Cats and Litter Boxes (Part 1)

Cats don't usually need to be "litter box trained" the way dogs need to be housetrained. But if the litter box doesn't match your cat's preferences for a comfy toilet, she may find somewhere else to go. In Part 1 of this 2-part series, the Dog Trainer explains what makes an attractive litter box for your cat, and what doesn't.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #219

Tip #3: What’s in the Litter Box?

The first rule of buying litter is “unscented.” That’s unscented, no perfume, no smells, unscented.  Got it?

Cats are not in dogs’ league with respect to odor receptors, but they are way out of ours, with about 20 times as many olfactory epithelial cells as we’ve got. The products of industrial chem labs do not please them. Yes, some cats tolerate scented litter. Many don’t. Air fresheners near the litter box are similarly off-putting to your cat. And, frankly, I am not crazy about so-called “multiple cat” and “odor control” formulas, either. You already know what the best odor control is: frequent cleaning.

The second rule of buying litter is to choose a texture your cat likes. For most cats, that means a soft, fine-grained litter – it provides secure footing, the way dirt does. Clumping litters usually fit the bill. They’re also easy to scoop, so there’s a nice instance of your interests being aligned with your cat’s. Clay also generally goes over well.

The third rule is to fill the box to a depth your cat likes. Some like to scratch on the smooth surface of the box itself; others prefer to dig. With multiple cats, you may want to provide the Litter Depth Assortment. Not that you can rely on each cat to use any one given box, of course!

Tip #4: What Kind of Litter Box Is Best?

Little tiny boxes are for little tiny cats. Yes, YouTube is replete with Maru wannabes stuffing themselves into cardboard boxes for fun, but cramped quarters are not what most cats are looking for in a toilet. By the way, nobody has made a law requiring that you shop for litter boxes only in the department designated “Pet Supplies.” Shallow sweater boxes (minus the lid, of course) make terrific litter pans, with plenty of room for Kittychai to do her thing. One of our cats aims high when he pees, because hip surgery has made a typical squat uncomfortable for him. High-walled plastic storage bins with an entryway cut into one end save us a lot of clean-up.

Humans tend to like litter pans with lids, because they conceal the contents and keep the odor in. Cats tend not to like litter pans with lids, because they keep the odor in. Lids are also a problem if you have a cat who likes to ambush housemates on their way out of the toilet. The victim cats may start to feel unsafe in the box.

People love their tech and hate manual labor, so there’s a market for self-cleaning litter boxes. Dog Trainer does not have this kind of money floating around – we have mouths to feed – but I also worry about what happens if the cleaning mechanism activates while Kittychai is still in the box. You may find repeat visits to the scary place dropping off, as Kitty chooses someplace more tranquil to go (like your closet).

I have nowhere near exhausted the list of reasons why the toilet you so thoughtfully provide may not be working out so well for your cat. More next week in Part 2!  

You, your dogs, your cats, and, what the heck, your iguana too, are welcome to visit The Dog Trainer on Facebook. You can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I usually can’t reply personally, but check out past articles – I might already have answered your question. Thanks for reading and listening!

Box of kittenscat in litter box, and litter box cartoon images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).