be avoided until they are older in favor of gravel.

Feline pine and pelleted newsprint litters are dust free and control odor, and, if used as instructed are just as economical.  They have the added benefit of being environmentally sound, but beware, some cats do not like the ‘feel’ of these litters and will refuse to use them.  When it comes to cat litter, the cat’s personal preferences trump the owners every time!

Heavily scented litters should be avoided.   Unscented litters are preferable.

While gravel litters are initially inexpensive, they may be very dusty and not very absorbable and must be changed daily.

Converting cats from one type of litter substrate to another or even one brand of litter within a substrate to another should be done with care.  Mixing substrates whenever possible during conversion is recommended.  In the case of transitioning to pelleted litters, detailed instructions are available on the package label.


if you park it

If you park it, they will come.

Box Considerations:

The hooded litter box is an invention for our convenience not that of the cat.  It has nothing to do with giving them privacy and everything to do with preventing them from scattering litter material around the floor surrounding the box or worse still eliminating over the edge of their container.  Since the majority of cats adjust well to boxes with hoods the added convenience they provide justifies using them.  The same can be said for automated cat boxes.  On the other hand some owners have abandoned them because their cats developed a fascination with the mechanization having learned how to trigger the movement.   Not unlike their fascination with flushing toilettes the constantly scooping boxes tickled their feline funny bone…even during the wee hours of the night, to the annoyance of sleep deprived owners.

Provide one regular size litter box for each of your cats and fill it with at least 10 pounds of scoopable litter.  If you have multiple cats (four or more) you can utilize jumbo-sized litter boxes, at least one for every two cats in a household filled with 20 to 30 pounds of litter.  Cleanliness and location are the most important issues.  If the boxes are small, then have one more than the number of cats in the household.

Avoiding the “Litter Box” Blues:

 Do not punish a cat for not using a litter box.  It absolutely never corrects the problem and absolutely always makes a bad situation worse.

Litter boxes should not be located in areas that are noisy or busy with traffic.  Dogs should not have access to a cat box because of their penchant for eating cat feces and because the cat requires a sense of privacy and safety with his litter duties.  Cats prefer to defecate away from water and food sources.  Cats prefer clean boxes, frequently scooped of feces and urine clumps.  In multiple cat households the rule is one more regular box than the number of cats  (or one Jumbo box per two cats) and it is especially important to locate boxes so that the cats can see their housemates comings and goings.   This prevents the cat from being ambushed to, from, and in, the box. In turn, this helps avoid litter box aversions.

When cats do not utilize their litter box the problem can be, A. Physical, or B. Behavioral, or both.  The sooner the issue is addressed the better.  If it is physical it could become life threatening, if it is behavioral, the longer it continues, the more difficult it becomes to address.

Physical Causes of “the Litter Box Blues”:

Feline Cystitis, or bladder inflammation, can be a medical emergency in a male cat, whose small urethral opening is easily blocked by swelling or debris.  Also known as FLUTD for Feline Lower urinary Tract Disease, it can result in the production of tiny crystals in the urine which is usually bloody.  The cat often urinates much more frequently but is unable to pass more then a few drops of urine.  Urine can then back up into the kidneys and destroy these vital organs very quickly.  To treat this unhappy situation, catheters are placed in these cats and they overnight for several days till they recover in the clinic and can again urinate on their own.  Antibiotics, anti-inflammatory agents and special diets may be prescribed.

 In female cats, while blocking does not occur, they can experience severe discomfort and pain from the condition, and may eventually develop bladder stones.

  Cats who are having difficulty or pain urinating usually signal they are having a problem by urinating outside of the box, around the box, in the shower, bath tub or on the bathroom floor.  Blood may be visible in the urine.  Cats may go in and out of the litter box frequently trying to void but unable to produce much or any urine.  Cats who are particularly tuned into their owners will often urinate in front of them to signal they are in physical distress.

 Cats who are expressing a behavioral issue mark territory, usually around doors or underneath windows and spray vertically.   Cats in early onset of cystitis may present with territorial marking behavior, therefore, a urinalysis is always recommended in order to differentiate.

 The best recommendation for prevention of cystitis in cats is to feed a high protein canned food diet and avoid dry food diets.  This helps prevent obesity and dehydration, both factors known to increase the risk of cystitis.


Behavioral Causes of “the Litter Box Blues”:

Territorial marking in cats (usually but not exclusively males) is difficult to treat, but can frequently be managed.  Many cases will require at least some access to the out of doors.  Statistically one out of ten male cats (regardless of whether they are neutered or whole) will mark territorially.  The behavior can present itself any time after social maturity is achieved around 2 years of age whenever an environmental trigger presents itself.  It is impossible to determine which male kittens will grow up to become territorial markers, therefore, holding open a future necessity for outside access in dealing with this behavior should be taken into consideration when discussing declawing surgeries for male kittens.

Think of territorial marking as the cat’s way of putting a sign on places and objects that reads “mine.”  Spraying behavior is distinctive when witnessed.  Male cats back up to the object, treading with their hind feet, their tail erect and vibrating while spraying a stream of urine.  Marking usually takes place at entrances to the home, or under windows from which they have probably witnessed cats entering their yard.  If you are unsure which cat is spraying you may look for other signs of his heightened territorial imperative, such as, increased allorubbing (marking with scent glands under their chin and the base of their tail, on the corners of furniture, kitchen cabinets and around owners legs), and increased scent marking by scratching (leaving both visual marks and scent from glands in their paws).

The stimulus for territorial marking is usually a perceived threat to position within the household feline hierarchy or a perceived threat to the territory from an outside interloper.   Under stressful conditions (from the cat’s perspective), the threshold for territorial tolerance seems to be lowered.  Cystitis can lower this threshold, so that you can have a physical condition actually be the stimulus for a territorial behavioral issue. Even after the cat has been cured of the physical condition, the behavioral condition continues.

Litter box aversion by one member of a multi-cat household can lead to territorial responses from housemates that lead to intra-cat aggression and territorial marking.  In groups determining “who is the culprit” can be achieved through feeding individuals dyes that color urine.

  Since stress lowers the threshold of tolerance for that 10% of susceptible territorial males, pheromones such as Feliway, have been a good way for many multiple cat households and catteries to manage the inevitable territorial stress and help prevent or limit territorial marking.  Since crowding and competition for access to necessities including owner’s attention causes territorial stress, limiting the size of your cat family is key.  The addition of one cat too many may be all it takes to start a cascade of territorial marking.