Common Litterbox Mistakes, and How to Fix Them

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Common litter tray mistakes

At a glance:

A cat who is going to the toilet outside the litter tray should always be evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out medical causes. Once the cat has received a clean bill of health, the next move is to determine what is causing the cat to refuse the litter tray.

Common non-medical causes of litter tray avoidance include the following:

  • Not enough litter trays
  • Litter tray location
  • Litter tray type
  • Dirty litter tray
  • Scented products
  • Litter tray liners
  • Type of cat litter
  • Not enough or too much cat litter
  • Inter-cat dynamics

One of the most talked about topics is that of litter boxes, or more to the point, litter box avoidance. Cats by nature are clean, they like to bury their waste because in the wild, there is always the danger of larger predators, therefore burying their waste serves to not draw attention to their territory, which is especially important for female cats nursing a litter of kittens.

A cat who goes to the toilet outside the litter box will do so for two reasons, behavioural or medical. This article looks at common litter box mistakes which can lead to litter box refusal.

Not enough litter trays:

The recommended number of litter trays is one per cat and one for the house. So three litter trays in a two cat household. If you are lucky, you can get away with less (I do), but the number of litter trays must be considered. This not only avoids cats sharing dirty litter trays but is also beneficial in households with dominant and shy cats.

Dirty litter trays:

Cats are fastidiously clean, and many will go to the toilet elsewhere if their litter tray is dirty. As a rule, solids should be removed twice a day and the entire tray emptied and refilled once a week.

How to clean a litter tray

Smells can build up in the tray due to scratches in the plastic, during the weekly change, I like to clean and scrub the tray with warm soapy water to remove organic material,  apply a 1:10 bleach solution (use lukewarm water as hot water deactivates bleach), sit for ten minutes, empty and rinse thoroughly, dry and refill with clean litter.

Litter tray location:

As a rule, there should be at least one litter tray on every level of the house.

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding on a location for your cat’s litter tray(s).

Cats don’t like to go to the toilet near where they eat (none of us do), and pet owners often line up litter trays next to the food bowl. I like to place a litter tray in the general area as the food and water bowls, but not right next to it.

Another factor is noise, it’s common to place litter trays in the garage or laundry which makes the removal of litter from the floor easier but these places can be noisy. Washing machines, tumble dryers, maintenance work (in the garage), a teenager having band practice, they can all impact on your cat’s willingness to use the litter tray.

This one is medical, but I will discuss it anyway, the needs of senior cats must be considered as arthritis is 60% of cats show signs of arthritis by the time they are six, jumping to a whopping 90% by the age of twelve. Consider the needs of elderly cats. Provide easy access to litter trays, don’t expect the cat to have to climb two flights of stairs to access the litter tray.

Escape routes are important, particularly for timid cats or in multi-cat homes where one cat (dog or child) harasses one or more cats. If the litter tray is positioned in a corner, with nowhere for the cat to go in the event of an ambush, he may decide to go in a place he feels safer instead.

Type and size of the litter tray:

There are quite literally dozens of types of cat litter tray now, from the most basic rectangular tray to self-cleaning, hidden and covered trays. Each cat will have his own preference.

Covered trays can keep odours down, but not for cats as the hood helps to trap in litter box smells. They can also make a cat feel closed in, with no escape route. So while some cats may prefer the privacy of a covered litter tray, others don’t.

Trays with high sides can cause a problem for older cats whose joints are painful due to arthritis.

Finding the ideal size:

Litter trays should change as the cat grows up. I always use small litter trays for kittens, and once they have reached adulthood, switch to a larger litter tray. The cat should fit comfortably into the tray. Consider your own cat’s size, a 10 kg (22 lb) Maine Coon or Ragdoll will need a much larger litter tray than a 4 kg (8.8 lb) Singapura or Burmese cat. There is not a one size fits all tray.

Type of cat litter:

When you bring your new kitten or cat home,  stick with the same brand of cat litter he or she has been using where possible. If you want to change to a different brand, do so gradually by adding some of the new litter in with the old, adding more new and removing more of the old.

Cats have different preferences, some like clay litter, others prefer wood pellets or silicone. It is often a case of trial and error to find the type of litter your cat prefers.

Many cats have a preference for finer cat litter, especially those who have been declawed.

Using scented products:

A cat’s sense of smell 14 times greater than that of humans and while we may like the smell of scented detergents or cat litter, for the cat, it can be overpowering. I always recommend the use of unscented cat litter and always thoroughly rinse detergents from litter trays to remove the odour as well as detergent residue which could be ingested when the cat licks his paws.

A litter tray should not smell unless it is not being cleaned often enough. I have also found that cheaper brands of cat food tend to result in smellier feces. Therefore, if the tray is being emptied frequently, and the cat is on a good quality diet, there really is no need for scented products.

Using litter tray liners:

These plastic liners may be convenient for us, but they are not for our cats. When the cat digs in the tray to bury his urine or feces, a litter tray liner can snag on the claws. Not only that, but folds in an incorrectly sized liner can cause cat urine to pool.

Too much or not enough cat litter:

Cats like enough litter to bury their waste, but too much litter can cause the cat to sink through it, creating an uncomfortable sensation. I aim for about 1 1/2 inches for my own cats.

Inter-cat dynamics:

Cat dynamics can play can often result in a cat’s refusal to use a litter tray. If a dominant cat (dog, or child) bails up a shy cat who is using the litter tray, the cat will find a safer location to go to the toilet. This once again goes back to the type, number and the location of the litter box. Make sure timid cats have a safe place to go to the toilet without being harassed.

Tips and suggestions:

Don’t change what works: 

If you are lucky enough to have no litter box dramas then be thankful and don’t make any changes unless absolutely necessary. Cats are creatures of habit and they like routine and stability. Do what is convenient for your cat(s), not for you.

  • Avoid sudden changes, just because a type of cat litter is on sale doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to buy it if it is not a brand or type your cat is used to.
  • Don’t move litter trays to a different location, your cat is not a mind reader.
  • Don’t change the type of tray. If your cats are doing well with an open litter tray, stick with it.

What is the best type of litter tray?

That really depends on your cat’s own preference. I use large storage containers, which have high sides (to avoid tracking), the cats seem to like those and they are cheap and readily available. The cat gets a little privacy due to the high sides but does not feel closed in.

Adjust to your kitten’s changing needs as the cat moves from a kitten to an adult and then a senior cat.

Identifying which cat is  not using the tray:

If you have more than one cat in the house, it can be difficult to determine which cat is going elsewhere. If the problem is feces, a simple solution is to shave some brightly coloured non-toxic crayons and mix it into the cat’s food. Each cat gets one colour (obviously, this means the cats cannot share food). The crayon will pass harmlessly out via the feces.

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