The Litter Box Blues

A veterinarian’s worse nightmare is to look at the schedule and see that one of the appointments is a cat that is not using the litter box. When I first graduated from veterinary school, I always felt like a failure because I didn’t truly understand the problem and my recommendations were always kind of half-hearted. I can now say, years later and a personal battle with a cat that periodically urinates in random places (cat to remain unnamed although I will provide her picture), that I believe I have started to understand the enigma that is the litter box. Now, I am not saying I have the answer for every situation, since we all know that a cat is a cat and will do what it pleases, but I do believe I have some good insights and tips that may improve the situation.

A good starting point is to consider the litter box, I mean really consider the litter box. Are you thinking litter box? What is the litter box? Is it something that you fill with fancy scented litter because the pet store clerk told you that your cat would love it? Or is it something your wife makes you take care of and you buy whatever brand of litter is the cheapest? Don’t worry, I have done all those things and more. Remember the litter box is the cat’s bathroom, and more specifically the toilet. Think of it as the cat’s porcelain throne. Also, without trying to offend all the fancy litter suppliers out there, the best litter type for cats is unscented clumping litter. Hands down! Stop trying to over think it!

Now that we have defined the litter box in all of its glory, on to cleanliness. Think of the litter box like a public restroom. Now, let’s say you open the first stall and notice that the toilet has not been flushed, are you going to use it? Most likely not. You will probably keep moving on until you find a suitable location. Now think about a cat. They are possibly the single most fastidious creature alive. Why would they use an unclean litter box? You wouldn’t use one. Clean may mean different things for different cats, but when a cat starts having litter box issues the first thing that often needs to be addressed is cleanliness. Clean the litter box! And I don’t just mean scoop the poop. I recommend cleaning the litter box at least once daily, if not twice, and emptying the litter and performing a thorough cleaning every 10-14 days. Sometimes this is all it takes.

We also need to consider the size of the litter box. Let’s go back to our toilet analogy. How would you feel if you had to go to the bathroom with your knees crammed to your head and your back bent at a right angle? I’m sure you would protest. Think about a cat. As humans we tend to want a litter box that is small and inconspicuous, often with a cover or hidden in some fancy faux furniture. In reality, these types of litter boxes are often too small and awkward for a cat to posture naturally. So what does that mean for you? Consider getting a large litter box. I have made my own using Rubbermaid containers. Also, consider removing the tops and/or taking them out from the dark hidden corner they currently reside in. I know what you are thinking and trust me, I get it. No one wants a large over-sized litter box that is uncovered sitting in the middle of the living room. And I agree, that may be taking it a step (or two) too far. But, in reality, people most likely need to find a larger uncovered litter box for most cats.

And my final point, which if I have not lost your trust yet I am going to with this paragraph, is the number of litter boxes. If you didn’t already know this, we have 2 cats, Hugo and Sienna. We currently have 4 litter boxes in our home. Yep, you heard it correctly 4! It took a while to figure out not only the type of litter and litter box, but also the location and number. And still we periodically find that one of the cats (to remain nameless but it starts with an “S” and as Kathleen says is named after a minivan) has urinated outside the litter box. The magic number will be different for every situation. I have seen 3 cat households with only 1 litter box, but also a 1 cat household with 4 litter boxes. Your number will be something you have to find. But just as important is the location. Two (or more) litter boxes in the same room does not equate to separate toileting areas. Location very much is home dependent and also based on the social structure in multiple cat households.

For more information on litter box recommendations, please check out the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) Website at

Until next time, Dr. Nick.

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