The Ecology of Litter Boxes

When many of us decide to get a cat, we’ll spend hours and hours online researching nutrition, choosing the perfect collar, and pleading for recommendations from family members and even strangers on social media groups about care for our new kitty.

One thing that we might not even consider is the best litter box -- and that is where it can go all wrong. The litter box must fit the needs of your cat, who admittedly can be very particular about these things. Litter box size, shape, placement, and cleanliness, as well as litter material, can all affect your cat and their litter box habits. We want to try to avoid potential stressors that could cause your cat to use your bed or your laundry instead of the box. The following tips will help to keep everything in the box, and everybody will be happier.

The Magic Number

The first thing that we need to do is determine the number of litter boxes that you will need. Yes, that’s boxes with an “s.” You will need one litter box per cat plus one more. So for one cat, you should have two boxes, for two cats you should have three boxes, and so on. Even in single cat households, you want to give your cat options. This rule is a significant rule and does not have a lot of room for modification. In multi-cat families, we are trying to eliminate competition for the box. No one likes waiting in line for the bathroom.

Your litter boxes need to be in separate rooms. Choose quiet, low traffic areas, preferably close to where the cats spend most of their time, but not in the same locations as food and water dishes.

Note: one commonly considered location for litter boxes is the laundry room. While this space is generally quiet while nothing else is going on, don’t forget that washing machines and dryers can produce quite a bit of noise. If your cat is surprised or scared by that machinery just once, they may never want to use the litter box there again.

The Litter Boxes

Select a rectangular litter box that is a minimum of 1 ½ times the length of your cat. This space will allow them the room they need to find a clean area in the box without dealing with previous deposits or having to step out of the litter box.

An illustration of an enclosed litter box

Having a litter box that is not covered allows your cat to feel safe and not trapped if interrupted while taking care of business. Covered boxes trap and accumulate odors that can drive your cat away from using them (think port-o-potty: most people will do anything they can before having to use one). If you have a cat that sprays, kicks litter, or has terrible aim, you may need to consider a litter box with higher sides and a lower exit/entrance, rather than a full enclosure.

The Litter

Having options is always good, but with all of the choices out there, it can be overwhelming and mind-boggling. Just remember that cats have distinct personalities and preferences in everything, including litter choices.

There are two things that almost every cat would agree on:

  • Size - Smaller, fine particles for clumping litter should resemble sand. Our cats are descendants of ancient desert dwellers. It is their instinct to bury their waste in the sand. Crystal or pellet litter is not representative of this, and it can also be uncomfortable on their paws. It would be like us walking on gravel barefoot. Ouch!
  • Odor-free/unscented - Cats have a heightened sense of smell (even better than some dog breeds). It is best to avoid buying any scented litter. Any scent can easily overwhelm your cat and make their box less desirable. So the best and most favorable choice of litter is a fine-grained, scoopable, clumping litter that is unscented and has activated carbon to minimize odors.

An illustration of a container of kitty litter


Maintaining the litter box and its contents is relatively straightforward. Scoop the box a minimum of once daily to remove all deposits, and top it off with some fresh litter. The once a day rule is imperative if you want to keep your pet’s deposits in the box and away from your things.

Like us, cats want to take care of their business in a clean and fresh environment. Wash the litter box monthly with warm water. Do not use detergent because the smell may deter your cat from using it. Depending on your cat’s potty habits, a full litter change in between monthly box cleanings might be needed.

The fickle nature of our feline friends means that not all of these guidelines will suit every cat. These suggestions are rules of thumb that fit the litter box standards of most cats. If your cat is not using the litter box and medical issues have been ruled out (be sure to contact us to schedule an appointment), your cat is trying to tell you something. It is your job to pay attention and adapt, adjust, and fine-tune until you find the optimal litter box formula.


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