Litterbox Article, Feline

Litter Box Information

By Dr. Karen Burgess

Inappropriate elimination, or urinating/defecating outside of the litter box, is one of the primary reasons cats are relinquished to shelters. While a common issue when a cats are faced with stress, anxiety, or pain, inappropriate urination has many causes and thus many potential solutions.

As a human, we flush the toilet after every use. A cat’s sense of smell is more sensitive than ours, so having to walk through a soiled litter box is a less than appealing prospect for naturally clean loving cats. In the wild, felines find a new area to eliminate avoiding this issue. In the home it is then understandable how a small box may become far less appealing than the “open land” found in a living room, closet, or under the bed.

When first faced with a litter box issue, contact your veterinarian to discuss possible medical causes. Cats do not like associating pain with their elimination location so bladder infections, arthritis, or constipation can all contribute to a litter box aversion. Also remember that punishment is never recommended for soiling issues. It does not address the problem and may increase stress making the problem worse.

Top reasons that cats stop using the litter box:

  • Dirty litter box
  • Litter box style (too small, covered)
  • Litter type (odor, consistency)
  • Too few litter boxes in household
  • Medical problems
  • Behavioral issues
  • Litter box environment (sounds, lack of privacy, surrounding texture, lighting)
  • Landlocked litter box (no escape route if cat is startled or frightened, i.e. by housemates.

Dirty Litter Box

  • Litter box should be scooped at least twice daily
  • Cats can smell even the smallest amount of urine. Clumping litter allows liquid and solid waste to be removed completely. Non clumping litter allows adequate removal of feces but not urine. Kittens younger than 8 weeks of age may do better in the short run with non clumping litter.
  • Litter boxes should be completely emptied of litter and cleaned (vinegar and water) every 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Proper cleaning technique-for excrement to be completely removed it needs to essentially be in a ball. If residual urine or fecal matter is being scraped from the bottom of the litter pan this is not clean in a cat’s mind. Proper litter depth is essential allowing for the scoop to go below the clump and elevate it completely. If litter/matter is stuck to the side of the box, push the litter from the side of the box, spray the area with 1 part bleach to 30 parts water solution and wipe with a paper towel. When dry, re-spread litter.

Litter Box Style/Size

  • Covered litter boxes are appealing to humans but are often a turn off to cats. While the covered box size may be similar to a regular box, the “hood” does not allow a cat to hang their head over the side making it a more confining space. This also may force cats to change their posture for elimination (“scrunch up”) which in some cases can cause discomfort. Covered boxes limit visibility which can be frightening and lead to a feeling of entrapment. This can be a significant concern in households where all feline members do not get along. Combine all of these factors with increased odor retention, increased dust exposure, and inability for owners to see a dirty box and one can quickly see why covered boxes are not optimal.
  • Bigger is better when it comes to litter boxes. A cat should be able to turn around completely in their box and not touch the sides. A good sized box should be a minimum of 22” by 16”. Consider non-conventional litter boxes such as plastic storage containers.


  • Added scents or perfumes are made appeal to humans, not to cats. In some cases, these additives can be an aversion. Look for unscented, carbon based clumping cat litter (Examples-Fresh Step Perfume and Dye Free, Ever Clean Unscented, Scoop Away Free, read labels carefully). The best way to control odor is frequent cleaning of the litter box.
  • Litter should be 4 inches deep.

Litter Box Numbers

  • There should be at least one more litter box than the number of cats in the household. Often cats will avoid a litter box that has been used by another cat while other cats may choose to use one box for urination and one for defecation.

Litter Box Location

  • Litter boxes should be located in quiet low traffic areas away from food and water bowls. Ideally they should not be cornered, meaning a cat using the litter box should feel as though they have at least two viable exit strategies (i.e. doors, vertical jumping spots) if placed in a frightening situation.
  • Avoid placing the litter box on unappealing textures that may cause discomfort for the cat as they enter the box.
  • If a house is multilevel, place a litter box on each level if possible.
  • When obtaining a new cat or kitten it is best to confine them to a smaller area until acclimated to the environment and litter box. Over time gradually increase their free range allowing them to find their own way back to the litter box.

Storage Container Litter Box DIY

  • Consider making your own litter box using a large storage container or cement mixing container (approx. dimensions 19.5” W by 29.5” L by 19” H). With a litter depth of 4”, the bottom of the door can be made at 8” from the ground. The door should be approximately 9” by 9”. Using the short side for the door can prevent unintentional urination out of the door. As reference, 70-80# of litter will be required for the appropriate depth.