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Litter boxes for Cats

The necessary, but often noxious, thing Staff Writer

Litter box problems are the number one reason that humans and cats part company.  Therefore, every cat and potential cat owner should have a thorough understanding of this part of cat care. Since this is such an important topic, we will be adding to this area as more information becomes available through continuing research.

Basic Concept
The cat, with its reputation for cleanliness and litter box use, is the most popular pet in the US.  Since many cats are becoming exclusively indoor cats, most people are very familiar with litter boxes. 

Droppings mean more to cats than they do to humans.   A dominant cat will leave droppings uncovered to help mark its territory.   Inside the home, most cats do not consider themselves dominant and will always cover their droppings. 

Most cats will use litter boxes naturally and consistently.   If there are changes in the house that cause the cat stress, litter box problems can develop.  This can include new roommates and spouses, a new baby, a new pet, stress in the family, a move to a new house, etc.  In addition, sickness and physical problems can cause litter box problems.  These issues are discussed in more detail in Litter box Problems.

Litter box Styles
There are many different styles, sizes, shapes, colors and prices of boxes available.   These are the basic options:

Covered or uncovered litter boxes
Covered boxes have a roof that sits on top of the litter pan.  Covers are really for people.  Some  cats don't like covers because they feel "boxed" in.   Covers will help keep odors within the box although you may need to hold your breath when you remove the top.  Some covers have vents at the top into which you can put charcoal filters to absorb odors.  Most covered boxes are made of plastic although we have seen decorated cardboard covers sold separately.

Manual, semiautomatic or automatic litter boxes
Manual boxes require you to scoop out the soiled litter with a slotted spoon or spatula-like plastic or metal tool.  Semiautomatic boxes have some sort of mechanism to help remove the clumps.  Some boxes have a removable pan with holes in the bottom.  Lift the pan and the clumps stay on top, the rest of the litter spills out through the holes and into a fresh pan below.  Some boxes need to be flipped on their sides so that the clumps fall into a container attached to the side. Turn the box right side up, slide the container out and throw away the clumps.  Still other boxes have a manual sliding "rake" mechanism built in. 

Automatic boxes use a "rake" to slide clumps into a sealed container.   The boxes use optical sensors to detect when a cat has entered and left the box and automatically "rake" whatever is deposited.  The containers are then emptied or thrown away.  Automatic boxes are electrical appliances and are much more expensive than regular litter boxes (around $200 Vs $35 or less for non-automatic).  So far these products are getting mixed reviews for function and durability.

Permanent or disposable
Most boxes are made of heavy plastic and are made to be used for years.  They have to be washed out periodically because scooping doesn't always do the job.  There are lightweight plastic or cardboard litter pans that can be thrown away after a week's worth of use.  They are convenient if you're traveling.  Disposable fold-down, shirt and pastry boxes are also very convenient for short term use.  Open them up, slide them into a plastic bag, fill the inside with litter and use.  Turn the plastic bag inside and out to dispose of the litter. 

Litter Types
As with litter boxes, there are a large number of litter types to choose from.  Here are the basic options:

Clumping or Non-Clumping
There is a wide range of litter types to choose from.  The vast majority of easily available litter is made from clay.  There are, however, plenty of alternatives for the environmentally conscious.  Alternative materials include citrus peels, shells, corncobs, wheat, recycled newspaper, kenaf plant fibers and wood that have been shredded, manufactured into cat-friendly pellets or ground into a fine grit.  The most popular type of litter is an unscented clumping type that resembles sand.  Cats seem to prefer this type underfoot probably because it is soft and easy to move around. 

Most cats seem to prefer sandy litter and most people seem to prefer clumping litter.   How "sandy" it feels underfoot to your cat and how well it "clumps" depends on the type and brand.  It's best to try a few varieties and then stick to one you and your cat can agree on.

Clumping litters vary in how well they clump.  The better the clumping, the easier it is to remove just the soiled litter.  Litter that breaks up gets mixed in with the clean litter making it difficult to keep the box clean.  

Crystal Cat Litter

Some of the crystal litters have received mixed reviews because they seem to be hard on the feet of some cats.  Other cats do not seem to have a problem with it. 

Odorless or Scented
Scented litter is for people not for cats.  Since scent is an integral part of proper litter box usage, overpowering perfumes may cause problems.  Again, it's best to try a variety until you get one that is right for you and your cat. 

Flushable or Not
Most litters cannot be flushed down the toilet so check the labels if you want one that is biodegradable and flushable.  Otherwise, it's best to scoop it into a plastic bag, squeeze the bag gently to let the air out so it doesn't break inside the trash can and then close it with a knot and dispose of it in the garbage. 

Packaged or Bulk
Some pet stores offer litter in bulk to hold down cost.  It comes in large barrel-type containers and you scoop it yourself into a smaller container to take home.  

Some litters are especially low in dust if that is preferable either to you or your cat.   Some people use regular sand in litter boxes.  Since some outdoor cats enjoy using sandboxes, this can make sense.  However, sand doesn't clump and is quite heavy. 

Place about 2" of litter in the box.  You can use more or less depending on your cat.  Too much litter can cause your cat to sink into it or make it more likely that he will kick or track it outside.  Too little litter may cause the bottom of the box to become easily soiled.

Litter pads, made of vinyl, rubber, cloth, plastic, cardboard, etc.  are used either in front of, underneath or around the box.  Litter invariably sticks to your cat's feet and is tracked on the floor.  Pads (sometimes with treads or ridges) collect most of it and keep it from scattering everywhere.  Some cats kick the litter with their back feet and scatter it.  This isn't a problem with covered boxes.

You can get one made especially for litter boxes or use rugs, carpet remnants, the bottoms of cardboard boxes, etc.  Having a small handheld vacuum cleaner next to the box is also handy.

Scoops come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.  A sturdy plastic scoop is easy to use and clean.  Some scoops let you attach a plastic bag so that clumps are scooped and dropped into the bag at the same time.  It pays to get a sturdy scoop because litter is quite heavy and poorly made scoops will break.   Look for scoops that are rounded rather than flat because litter clumps tend to slide off of flat ones. 

Mostly for aesthetic reasons (yours), a screen of some kind can be used to hide the box.  You just need to make sure your cat doesn't feel trapped and refuse to use the box.

Having a wastebasket or, our favorite, a Diaper Genie near the box is also helpful.  The Genie is a contraption that is used to wrap and store dirty diapers.  The diapers go into the top, you turn a crank and the diaper is automatically wrapped in plastic.  The Genie contains the odor.  When it is full, it is emptied into the garbage.  Many people have found that it also works on small plastic bags of used litter!   

There are all kinds of additives and air fresheners to use in and around the box.  Too many perfumes can repel your cat and create litter box problems so you have to use these judiciously.  Adding some baking soda directly into plain litter and mixing it in well can help.  Boxes of baking soda, like those you use in your refrigerator or freezer, can also help when placed near the box.  Some of these come with a thin screen built into the side so that the box doesn't even have to be opened.

The Indoor/Outdoor Cat
Cats with free or frequent access to the outdoors may do most of their business in your garden (or possibly your neighbor's new uncovered sandbox or newly mulched garden).  Some indoor/outdoor cats, however, can be encouraged to use an indoor litter box which is much more hygienic, proper and helps avoid neighborhood feuds.  We know cats that play or hunt outside but then rush back indoors to eat and use their box.   All cats should have and be comfortable using a litter box in case they need to be kept inside for extended periods of time. 

Cat droppings sometimes carry toxoplasmosis which is dangerous to pregnant women and young children.  Droppings that are disposed of daily do not generally pose a threat as it takes a few days for the droppings to become infectious.

If you are pregnant, check with your doctor to see about the health risks.  Even better, have someone else clean the litter box daily!

Related Articles:
Litterbox for Kittens
Litterbox Placement and Maintenance
Litterbox Problems With Cats
Litterboxes and strays

Plants as litterboxes
Cats Marking Your Vents





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