Does Your Cat Need an Extreme Litterbox Setup Makeover?

Ok, I KNOW that there are about a gazillion articles out there written about the best litterbox setup for your cat.  And certainly, if your cat has been having litterbox issues (i.e., your cat either urinates or defecates outside of the box…heck, I’m just going to say pee and poop because we all know what I’m talking about, right?), you’ll have tried googling the Interwebs, hoping that the best solution will rise to the surface from amongst all the websites and products and articles that come up in your search results.  I know, because I’ve also done this exercise.  It’s not fun!  And as too many of us know, once your cat discovers that there’s some place more desirable than her litterbox to pee or poop (due to whatever stress or environmental factor is causing a problem), it may take more than simple steps to resolve the issue.  In fact, not using the litterbox properly is the leading reason why people surrender their cats to shelters, or abandon them in some other way.  So, what I want to do with this article is not simply add to the heaps of information that are already out there, but:  1) simply and concisely share with you what I’ve found that works, and 2) help you avoid litterbox issues before they start.

Let’s think about this.  What can you do to make your cat’s litterbox setup absolutely irresistible?  How can you entice her to investigate, sniff, scratch, and perhaps even enjoy using her litterbox?  To answer these questions, we have to get into the mind of our cat, and figure out what is most important to her.  We’re going to focus on the senses that our cat uses to determine whether or not she’s found an appropriate place to pee or poop, as well as think about how accessible this important resource (a place to pee or poop) is in your home.

1.  Do you have enough litterboxes?  The general rule is to have as many litterboxes as you have cats, plus at least one more.  You’ll also want to ensure that there’s at least one litterbox in each floor of your home.  Do you only have one cat, but a three-story home?  Have three boxes.  If you have 4 cats, you’ll want to have at least five boxes.  We’ll talk more about where to put these boxes in a bit.

2.  What does your cat smell in the litterboxes?  This is a SUPER-IMPORTANT question!  Cats use their sense of smell more than any other sense to tell them about what’s going on in their environment.  Your cat wants to know that they can pee and poop in a certain place by smelling their own scent, but they don’t want to be nose-blasted by ammonia fumes, artificial perfumes, or overloaded litterboxes.  Kitty sniffers are WAAAAAY more sensitive than human noses, so if it’s offensive to you, just imagine what she thinks!  Here are my recommendations:

  • Remove the hood from your cat’s litterboxes, if there is one.  These trap ammonia odors and other scents.  Your cat doesn’t need or want privacy, that’s a human perception based on human preferences.  In fact, your cat would prefer to be able to see what’s out there…she doesn’t want to be ambushed by something lurking behind her while she’s trying to do her business (more about this later).
  • Use ONLY unscented cat litter.  Avoid scented litter at all costs – it covers up what cats are trying to smell, and is too strong for their sensitive noses.  Ever been around someone who wears too much perfume?  Yeah, it’s like that.  Speaking of litter, I recommend a medium-grained clumping litter.  If you need to switch litters, do so gradually (except where scented vs. unscented is concerned – as long as it’s the same brand and texture, you’re ok to replace all of it).
  • Clean the litterboxes daily.  At least once a day.  Your cats may require more frequent cleanings…and they will let you know!  It’s pretty much the same as when you enter one of those porta-potties only to find that it hasn’t been cleaned out in a long time.  What do you do?  Turn around asap and find a nice quiet place behind a big tree or rock.  Service please!
  • Replace the litter frequently.  If you use a clumping litter, replace ALL of the litter every few weeks (perhaps once a month).  How often you do this depends on the type of litter you use, and how dirty the litter gets – even if you clean out the clumps, scent will still attach itself to the remaining litter and accumulate (in addition to all the bits that fall through your scooper).  And don’t fill the box with too much litter – 2-3 inches deep is plenty!
  • Wash the litterboxes.  If you replace your litter regularly, give them a quick rinse and sprinkle some baking soda in the bottom of the box – let everything dry before you refill the box with litter.  Every couple of months you may want to scrub your boxes with mild soap (no bleach) and hot water.  And, it’s recommended that you replace your litterboxes entirely every six months to a year, simply because as the litterbox gets scratched up with use, waste (and scent) will stick around in those microgrooves and get yucky.
  • Protect your carpet!  If you must put your litterboxes on carpet, you should definitely put something underneath the boxes to catch accidents.  They do happen – sometimes a cat might not be – ahem – aligned correctly, know what I mean?  And often, if something is wrong, cats will pee or poop right next to the litterbox to tell you that there’s a problem.  Because cat urine (especially) is difficult to clean from carpet (and carpet padding…and drywall…ask me how I know…) using something like clear vinyl carpet runner underneath your litterboxes can save you a TON of work because messes are so much easier to clean up.  Carpet runner is inexpensive and easy to use – I just buy it off the roll at Lowe’s.  Additionally, if you get the kind with nubby little bumps on the underside to grip the carpet, if you decide to move your box, just flip the carpet runner with the nubby bumps up to discourage your cats from going to the bathroom in that same spot!

3.  Does this box make me look fat?  Most litterboxes that you find in pet stores are simply too small for the average kitty.  Plus, they are expensive!  I’ve found that the best (and cheapest) solution is to buy plastic storage boxes or bins (Rubbermaid and Sterilite make good ones) from Target or WalMart.  The length of the box should be AT LEAST 1.5 times the length of your cat (not including her tail).  The height of the box you choose depends on what you want – you can either cut a U-shaped opening in the side if you are using a tall-sided bin to keep litter from scattering, or you can choose a lower-sided box (use a minimum height of 6″, if your cat is old or overweight, or higher if your cat can easily step in and out of the box) if that’s easier for you to clean.

4.  Location, location, location!  The location of your litterboxes is one of the most important things to consider, yet often one of the most difficult things to identify.  Since litterboxes are a resource, you’ll want to make sure that all of your cats have the ability to access them.  To do this, think about the following:

  • Multiple access routes.  If you have multiple cats, make sure that there are multiple ways to access the litterboxes.  You never know when one of your cats might be bullying or intimidating another from using a litterbox location.  For example, my cat Abbey started peeing in our sinks and pooping right next to my side of the bed (yeah, thanks for singling me out like that, Abbey).  We discovered that our cat Momo is intensely territorial over the basement, where all of our litterboxes were located.  As soon as we moved two litterboxes upstairs, BOOM – the problem was solved.
  • Out in the open or tucked away?  Here’s where it gets tricky.  You don’t want your litterboxes to be too out in the open, because you don’t want your cat to feel exposed to predators, or subject to an ambush.  However, you do want her to be able to see the area so that she can detect and escape from any potential threats.  You don’t want the litterboxes to be in the middle of your living space or in a busy hallway…but at the same time, you shouldn’t put them too far out of the way (say, a bathroom in the basement that never gets any human use, or where the cats would never otherwise be).  It’s not always easy finding a compromise, but try to get into the mind of your cat.  Where can she see everything that’s going on, yet still be in a place that’s going to be safe and calm?  Also, make sure that there are no looming perches (cat trees, tables, bookshelves, etc.) nearby where another cat can look directly down on the litterbox – that can be very intimidating, too.
  • Clumped together or spread out?  As I mentioned, you’ll want to make sure that there are multiple ways to access litterboxes, and this may mean having them in various locations in your house (e.g., on each floor).  If you have two or more boxes in the same location, make sure that you’re spacing them far enough apart so that the cats don’t view the boxes as just one big box – sometimes they like to pee and poop using different boxes, or avoid the scent of another cat.  Additionally, make sure you place the boxes at least 12″ from the wall so that your cat can walk all the way around the box to check it out.
  • Never place litterboxes next to food or water stations!  There’s a reason why we don’t have toilets in our dining rooms. Let’s just leave it at that.
  • No surprising noises.  Don’t place litterboxes next to heaters or laundry machines or anything else that might make a sudden loud noise or movement.  This can take your cat by surprise and she won’t be too keen on visiting that location again.
  • No barriers to access.  Don’t place litterboxes behind baby gates or other barriers that your cat might have to navigate.  As cats age, they can grow heavier or develop arthritis, or other aches and pains – getting over these barriers just gets more difficult with time and discourages litterbox use.  Additionally, don’t hide litterboxes in special cabinets or closets – cats can feel trapped, or a door might accidentally shut and block access to litterboxes completely (just ask me how I know!).
  • Shine a light on the subject.  It’s a great idea to install little nightlights around your cat’s boxes.  They can’t see in complete darkness, and even just a little light will make them feel more secure about using the litterbox when it’s dark!  I use inexpensive plug-in nightlights that automatically come on when the light level is low.

I think that about covers it (whew!).  Pay attention to these details and your cat will let you know if you’re doing things right (or wrong…but hopefully that won’t be the case!).  These tips are here to help you avoid litterbox issues to begin with.  However, if you’re already having a soiling problem (and you’ve tried changing things up to improve your litterbox setup), you may need to call a behavior consultant to 1) identify what environmental factor might be causing the problem, and 2) help figure out a way to change kitty’s habit of peeing or pooping outside of the box after the environmental factor has been fixed.  And remember, if your cat suddenly starts peeing or pooping outside of his or her box, the very first thing you should do is take your cat to the vet right away and check for medical conditions that might be causing her pain.  These conditions can be very serious!

Thanks for sticking with me – I hope I’ve given you some new things to try with your kitty’s litterbox setup if you feel there is room for improvement.  Additionally, if you have done something else that I didn’t cover that works for your cat, please do share!  I want to learn all about your secret litterbox powers…and so does everyone else who has ever had to clean up after a cat has missed the mark!

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Marci and Abbey

Dr. Marci L. Koski, CFTBS, CFTPB

Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant


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Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Winner of the Women in the Pet Industry's 2017 Advocate of the Year Award

Marci Koski

Dr. Marci is a certified feline behavior and training consultant, with specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior. She started Feline Behavior Solutions to keep cats in homes and out of shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. She believes that the number of cats in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand cat behavior, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage desired behaviors instead of unwanted ones. Dr. Marci’s family includes her four feline companions and her very patient, understanding, and supportive husband.