What do I need to consider when setting
my cat up for litter box success?

For every 100 cats surrendered to Canadian shelters like Katie’s Place, 30% will be because the cat has urinated outside the litter box (1). It’s a huge number and is something that can be easily resolved. This guide will help you to understand why this happens and what you can do to set you and your feline friend up for success. Why might my cat not use the litter box? Cats may eliminate elsewhere in the home for many reasons, but stress is often a factor and can be due to conflict with other cats in and around the home, recent changes in the home (for example, new people, a new baby, moving home), and problems with the litter box itself (such as covered litter boxes, boxes that are too small for the cat, insufficient litter, litter the cat doesn’t like or infrequent cleaning, and overpowering odors (i.e., it’s too dirty or it emits a strong perfume). Medical issues such as diabetes, a lower urinary tract infection, hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease may contribute to elimination issues and should be ruled out before attempting to address the behavior. *** If your cat has always had great litter box success and suddenly starts eliminating out of the box, pay attention! They might be trying to tell you something is medically wrong. A trip to the vet may be in order to determine if the reason for the issue is medical and not behavioural. *** So, as you can see, with all this in mind, choosing the right litter box system for your cat is very important and there are a few things to consider:

1. Litter box type – These come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of options. For an average size cat, a box size of about 12x18x4 inches is suitable. We strongly recommend not having a lid on your litter box. The lid is nice for us humans as it looks tidy and keeps the mess more contained, but it is in fact one of the main reasons cats may develop litter box issues. Many do not like the feeling of being confined in a box with a lid.

2. Litter box quantity – Make sure you have enough litter boxes. If your cat is roaming a large home, more than one box might be wise. If you have multiple cats, have multiple litter boxes – at least one box per cat and maybe a spare. Cats do not tend to like sharing litter boxes and that can lead to litter box issues.

3. Litter – Again, there are a lot of choices out there. The composition of the litter (clay, wheat, shells, wood) determines other factors such as weight, style of use (clumping versus not), odour control and price etc. Also, studies have shown that cats prefer a smaller particle size and that they find strong perfumes aversive (3). Here’s some information about a few of the options:

● Clay-based: This is the most popular litter on the market; however, it is heavy and if you have a cat that likes to dig around in their litter, they can end up with the clay clumping in and around their toe pads, which can be painful and may require a visit to the vet to release it. The advantage to owners is that it is cheap, but it can be dusty (not great if someone in your household has respiratory concerns) and after use, should never be flushed down the toilet.

● Plant-based litters are more expensive, but are environmentally friendly and made from materials such as corn or walnut shells. They tend to be compostable and easier to digest than say clay-based litter if ingested.

● Paper-based litter appeals to many because it is a recycled product and light to handle.

● Wood Pellets: We use this type at the shelter. It’s cheap, biodegradable and is a by- product of the timber industry. It is available in a variety of pellet and bag/box sizes. But, depending on the size, it can be heavy to transport. Your choice will be influenced by your own needs and preferences. Your cat will let you know if they are, or are not, a fan of the type of litter you have. If you do encounter litter box issues, then transitioning to a different sort of litter may resolve the issue. There are also specific products available to encourage litter box use – cat attract litter, powder and sprays – indeed, there is research evidence to suggest that adding an attractant to litter encourages a cat to use it (1).

Things to remember:

● Try to place litter box(es) in a location that is convenient for the cat, not for you.

● Avoid putting the litter box(es) in rooms that might have access denied by a closed door – the bathroom, the basement, etc.

● Studies have shown that keeping a box sufficiently clean (i.e. once daily minimum cleaning) will increase the likelihood of a cat using it (2). So, scoop the box regularly. More often is typically best – cats are drawn to a freshly scooped box!

● Scoop as you go, but remember to wash out the litter box and fully replace the litter once a week

● Consider offering your cat a choice of litters and see what they prefer


1. Frayne J, Murray SM, Croney C, Flickinger E, Edwards M, Shoveller AK. The Behavioural Effects of Innovative Litter Developed to Attract Cats. Animals (Basel). 2019 Sep 14;9(9):683. doi: 10.3390/ani9090683. PMID: 31540016; PMCID: PMC6770919.

2. Grigg EK, Pick L, Nibblett B. Litter box preference in domestic cats: covered versus uncovered. J Feline Med Surg. 2013 Apr;15(4):280-4. doi: 10.1177/1098612X12465606. Epub 2012 Oct 26. PMID: 23103684.

3. Neilson J. Thinking outside the box: Feline elimination. J. Feline Med. Surg. 2004;6:5–11. doi: 10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.008.

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