The Fine Art of Litter Box Care
It is important to know how to care for your cats litterbox to help insure that your cat uses the box. We will give you our best tips to care for your cats box to prevent or fix behavioral problems in your cats.
As you may realize, one of the cat’s most attractive features is that she comes with an automatic waste disposal system. Cats need no daily walks in the blinding snow or blistering heat, no long and sometimes unsuccessful house-training.
Just show kitty the litter box, and in most cases she’ll instinctively do her business and considerately cover up the results, too.
However, buying the appropriate litter box and filler is important to your kitty. Not every litter box and filler is right for every cat, and what works for one may not work for another. Cats, as we know, are individuals with distinct personalities and preferences.
Fortunately, today’s cat lover has myriad choices, and one of them will keep kitty purring. Here are some tips on how to choose the right litter box and litter and how to care for the litter box.
The Right Stuff
If your cat isn’t happy with the litter he may avoid the box, so finding the right kind is important. Litters can be separated into seven basic categories:
- Regular clay. These litters absorb fluids very well, control odors and are inexpensive and economical. Some are formulated with antibacterial agents and many have additives that absorb, neutralize or mask odors. However, clay litter is often quite heavy, a problem if you have trouble hefting weighty containers. If solid wastes aren’t scooped daily and the litter isn’t completely replaced regularly, odor and box avoidance can become a problem, particularly if you have multiple cats. But a highly scented litter often isn’t the answer – some cats dislike the added fragrances even more than the litter box odors themselves.
- Tracking and dust can be problems as well. The finer the grade, the more a litter will track, creating a beach effect around the house. Fine clay dust billows up when some clay litters are poured into the box. Litters formulated to be dust-free can help, but few clay litters truly live up to that claim. If you or your cat has asthma or other respiratory conditions, consult your doctor or veterinarian before using clay litters.
- Clumping clay. Most of these litters contain sodium bentonite, a clay that swells and forms hard clumps when it encounters fluid. Clumping litters are popular because they cement the cat’s urine into easily removable clumps that can be scooped out when solid wastes are removed. They help control odors and, because the entire contents of the litter box needn’t be dumped as often, clumping litters are economical and useful in multi-cat households. Unless you enjoy plumbing problems, don’t flush these litters. Dust can be major concern with clumping litters, too, and because of the smaller granules tracking is often a problem.
- According to some sources, clumping clay litters containing sodium bentonite can cause feline health problems, although this has not been conclusively proven. When a cat finishes using the litter box, he typically washes his feet, and any litter left on the paws is ingested. It’s not hard to believe that a product that stops up plumbing might stop up kitty plumbing as well. Reportedly, once inside your cat the litter swells and clumps, causing blockages in cat’s digestive tract, particularly dangerous in young cats and kittens.
- To be on the safe side, use clumping litters for adult cats only, and buy a dust free variety. Clumping clay litters made without sodium bentonite are now available, and may be a safer choice. Read more about the issue at www.sonic.net/\\~marina/articles/hornfeldt.html and www.thelighthouseonline.com/marina/articles/moredata.html.
- Plant and plant by-products. These earth-friendly, biodegradable, renewable source litters are made of various plant materials like wheat, corn, grass, alfalfa, peanut shells and citrus, and are either formed into pellets or granules. These may be a better choice if you or your cat has health concerns, because they produce little or no dust. Most are lightweight, smell fresh and clean and control odors well without the use of chemicals or additives. While they don’t form hard clumps like clumping clay litters, many form soft clumps that are possible to scoop out, although they do break apart more easily. Unlike clay litters, most can be flushed down the toilet in small amounts, so don’t contribute to growing landfill problems. The downside to these are tracking, availability and cost. Lighter litters tend to track more, particularly the granules, and are easier to scratch out of the box.
- Your local grocery or superstore is not likely to carry plant-based litters; they are available at the larger pet supply stores, some health food stores and through mail order. These are also more expensive than clay, although manufacturers assert that they last longer than regular clay litters and therefore are a better value. Some manufacturers say these litters can be composted, but don’t because of the risk of spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.
- Wood. These are also earth-friendly, biodegradable, and come from a renewable source. They come in pellets of various sizes and are made of wood, wood fibers, bark, sawdust and other wood byproducts. Wood pellets are usually dust free and have a great woodsy smell. The pellets break down when moistened and do a good job of absorbing urine and controlling odors. Small quantities of some wood litters can be flushed. They have the same disadvantages as plant-based litters – tracking, availability and cost.
- Paper litters. Made from biodegradable recycled paper, newspaper or reclaimed paper-mill byproducts, two forms exist: pellets and fluffy or very small lightweight pieces. Both are lightweight, absorb moisture, control odors well and are easier on tender kitty feet than clay litters. Some form soft but easy-to-remove clumps, while others absorb well enough that you can usually scoop out the soiled litter, leaving the fresh. They usually don’t produce dust, can be flushed in small amounts, and generally don’t track much. Some concern exists about possible toxicity from ink remaining from recycled newspaper, although those made of paper-mill byproducts shouldn’t have that problem.
- Silica pellets. The newest thing in cat litter, these small round particles of biodegradable silica gel look like clear round beads. They absorb fluid completely so there’s no need to scoop out clumps of urine; only solid wastes must be removed. The pellets are lightweight and absorb odors very well; odor is virtually eliminated as long as you remove the solid wastes often and stir the litter every now and then. When the pellets turn yellow (in about a month if you have one cat), you simply discard them and replace with new litter. The downside is cost, which is currently much higher than other litters. Some cats don’t like the texture of these litters, and while the round silica pellets don’t exactly track, they do bounce out of the litter pan like tiny super balls. A new flattened shape was recently introduced that may reduce this problem.
- Medicinal. These litters are formulated to act as an early warning system for owners of cats at risk of feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), a group of disorders and diseases affecting the urinary tract that is a common cause of illness and death in felines, particularly males. When the pH level of the cat’s urine rises, the cat litter changes color, usually bright red, on contact with the urine, alerting the owner. Top products also clump and produce little dust, are flushable, environment friendly, lightweight and do not contain sodium bentonite. If your cat is prone to FLUTD, this product can save his life. The disadvantage is cost – it’s the most expensive of the litters. Still, the product could be used intermittently as a precaution. These litters are usually sold by veterinarians.
Choosing the right litter box is also important. You may have to experiment to see what kitty likes. If kitty is a kitten, you’ll need a litter box shallow enough (about three inches) that she can step in and out easily. As she grows, you should buy a deeper pan (up to six inches), to help prevent her from scratching litter out of the box.
When she’s big enough, you can explore the myriad choices available, from simple pans to high tech cleaning systems. Enter “cat litter box” into Google’s search engine (www.google.com) and you’ll have more choices than you dreamed possible. Generally, litter boxes come in six basic types:
- Basic litter box. This simple model, a rectangular plastic pan, is perfectly suitable and some cats prefer its no-frills design. This model is the least expensive. Many of the more elaborate boxes have features designed for your convenience – certainly an important consideration since you’re the one doing the work of cleaning and maintaining the box.
- Rimmed boxes. These have a removable plastic rim that attaches to the lip of the box. These are good for holding liners in place and also helps prevent scattered litter. Too, cats that are uncomfortable with hooded boxes may feel more comfortable with these, since they aren’t confining and don’t prevent quick escapes. These are also easier to clean than hooded boxes.
- Covered (hooded) boxes. These come with removable domed covers that keep kitty from scratching litter out of the box, contain odors and hold a liner in place, if you desire. These can be helpful because they give the cat a feeling of privacy, which many cats desire when using the box. They also keep urine and feces inside and prevent accidents, if kitty often misses the box. Even urine sprayed on the hood walls drip back into the box to make cleanup easier. Some hooded boxes provide a ventilating grill at the top where a replaceable carbon filter is inserted to trap and control odors, although fancier (and more expensive) boxes use more advanced filtering systems. One model has its own built-in air purifier.
- However, the confining nature of a covered box can have a negative effect on some cats, making them feel trapped, particularly in multi-cat households with dominance disputes. Too, large cats may have trouble maneuvering inside and cats with long hair may have trouble staying clean. To avoid those problems, extra large boxes are available, and some come with extra wide openings to give the cat more room. One model has a retractable lid for easy cleaning.
- Lift and sift boxes. These consist of two basic rectangular plastic litter pans and a sifter pan to clean the box. Some come with removable hoods as well. The sifting tray rests inside the litter pan, and the litter is poured on top. Kitty does her business, and when the box is ready to clean, you simply lift out the sifting tray, taking the wastes and leaving the clean litter. After emptying the sifting tray, you put it into the second box, and pour the clean litter from the first box into the second. You store the now-empty first box on the bottom of the entire contraption, and the box is ready to use again. This type eliminates the need to scoop. However, this type of box works best with certain types of litter. It’s also important to put enough litter in the box, or clumps can adhere to the sifting tray, requiring you to clean it each time you sift. Still, this setup can be effective and inexpensive. An alternate kind tilts or rotates to sift the clumps and deposit them into a basket or receptacle for removal.
- Multi-purpose boxes. Boxes are available that double as furniture and other household items. One model is shaped like a tall planter, with an artificial tree on the lid and an easily accessible hole cut in the side. The top can be removed for easy cleaning and an odor control system helps cut down odors. Another fits in the window like an air conditioner and provides a partitioned enclosure outside the window. One side provides a ventilated area for the box and the other provides a retreat where kitty can view the great outdoors. Vents circulate the air and keep odors down. Several companies make cabinets that double as dressers and other concealing furniture items. Multi-purpose boxes can be helpful if you have limited space.
- Self-cleaning litter boxes. Self cleaning boxes plug into an outlet or run on batteries, and are used with clumping litter. The cat enters the box and triggers the sensor, setting a timer. A few minutes after the cat exits the box, the mechanism activates, and a rake sifts the litter and dumps the solid wastes and clumps into a lidded receptacle. When the receptacle is full, you simply empty it. Another type offers a futuristic looking robotic globe on a high-tech base that rotates seven minutes after kitty leaves the box, sifting out the clumps and solid wastes and depositing them into a drawer in the base. You empty the drawer when it’s full. The cleaning cycle cannot begin with kitty inside, and there are no moving parts that might harm her. These are good for cats that simply must have a clean box all the time – or else. The downside is cost; these run between $200 and $300.
Location, Location, Location
Location, location, location, just like in real estate, is also vital to successful litter box training. If your cat doesn’t like the litter box’s placement, he may not use it. For example, if you place the litter box too close to the cat’s food and water dishes, the cat may avoid the box. Cats don’t like to eat and eliminate in the same area. If the box is inconveniently located – say, down in the basement or on the top floor – kitty may find it too much trouble to get there, or may not be able to reach it in time. If the box is located so kitty has to brave some stressor to get there, such as a loud appliance or a dominant cat’s territory, he may find a safer place to eliminate.
Put the litter box in an area that allows the cat privacy, but is convenient for cleaning. Some folks prefer keeping the box in the bathroom, but in a multi-cat household that can get crowded. Consider using a closet in a spare bedroom, lined with plastic to make cleanup easier, or a ventilated porch with easy access. Some use a rarely used second bathroom or the bathtub. The confines of your home will guide your choice; just make sure kitty is content.
Litter Box Care
It’s also important to take proper care of the box. Cats have a highly developed sense of smell and an instinctive desire for cleanliness. A dirty litter box can make the cat turn up her nose and look for a private corner to do her business.
Clean the box often. Scoop out the soiled litter and solid wastes daily or twice a day, depending upon your cat’s preferences and the number of cats and boxes you have. Change the litter entirely and scrub the box with soapy water each week if you are using a non-clumping litter. Remember to clean the hoods, scoops, steps and other accessories as well. Clean under the box, too, since pools of urine can accumulate underneath. A layer of disposable plastic under the box can be a big help.
Some cats are more fussy and a weekly scrubbing won’t be enough. If so, you might try a clumping litter. With clumping litters, the litter needs changing less frequently and still remains relatively odor free. By scooping out the clumps and solid wastes once or twice a day, depending upon the number of cats you have, you can make all but the most sensitive cats happy. Ultimately, you and your cat will have to reach an agreement on the cleaning frequency.
Plastic pans will eventually pick up odors that won’t come out no matter how much you scrub them, so they should be replaced periodically. Try to find identical or similar replacements, since cats dislike change.
You also don’t want a box that’s too clean. Harsh, strong-smelling cleaning chemicals such as bleach or ammonia may offend your cat’s delicate nose and cause her to avoid the box. Also, avoid any chemical that would leave a potentially toxic residue. Usually soap and water work fine, although special cleaners with enzymes to neutralize odors also work well.
If you have trouble remembering to clean the box, set up a regular cleaning schedule and stick to it. It will be easier for you to remember if you include it in your list of daily chores and do it at the same time every day. We humans, like cats, are creatures of habit. If you find that you hate cleaning the box and dread doing it, do it first thing in the morning. That gets it out of the way and you won’t spend the day dreading it or feeling guilty about not doing it. Once it becomes part of your routine, you’ll accept it as just another thing you have to do so you can enjoy the companionship of your precious pet.
We hope these tips help you care for your cats litter box and make it as appealing as possible. Choosing the right litter, the right litter box, cleaning the box properly and placing it in the right location are all critical components to making the box as appealing as possible.