By Dr. Nina Beyer
Almost all cat owners consider litter boxes to be essential. Very few of us, these days, think it’s safe for our cats to go outdoors to eliminate, in order not to have a litter box in the house. And as soon as something goes wrong, like the cat urinating or defecating outside the box, we tend to blame the cat…but usually, it’s because the poor cat is finding the litter box to be a problem. How can we make the litter box NOT a problem for our cats, so they’ll use it happily?
First of all, the great folks at the Cornell Feline Health Center have studied cats’ litter preferences for years. They’ve found that most cats prefer unscented litter. Cats also prefer clumping litter, and they prefer the finest texture possible (sand-like). If you are using scented, coarse-textured, or other types of litter, try putting unscented, clumping, fine-textured litter in one of your boxes, and see how your cat(s) like it.
Second, we know that cats don’t always want to share boxes. The Cornell researchers recommend that you have at least one more litter box than you have cats (three cats? Four litter boxes!). From a cat’s point of view, boxes that are in the same room might as well be the same box; if you put all four boxes in the basement, the three cats feel like they’re all sharing one box. Spread those boxes around the house! Cats like some privacy, but they also like easy access to the bathroom (just like we do!).
Third, most of us don’t recognize the role that stress plays in our cats. Often, cats that are eliminating outside the box are experiencing stress. Cats can be stressed by living with other cats (our living spaces are smaller than cats prefer for their home ranges), by the presence of dogs or toddlers, by seeing other cats through the window, by their early life experiences before you adopted them, and especially by a genetic predisposition to higher stress levels (brain biochemistry differences). If you are experiencing urine or stools outside the litter box, please talk to your cat’s doctor for help! Most cats can be helped significantly!