Litter and litter boxes

My cat litter philosophy is that I want my cats’ litter box to be the cleanest, most accessible and welcoming place in my home. When they feel the call of nature, I want my cats to immediately and effortlessly use the litter box and only the litter box.

I read that you’re supposed to get a new litter box every year. Plastic retains odor, like that Tupperware container that always smells like the food you washed out of it months ago. I thought this was just a ploy from litter box manufacturers to get us to buy more litter boxes, but I decided to try it out. Washing with vinegar and hot water only does so much. The new litter would mute some of the smell lingering in the litter box, but wouldn’t remove it. So this weekend I got my cats a new litter box and gave away their old, smelly one, which was almost four years old. And yes, it did make a huge difference in smell. The linger odor was totally gone. So yes, I would recommend replacing your cat’s litter box to improve litter box odor.

Now onto what is sometimes a touchy subject: how often to scoop litter, and how often to completely replace old litter with new litter.

I scoop litter at every cat visit. Regardless of whether I visit a cat once per day, or twice per day, I scoop during every visit. I also completely change out a litter box after a week of cat visits – I empty the used cat litter, wash out the litter box, and refill with fresh litter. I recommend scooping solids as soon as you see/smell them, and if you use clumping litter, to do a thorough scooping at least once per day. The more often you scoop, the fresher your litter box will smell and the less your home will smell of dirty cat. Litter lockers – the diaper genie of the feline world – are a popular method for controlling odor and storing used litter until waste collection. Poop bags, the kind that dog walkers use, are another method.

So, when to change out the old litter for fresh litter? For my own cats, I don’t add fresh litter into old litter – when it gets really smelly or the the litter level gets too low, I change out the whole pan, around once per week, strategically timed to coincide with trash collection day. But some cat owners continually add fresh litter periodically, and then change out the litter pan once a month. It just depends on what works for you and your cat.

No one likes using a dirty public washroom – the kind where you avoid touching anything and sometimes you walk right out and hold it until you can find one that isn’t quite so disgusting. The same is true for cats and their litter boxes. If their litter box is dirty and smells bad, they will avoid using it and instead find other places in which to relieve themselves. Like your clothes, your bed, the rug, the sink, your potted plants, your shoes… you get the idea. And once a cat gets used to peeing in a certain spot, it may be hard to get them to go back to using the litter box and only the litter box. It also might be hard to clean out the stains and odor. I hear enzyme cleaners work well, and usually a rinse with vinegar will restore peed-on clothes, but personally, I’ve found that nothing ever works 100%.

Litter box issues are not always due to cleanliness. Sometimes there are health reasons behind the accidents. Please don’t hesitate to take your cat to the vet if they are regularly having litter box accidents. Cats may come to associate the litter box with pain if it hurts them when they use it, so even after they are healed they might need motivational help to use the litter box again. An elderly, arthritic cat might have trouble stepping into a litter pan with high sides; they might need a shallower litter pan. An elderly or sick cat might become incontinent. They might not like having their litter box next to noisy appliances, or it might be too far away. You might have to gently coax them into using the litter box again, so they learn that the litter box will not cause them pain. This might involve spending time in a closed room with your cat and their litter box and lots of praise for successful litter box usage until they feel comfortable using it again.

Aside from their willingness to use the litter box, I’ve also noticed that my cats start fighting each other when the litter box is too smelly. My neutered male will mount my elderly spayed female to establish dominance. They will chase each other and get into loud, fur-flying fights. And then when the litter box is washed out and refilled, suddenly all dominance plays and hostilities stop and peace is once again restored to the household. A dirty, smelly litter box is stressful for everyone.

No one really likes scooping cat litter, but like changing a baby’s diaper, it has to happen and is an integral part of caring for a cat. There are many innovative trends in cat litter boxes to help those who do not like to scoop. There are really fancy electric ones that will wash reusable litter like flushing a toilet. There are ones that automatically sift out solids and collect them in a compartment. There are stacked, built-in sifter models. There are systems with special litter pellets that catch solids and collect liquids in puppy pads in a bottom tray. There are covered boxes, boxes with guards on the sides, and classic basic litter pans. Some people build beautiful hutches for the litter box so it can be hidden in plain sight. I also love seeing cat flaps built into doors so that cats always have access to their litter boxes, even if a door is closed.

There are an endless variety of cat litter options, too. There is clumping litter, so that when wet, the litter forms easily scoopable clumps. There’s non-clumping litter, so that you only scoop out the solids. There is environmentally-conscious litter like those made from recycled newspapers or pine pellets or wheat. There’s crystal litter. There’s even flushable litter.

Some people will fill their litter boxes way up, but 2-3 inches of cat litter is just perfect. If the litter is too deep, the cat might not feel stable walking into it or might get into the habit of digging deeply into it. It will not stay fresher longer – you’ll just end up with a big, heavy, full pan of smelly litter that needs to be changed instead of a lighter pan of smelly litter that needs to be changed. And personally, I find it hard to scoop through a very deep pan of cat litter.

Generally, it’s recommended to have one litter box per cat plus one. So if you have 2 cats, you’re supposed to have 3 litter boxes. But, you have to find what works for you and your cat. Some lucky cats get two or three litter boxes to themselves. And I’ll come right out and say that my two cats share one litter box. I used two litter boxes when we got our second cat, but they both used both litter boxes indiscriminately, and then didn’t have a problem when I experimented downsizing them to one box. This won’t work for everyone, but it does work for us.

I have not yet encountered a cat litter that doesn’t track; in other words, no cat litter will stay neatly in the litter box, even the big pellets. They all track, at least a little, as bits get stuck in cat’s paws when they exit the litter box. Having a mat will help, but be prepared to sweep up bits of litter, too.

And if you and the people you share your cat with don’t want anything to do with cat litter – pregnancy, injury/illness, and really, who likes spending quality time with a cat litter box, anyway? Don’t stress about it – hire someone else to do it! There are pooper scooper services that will regularly visit your home and clean your cat’s litter box for you (like a diaper cleaning service!). They also clean pet waste from yards, which is useful for dog owners. I also offer litter box tidying services, however a pooper scooper service would be more economical (not that I wouldn’t value the business!). I will scoop litter, clean out the litter box, refill with clean litter, and sweep or vacuum around the litter box area. For regular litter box tidying service, I recommend leaving a key on file with me or scheduling service when you are always going to be present.

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