Why You Need a Bigger Litter Box (And Other Feline “Elimination” Solutions)

Patty Khuly

Solve your cat's elimination issues.It’s inevitable. You’re getting home late from a long day at work during your busiest holiday season in years and what’s the first thing your too-tight heels squish into as you enter your home? One guess. And it’s not a hairball.

Turns out Molly’s decided your fancy new Crate and Barrel holiday doormat looks way more inviting than her litterbox. Which is disgusting enough. What’s worse, however, is that this represents only the tip of the iceberg. A little “digging” also unearths a treasure of tidbits behind the bed in your spare room.

I guess you should count yourself lucky. You could be working all night to get the smell of urine out of your house instead of hosing down a questionably tasteful seasonal doormat.

With examples like this one, it should come as no surprise to hear that by far the most common behavior problem cat owners report is related to what we in the biz call “inappropriate elimination” (aka: house soiling). Unfortunately, it’s also the primary reason once-owned cats get dropped off at shelters.

A 1996 study found that 23% of cats surrendered to shelters soiled their homes one or more times each week. Which means the seemingly lowly subject of house soiling is undeservedly unsung. After all, these stats support something we all know but don’t like to think about: house soiling kills cats. In fact, poop on the rug and pee in the tub might kill more American cats than diabetes or cancer.

Now do I have your attention? If the all-too-familiar ick factor didn’t grab it right up front, I do believe I’ve got it now.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of readily-available solutions for even the most stubbornly litterbox-missing kitty cats. Trouble is, it’s not always so straightforward.

For starters, cat owners have to understand the ABCs of inappropriate elimination before embarking on a search for solutions. This helpful little mnemonic device neatly cuts to the quick of the three reasons cats soil their homes:

#1 Animal health

Sometimes known as “Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease” or ”Feline Idiopathic Cystitis,” this über-common condition happens when cats’ lower urinary tracts (which includes the bladder and/or urethra) become inflamed – usually for reasons as-yet poorly understood by modern veterinary medicine. Cats so disposed will often display their discomfort by urinating frequently in odd spots.

Urinary tract infections can do this, too, but they’re considered far less common than the above-mentioned inflammatory disease. Because they mean increased urine production, diabetes and kidney disease can also lead to litterbox misses. Stool trouble can also be a sign of feline health concerns. Constipation, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, cognitive dysfunction (dementia), and/or osteoarthritis often play a role when it comes to “bad aim.”

#2 Bathroom-related

Some cats may simply be voting with their feet in an act of defiance of their current litterbox conditions. Whether it’s a new litter, different cleaner, annoying cat, change in location, unwanted houseguest or a fight with a housemate, cats can be persnickety enough to act out in unwanted ways.

#3 Communication

Is your cat stressed, out of sorts, ill at ease, or just plain ill? She may be trying to tell you something by avoiding the litterbox and concentrating on spots she knows you’ll pay attention to.

Given this list of choices, an intelligent owner would first elect to take his cat to the veterinarian to rule out #1. Having done so and come up empty, some owners try to fathom the minds of their cats. Smarter cat keepers, however, well understanding the depths of the feline psychy, pin their hopes on a lowlier approach: trial and error.

Luckily, there are some fundamentals all feline lovers should understand if they’re to make heads or tails of their cats’ bathroom habits. Armed with this knowledge, trial and error no longer seems so daunting. Here’s the scoop, in seven “simple” points:

  1. Keep it clean
    Not that the great outdoors is “clean,” but no cat wants to step into a dirty, smelly litterbox in which his brother recently deposited an aromatic package. But cleanliness isn’t just for the box. Making sure you clean up all those other “outside the box” spots is crucial to success. Otherwise, most cats will continue to befoul their preferred spots.
  2. Counting boxes
    The rule of thumb is that every household needs one litterbox per 1.5 cats. Which means you might be able to get away with one box if you’ve got two cats but you’d be well-advised to consider keeping two, just in case.
  3. Location, location, location
    Where the box is located matters a lot to most cats. They don’t want to feel oppressed by marauding housemates and they often dislike the feeling that an outdoor cat might be skulking just on the other side of the sliding-glass door. Others simply prefer one room over another. Trial and error …
  4. Bigger boxes are better
    If you had a litterbox the size of a whole room, your cat would likely be in heaven. Seeing as that’s not exactly doable, making sure you offer an enticingly large box might just keep your cats on the straight and narrow. But forget the standard sizes. Here’s where you go to the home store and buy a big plastic box meant for something else and fill it with litter in the hopes that this will solve your troubles.
  5. Cover it up
    Sometimes a lid is all you need. Some cats can get so nervous that other cats will ambush them that a cover is all it takes to bring them peace.
  6. Don’t go changing
    It’s a general rule of thumb that once you’ve reached a comfortable norm in which all cats are on the right path you shouldn’t start changing things. That means resisting the urge to buy that litter that’s on super-sale. You probably don’t even want to switch cleaners and you certainly don’t want to mess with the litterbox’s location.
  7. Litter type
    Turns out cats prefer clumping litters over non-clumping litters. They also prefer litters that are pine scented over other littery aromas. Switching may or may not help. Give it a go if you’re at your wit’s end.

When all else fails, I always offer my clients the expertise of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Sometimes a thorough discussion of all the household’s minute details is all it takes to deal with offending felines. In other cases (as in the case of one of my own cats) an outdoor enclosure is the only solution.

Now it’s your turn to confess: How far have you gone to make your cat’s litterbox compliant?

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