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I'm Willing to Bet That Your Cat Hates Her Litter Box -- Here's Why

Too many litter boxes ignore the needs of the cat. Here's what's wrong with them, and how to find the perfect box.

 |  May 2nd 2014  |   146 Contributions


Litter boxes come in all sizes and shapes. It seems that every week a new-fangled box, designed to make people’s lives easier and odor-free, is introduced to the market. Some are developed to squeeze into tight areas, others are shaped to snuggly fit in corners. Boxes are commercially available with and without covers.

There are complex and simple electronic litter-box devices too. One innovative model attaches to sewer systems and is outfitted with heaters and blowers, others plug into electrical wall outlets and automatically clean cat litter with little rakes. Some are built to be invisible and blend in with the decor. They are artfully designed so that they double as coffee tables, elaborately decorated cabinets or look like modern trash cans. Designer litter boxes fill a need, some bordering on the absurd. 

Decorated litter box. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Many cat parents object to having litter boxes as focal points in their homes. They’d rather hide them in closets and cabinets or disguise them as furniture. Some people, insisting that cats need privacy, buy hooded ones, but covers keep the obnoxious odors in the boxes.

Litter box maintenance is also a hot topic. Many folks are put off by scooping every day. It’s an unpleasant task they’d rather avoid. Let’s face it: Standard, generic litter boxes are not aesthetically pleasing. 

Some people are willing to pay big bucks for low-maintenance cat toilettes that will make their lives simpler and blend nicely with the decor. The market is more than willing to accommodate them. These products may be designed for convenience and for their look, but do cats like to use them?

Many innovative approaches do not consider the true consumer -- the cats. Although kitties do not have much say in the matter, some vote with their feet, avoiding the boxes and eliminating elsewhere.

The problems with various types of boxes

Small boxes

The majority of commercial litter boxes are too small. Although visually unobtrusive to people, they do not win popularity contests with cats.

Most kitties do not fit completely in the cramped boxes, and it’s hard for them to turn around. Some, in valiant attempts to use the tiny boxes, back up and hang their butts over the backs and then do their business. Others avoid the issue entirely by eliminating next to them instead of in them.
 

Covered boxes 

At first glance, covered/hooded litter boxes seem like a good idea. The selling points are that the hoods help keep more litter in the box than out and they contain the unpleasant odors. One model is entered from the front, the other is accessed from a circular hole at the top. A few of the front entrance models come with plastic flaps that cover the openings. Feline consumers have to push through the plastic flaps to enter the cramped boxes.

Enclosed litter boxes may be perfect for people, but not so much for cats. They are setups for ambushes. Kitties, instinctually, do not want to be in places where they can potentially be trapped. Even if there are no other threats or resident animals, instinct wins.

They are not into the privacy thing, either. People are. Felines prefer being safe in an uncovered box so that they can see potential threats and escape them.

Covered litter boxes do their job of containing odors. Although this works for people who don’t scoop often enough, it doesn’t work for cats. They have highly developed sense of smell -- much more acute then humans.

Felines need clean litter boxes and will generally avoid using ones that smell. Enclosed litter boxes are smelly. Imagine going to the bathroom in a highly trafficked Porta-Potty.

Automatic self-cleaning litter boxes

These sound like perfect solutions for people who hate scooping. There are many different models, some more complex and expensive than others. Most claim that they are maintenance-free for weeks. There are also many built-in challenges associated with these systems. All are noisy, most are too small and many are enclosed. They also drain wallets.

Self-cleaning litter box systems are oxymoronic. They have to be washed periodically because odors build up in them. This is not an easy task with most of the models, because they need to be disassembled. Some models have little rakes and other components that easily become clogged and are difficult to clean.

Some are simple, others complex with many movable parts and fancy electronics. Note that more complicated devices have more components that can fail and need to be unclogged and cleaned. 

Automatic self cleaning litter box

Cats are individuals, each with their own unique personalities and histories. Some are more tolerant then others; they go with the flow. Many of these laid-back kitties have no issues with small, covered boxes or noisy automatic ones. Others are a little more sensitive and do not like cramped, covered litter boxes. They show their displeasure by doing their business outside the boxes.

Keep in mind that situations can change. As cats age, they often feel more vulnerable. Additionally, changes in the household and other stressors can upset the apple cart and cause cats to become more sensitive about their toilettes.

What makes up a perfect litter box?

Litter boxes should be designed specifically for the users -- the cats. Cats prefer clean, large, uncovered litter boxes. Ideally, they are at least one-and-a-half times the length of the cat -- big enough for the kitty to comfortably fit and turn around in. Having no covers helps these little ones feel safe while they go the bathroom. They can see possible threats and easily exit the box.

Perfect litter boxes don’t tax the wallet, nor are they always labeled “litter boxes.” You can find them in superstores doing double duty as large, translucent storage containers.

Adult cats do best with ones that are minimally 66 quarts in size. These boxes are about 12 inches high -- perfect for keeping litter in the box. The high sides accommodate cats who enthusiastically dig in the litter and those who prefer to stand while going to the bathroom. They can also be modified for kitties with mobility issues who can’t navigate over the high sides by cutting a “U” shape into one side. The translucent sides also work well because cats can easily see through them.

Large, translucent storage containers double as litter boxes. Photo by Marilyn Krieger.

Large, under-the-bed storage containers, also sold in superstores, work well as litter boxes too. Avoid ones with covers and wheels. Although these come in many sizes, 40 to 60 quarts are good for most adult cats. Kittens do well with smaller ones. These under-the-bed storage containers are about four to six inches high -- perfect for kittens and for cats who are physically challenged.

Cat box tray by Shutterstock.

When searching for ideal litter boxes, choose ones that cater to kitties. Ultimately, everyone is happy when their cats, pleased with their toilettes, consistently use them.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award-winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.  She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.  

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