Thinking Inside The Box

Cats tend to have a strong instinctual drive to bury their feces, and find litter boxes an attractive place in which to do this. Most cats are trained at three to four weeks of age by their mothers to properly eliminate in a litter box. Soon, they follow her lead and begin to eliminate in the litter box on their own.

Some pet owners find litter with additives that attract the cat helpful in piquing their interest in using the box

This is useful for new kittens and cats that have mainly been used to eliminating outdoors. Outdoor cats can also be gradually trained to use a box in the house; start off using potting soil or sand in the box, and then slowly introduce a commercial litter product.



There are many available options for litter boxes, including the traditional rectangular THINKING INSIDE THE BOX PHOTO: DEPOSITPHOTOS.COM SIFTING THROUGH THE FACTS ON KITTY LITTER By Kristina Cooper, RVT >> CAT CARE GUIDE 2018 PETS 19 GUIDE TO CAT CARE box, the covered box and self-cleaning variations. Most boxes are constructed of plastics that can be easily cleaned with soap and warm water, but may over time absorb odours and need to be replaced.

The least expensive and most accepted style tends to be the traditional plastic, rectangular box. Select one with enough room for your cat to move around without touching the sides too easily. Because these boxes are not covered, they are less confining and provide more air circulation. Their downside is that litter may be pushed out of the box if your cat is an aggressive digger. If the box isn’t large enough for your cat, or your cat has bad aim, they may also inadvertently eliminate outside the side of the box.

The covered boxes are moderately priced, and are especially fancied by those who have inquisitive dogs or whose cats may have bad aim. These boxes greatly reduce the amount of litter that is spilled outside of the box during digging. One downfall of this design is less air circulation, potentially resulting in odour buildup. They can also be too confining for larger cats.

The automatic self-cleaning boxes are the priciest option. These products automatically rake or sift the litter and remove clumps of urine and feces, depositing them into a reservoir that the owner can later empty. Although these boxes can cut down on cleaning time for busy cat guardians, the rakes can sometimes become stuck. Some versions tend to be a little noisy, as well.



Cats are very selective creatures when it comes to eliminating, and do not enjoy an audience. The location of your litter box should be inviting, where there is both privacy and a low traffic flow. Keep in mind the location should be easily accessible to your cat, and the area should generally be quiet. Inadvertent noises (such as a furnace motor or clothes dryer buzzer) may startle your cat while in its box, which can result in an aversion to its use.





Clumping litter products are most commonly used. These litters clump around feces and urine, sealing it off from the fresh litter and allowing for easy scooping and removal. Although clay clumping litter appears to provide the strongest clumping action and is most widely used, some people prefer to use the newer pine-, corn- or wheat-based products. These litters tend to be lighter, and because they can be flushed or composted are more environmentally friendly. The downside of corn and wheat litters is that they may strike your cat’s fancy as a food source. And, although humans tend to associate the smell of pine with cleanliness, pine litters may be too strongly scented for cats and can lead to litter box aversion. There is a certain amount of dust to be expected with any clumping product, but some brands are less dusty than others.

Also available in pets stores are crystalline products containing indicators that alert you when its time to change the litter. These crystals, often made of silica, absorb urine and eliminate odours. They also have low dust levels. Feces must be scooped daily when using these products, and the crystals must be mixed to prevent any pooling of urine at the bottom of the box. Note that these litters can often be expensive, and that some cats find the sensation of standing in them unpleasant.

There are also litters that are made of recycled newspaper formed into pellets. These products are often used after surgery and declawing procedures to avoid contamination and infection. These litters do not clump, nor do they provide much odour control — meaning the litter box must be cleaned more frequently.


Most cats are very particular about the cleanliness of their litter boxes. Some cats even prefer to urinate in one box and defecate in another, and so you may be well off to provide two boxes. In multi-cat households, some cats will not eliminate in a box used by another cat. Multi-cat households should have at least one box per cat, plus one extra, to meet their needs. It is paramount that your cat’s box be kept as clean as possible — remember that cats have a much stronger sense of smell than we do!

When using clumping litter, the box should be scooped daily and new litter added to top it up. Depending on the use of the box, it should be completely emptied, washed and refilled with fresh litter every few weeks. In the case of traditional claytype litters that don’t clump, it is best to completely empty, wash and refill with fresh litter on a daily basis. Silica crystal litters that don’t have a change indicator should be disposed of after one month. The box should then be thoroughly cleaned and refilled with fresh litter.

Although scented litters and deodorizers are appealing to people, use them with caution. They can be extremely strong and offensive to a cat, causing them to eliminate elsewhere. Unscented litters will retain their freshness as long as they are frequently cleaned.


Kristina Cooper is a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) and proud member of the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians (OAVT). She has previously worked in both small animal practice and a municipal animal shelter. With a special interest in the relationship between animal and human health she is currently the Provincial Manager of the OAVT Public Health Rabies Response Program and an active One Health Initiative advocate. She can be reached by email at

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