March 13, 2019

Cats who fail to use their litter boxes or use them consistently can cause real distress for their owners. This can negatively impact the relationship between them and is frequently cited as a reason why owners give their cats up for adoption. Pet retailers who offer basic tips to help their cat-owning clients get a handle on litter box problems can go far toward building loyalty and repeat business.

Here are a few tried and tested pointers:

Make sure the cat is given a full check-up by a veterinarian and that the owner mentions they are having litter box problems. While many litter box challenges are behavioral, some are caused by medical reasons, including anything from irritation of their lower urinary tract and bladder—which is known as Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS)—to inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBD) to diabetes. Rule these out before trying anything else.

Make sure the litter box is the correct size for the cat. Older cats and young kittens might prefer boxes with lower points of entry. Most cats like a box large enough for them to enter comfortably and have room to spare. Some cats prefer covered litter boxes and others do not.

Make sure the litter box is in a quiet, easily accessible area that feels safe for the cat. Easy accessibility might seem obvious, but I have known dozens of owners who put the litter boxes in rooms that weren’t always open to the cat. This usually occurs when owners want to hide the box from guests, or try to keep odors contained in a single room. While understandable, what sometimes happens is they forget to leave the door open. Safety is also key. Many owners have dogs and cats in the same household. If the litter box is put in a place where the dogs can get to it and/or harass the cat when he or she goes there to eliminate, this can quickly create a problem.

If you have more than one cat, you need more than one litter box. A good rule of thumb is two boxes for every cat. This means two cats equals four litter boxes.

Clean the litter box every day. Cats are fastidious and possess a very acute sense of smell. This means that while you might get by cleaning the box four to five times per week, any less will generally cause problems. Cleaning the box one time per day is a good rule to follow unless cat owners have covered litter boxes, in which case they need to clean them twice per day.

Replace litter one time per week. Some cat litter manufacturers offer extremely optimistic claims as to how long their products last. While this article is not about scientific testing of each and every brand of litter out there, it is best to manage client expectations. Instructing them to replace the litter once a week does exactly that.

Take care when washing the litter box. As noted earlier, cats have a fantastic sense of smell. It is so acute that some cats will detect the scent of soap or other cleaning agents. Use a non-toxic cleaner—preferably unscented—and after cleaning, rinse thoroughly several times before putting it back into use.

Once you figure out what type of litter your cat likes, stick with it. One of the most common mistakes owners make is to constantly change litter brands and types. This can cause confusion and distress in cats and lead to litter box problems. As a rule, most cats don’t prefer highly-scented litter. Cats usually like three to four inches or so of litter in their box, so please don’t skimp!

If the cat is eliminating in the house outside his or her litter box, the scent in those spots will need to be neutralized. Use an odor neutralizer for this.

Sometimes a challenge can be a solution in disguise. I have known cat owners who, upon seeing their cat eliminate in the same inappropriate location several times, simply moved the cats litter box to that spot. While this won’t always work, it certainly does sometimes and depending on where the cat is eliminating, is worth consideration.

Praise appropriate litter box behavior. Remind owners to praise their kitties when they see them eliminating in the box. A word of caution here: owners need to be careful not to distract their cat and disrupt the behavior. Gentle praise during the act and a treat immediately after is a great way to strengthen the desired behavior.

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