Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Litter Box Woes

It has happened again.  CAT PEE.
As I was rushing to leave for work yesterday morning, I smelled it.
Of course, I was trying to pack up everything and leave, but there was the unmistakable odor of cat urine somewhere..... and when I grabbed my soaked purse, I realized I had found the source. Yes- my bag, wallet, iPod, creditcards, money, hairbrush, extra keys- they were all completely saturated in cat urine.

Of the four cats, I had no doubt who the culprit was. Our 14 year old, crotchety, scaredy cat, Jaime. Yup, he's the one on fluoxetine (Prozac).

Poor Jaime.....

As I was emptying out the contents of my bag in the kitchen sink and cursing Jaime's name, I had to stop myself and take a look at whether or not I had been falling short as a cat owner.

"Inappropriate Urination"- aka peeing outside the litter box-- is one of the most common reasons cats are abandoned as pets. This unfavorable behavior can be due to systemic illness, problems with the urinary tract, or an unfavorable environment.

For the purposes of this entry, I will focus on the environmental aspect, since it is what owners can control best.  Most cat owners can't think of any reason why their cat would be stressed, but believe it or not, the "potty" situation is a HUGE contributor to stress.

As far as litter box rules go, there are several guidelines that veterinary behaviorists have put forth as to what cats prefer.  By following these guidelines, cats are more likely to use the litter box, rather than avoid it.

To put yourself in their paws (rather than "shoes"...)-- every time you think about a litter box, consider it like a Port-a-Potty. 


1) Cleanliness.  Litter boxes should be scooped at least once daily. When pee and poop accumulates, it becomes less welcoming, which creates "Litter Box Aversion".  Think about that overused Port-a-Potty at a construction site.... who likes to go in one of those?

2) Number.  The "Magic Number" of litter boxes in a home is one for each cat PLUS one.  Have 2 cats? You need 3 litter boxes.  Have 4 cats? You need 5 litter boxes.  If your house has been peaceful and clean with fewer than this magic number, count your blessings. That doesn't mean the cats wouldn't appreciate more options! Think about renting a vacation home with your family..... the more bathrooms in the place, the happier everyone is, right?

This is ideal.. it is Rubbermaid brand

3) Type of Litter Box.  Veterinary behaviorists have determined that OPEN TOP boxes are preferable. There are dozens of styles of litter boxes- open, closed, top-entry, domed, automatic cleaning, even some disguised as furniture. If your cat is happy with a closed box, super. But cat urine has a large concentration of ammonia, which can burn the respiratory tract.  There is less ventilation in a closed box, which makes the air less pleasant to breathe.  (Port-a-Potty air is NOT very fresh, right?)

Homemade-- but very functional! A+

 So many kinds of boxes!!! So many options!
I found these ones interesting....

Fancy!  But not really open.
 It needs to be kept clean and ventillated.

This is very cool-- "open" box but in a covered area.
STILL-- ventillation can be a problem.

Impressive piece of engineering to add ventillation...
But was it really worth the effort instead of daily scooping?
The noise of the motor could be scary to a kitty.

4) Type of Litter.  Cats prefer clumping, unscented litter, about 3-4 inches deep.  Beware of perfumes, dissolving "crystals", pine/wood derivatives, and pellets.  If your cats are happy with their current litter, then that's great. But studies have shown that cats will select a litter box with unscented clumping litter over other types.  They also enjoy digging deep, so be generous with filling the box (it is also easier to scoop out pee that way).

Jaime approved..... but by NO means not the only litter brand that works. 
There are tons of great brands! Your cats will tell you what they like best.

5) Location, location, location.....    No owner wants to see or smell litter boxes.  We have the tendency to hide them out of sight and out of mind.  Down in the basement in the corner? In the laundry room? In a closet? In my house, they have to be somewhat inaccessible to the DOG (Frisby likes to snack on kitty poop), so we put up gates.  Make sure the box is not next to a noisy washing machine, boiler, or garage door. If a cat gets startled while trying to use the box, they won't want to go back (another example of Litter Box Aversion). The boxes need to be in areas that are quiet and easy to get to.   And think about it-- if the box isn't in plain view, you aren't going to clean it as often.  If it is in a main room, you are going to work extra hard to keep it clean, which the cats will appreciate.

OK- so what can  I do for Jaime? How do I measure up?  I am embarrassed.... there is definately room for improvement.

1) Cleanliness.  Grade C-.  Ok I admit that I used pregnancy as an excuse not to do the litter boxes, so the responsibility fell to my husband. He cleans them every 3 days or so. The jig is up- Jacob is 7 months old-- it's time for me to help again. We need to do daily scooping.

Cleaning tip: To encourage me to keep the boxes fresh, I like to leave a bunch of paper lunch bags
right next to the litter box along with a scoop. They are easy to use, cheap, and convenient.

2) Number.  Grade B+.  We have 4 cats and 4 litter boxes. Not bad. We used to have 5 boxes, but when one room became a nursery, we lost a location.  Looks like Jaime is going to get that 5th box back somewhere.....

3) Type of Boxes.  Grade B.  We have 3 CleverCat boxes, which are top entry with a partial open top, so their heads poke out when they use them.  They are well ventilated, but the cats do need to jump up first to climb in. Ironically enough, Jaime prefers the old-fashioned covered box that we keep in the laundry room (go figure!!). It's what he was raised with, and he seems to prefer it.  We do have several open top, high-sided front entry boxes that we used to use (Rubbermaid brand), but they were too easy for dog snacking. Jaime loved them in our old house. I guess it's time to bring one of them back despite the dog.

My little NEMO is admiring her CleverCat box! The top comes off for easy cleaning.
Minimizes mess, and is a bigger challenge for the dog.

4) Type of Litter.  Grade A+. We use unscented, clumping litter.  Jaime prefers Scoop Away, so that's what we stick to. He does not like the tingly "odor absorbing" crystals in some of fancy litters.

I love Arm & Hammer litter!  It clumps great, and controls odors well. Nemo, Paulie, and Cosmo like it.
But Jaime does not like the kind with the "crystals"-- they fizz under his feet and it scares him.
 Not all Arm & Hammer has the crystals, though,  and I stand by that it is a good brand.

5) Location. Grade C-.  We have 2 boxes in the laundry room, despite the laundry machine and the boiler.  We have 1 box in our bedroom and 1 box in the guest room.  We have no boxes in the main part of the house.  I will try to put the open box in the den, but I will really have to keep up scooping that one.

Yup. We have a closed box in the laundry room....
 It is near the boiler, the dryer, and the washer. It does not always smell fresh.
I am embarassed.
Jaime uses this box  the most, which means he prefers it over CleverCat. 
If this is his favorite box, I'm not going to move it.
BUT, I will offer him a new, clean, open box somewhere else and see if he appreciates it.

SPECIAL NOTE:  When trying to change or upgrade your litter box situation, do not remove the old boxes or replace old litter when putting out something "new".  Let the cat choose!  Offer a new box or new litter while leaving the old stuff the way it is.  When you are sure the cats like the new stuff, then you can try to change up the old digs.

Wish me luck as I try to "practice what I preach!" I'll let you know how Jaime does.


  1. In New Zealand they don't sell high sided open boxes. Might try the home made one. One of the cats likes to spray his pee across the back of the box, but he also likes to be full height to poop and the covered box doesn't allow for that. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I loved Your post! It's very good. I think many people don't understand that You have to clean the litter box every day. We have two cats and one litter box but we clean it twice a day. And I'm afraid that people don't realize cats needs. And some people even punish their cats for 'accidents'. Hope that lots of cat owners read this!