Thinking inside the box: Litter box basics for cat owners

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Now that spring is here, I have had chances to “find” all the dog poop from this winter in my yard. As I was picking it up the other day, I was thinking to myself about litter boxes, and whether dealing with poop is easier in cats or dogs. Not to let you all down, but I didn’t really come to a conclusion. It did bring me to two important thoughts, however. First, my mind can be a strange place. Second, it must be time to write an article on litter boxes.

To lead off, I will talk about something I hear in practice that never fails to surprise me. Pets are not spiteful, and your cat going to the bathroom outside of the box is never about spite. They are not spitefully peeing on your pillow or on the baby’s toys. Almost any time your cat chooses to void outside of the litter box (if they have been previously trained for years), it is indicating that there is some sort of problem. It may be physical or behavioral. Even when these issues are behavioral, it is not about spite or being bad on purpose. There is a reason that your cat is avoiding the box. This might take some time or energy to figure out, but usually they have associated the box with some sort of anxiety or discomfort.

To start, I’ll explain the basics of litter boxes, and give you some human examples that may help clarify the situation. Cat owners are lucky, in that their animals litter-box train almost instantly, and they are not required to go stand outside in a downpour while their pets do their business. We must repay this favor by providing litter boxes that our cats want to use. Remember that cats are not small dogs. We cannot equate them, because cats tend to be more private and more proud.

First of all, most cats like their litter boxes big. This can be a mild inconvenience for small-home dwellers, but it’s a sacrifice worth making. I choose donating a larger space to a litter box over finding pee stains on my carpet. You can buy large litter boxes, or you can buy short-sided storage boxes (under-the-bed version) and create a litter box. This is done easily by putting cat litter in any box you choose. If a cat can turn around and take a step in their box, they really enjoy it. Think of the difference between your home bathroom versus the airplane toilets; being crammed into a small space never makes things better. Many cats also don’t like covers on their boxes. We like covers because it contains the litter scattered and also the odor, but if your cat decides not to use the box, this is the first thing to try changing.

Next, different cats like different types of litter. The majority of cats like hard, fast-clumping litter. That is where the similarities end. Some cats like clay, some like sand, some like scented and most like perfume-free. The best way to figure this out is to buy a couple small bags and set up a litter box with each kind side by side. Within a few days you’ll see which your cat prefers. Sometimes I have people balk at buying unscented litter, since the litter then smells like, well, pee and poop. In my mind, this is just one more motivator to clean the box daily! If I can smell my cat’s feces, then so can she, and what are the chances that she wants to go back in there?

Cats also, not surprisingly, like clean litter boxes. Ideally, every house will have at least one box more than the number of cats they have. Just as you don’t enjoy using a toilet that has been left unflushed, cats don’t either! If you have more than one cat, it becomes an even bigger issue. Clean your litter boxes often to make sure your cat isn’t faced with a situation where they need to put their paws on excrement (especially someone else’s!) in order to go to the bathroom.

Make sure that your cat’s litter box isn’t right next to the food and water bowls. I am a wandering eater in my house, but that wandering never leads me into my bathroom. Eating next to the toilet is weird, and I cannot imagine very pleasant. Your cat doesn’t want to eat next to their toilet either.

The important thing to realize is that if your cat begins to go to the bathroom outside their box, there IS a problem. There may be territory wars which can be fixed by putting litter boxes in separate rooms. They may have a urinary tract infection. Anything that makes it uncomfortable for a cat to go to the bathroom (diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infection, urinary crystals, arthritis) will make them avoid the box. They associate the pain with the box and begin to go elsewhere. Older cats may have a harder time getting into the box, so you should cut the sides down on part so they can get in and out easily. Older cats also may be more reluctant to go up or down stairs. This can be due to joint pain or vision changes. Many litter boxes are kept in the basement, but may need to be moved to the level of the house the cat lives on.

Finally, if you have a male cat, you must pay particular attention to their urination. Male cats can get blockages in their urethra, which makes them unable to pee. Because they have to pee through a narrower “tube” than females, it is much easier to become blocked. The urine builds up, which can damage the bladder, kidneys, and even disrupt electrolytes enough to harm their heart. If your male cat is straining to urinate, coming and going to the box frequently but not peeing, or is crying while trying to urinate; this may indicate a blockage and IS an emergency. Lost time before bringing a cat to your veterinarian in this situation can mean irreversible kidney failure, bladder rupture or a heart attack.

Don’t be afraid to pay attention to your cat’s bathroom routine! I don’t recommend staring while they do their business (again, how would you feel?), but do keep track of changes in amount, color, frequency and size. All behavior changes are signals that something is going on with your pet. The earlier this is brought to your veterinarian’s attention the better; the longer it goes unchecked, the more difficult it will be to treat and retrain.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL:

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