Our furry little feline friends who share our homes have a seemingly innate internal wiring to defecate and urinate in the litter boxes we provide for them. The reasoning behind this covering of waste in cats in the wild is to avoid detection from potential predators. It seems a very convenient thing that our cats nicely deposit their waste in an easy to clean receptacle like the litter box. However, the process of eliminating is a vulnerable time for a cat. Below are some suggestions to help make your cat’s litter box a safe and attractive place to fulfill his or her elimination needs.

Litter boxes should be easily accessible, never behind doors that could easily close barring them from use. They should be also placed with privacy in mind; low traffic areas of the house are preferable. Avoid placing the box close to any loud appliances (e.g. washer/dryer, water heater) for these can frighten easily startled cats. Also strong drafts from heating or A/C vents blowing on the area can pose a problem. This invisible force may send our kitties scurrying away! Older or overweight cats may struggle with climbing stairs, so keep this in mind when selecting a location for kitty’s box.

In multi-pet households avoid placing litter boxes near other pets such as dogs. This includes litter boxes near the dog’s kennel or cage. Even though we know the dog cannot get to the cat from inside a kennel, the cat does not know this! Small children can also be a stressor for a cat wanting peace and quiet. Ideally a dog and child free zone would be a great litter box location. Baby gates, if your cat can easily jump over them, can be used to give the solitude desired.

Litter Type
There are many types of commercially available cat litter. Choosing the right kind can be dependant on your cat’s preference. Clay sand litter or clumping litter is readily available. Offering different kinds of litter in multiple boxes at once—a smorgasbord of litter—may help determine your cat’s specific litter preference. Keep in mind that some cat litters are fresh scented to help mask the smell of feces and urine, but some cats may be sensitive to these strong smells. Provide an adequate amount of litter so that waste can be sufficiently buried.

Litter Box Type
Provide a litter box with ample room for your cat to do his/her business. Larger boxes are often needed for larger cats to avoid tipping the box over when used. High walled litter boxes may pose challenging to use for older, often arthritic cats. Although covered boxes may help contain unpleasant smells, frequent cleaning is recommend because cats can be put off by this odor as well.

Number of litter boxes in a household
A general rule to follow is one box per cat plus one additional box. Varying the location of these boxes can be beneficial.

Daily scooping is recommended, twice daily if you have a multi-cat household. Why this frequently? Imagine three cats living in a house, using a litter box that is not cleaned daily. It would be like a family of three people all using the same toilet that doesn’t get flushed for days on end… Wouldn’t you seek an alternate place to go to the bathroom?

One to two times per month the litter should be completely discarded and the litter box cleaned with warm soapy water. Litter box liners can be used, though some cats may not like the texture of plastic.

It is also important to recognize there are potential medical issues that can contribute to inappropriate elimination. Some examples are sterile bladder inflammatory disorders, urinary tract infections, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, gastrointestinal parasites, inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms like straining to urinate or defecate, blood in urine or stool, and diarrhea are not normal. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately!

We can see instances of inappropriate elimination of both feces and urine in our cats. Unfortunately these issues often lead to frustration and anger towards the cats involved. These incidents can often lead cat owners to relinquishing cats to animal shelters and in many cases opting for euthanasia. The environmental management suggestions listed above are a good starting point for identifying causes of inappropriate elimination, and can often solve the problem. — Peter Olson, DVM

Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.