By Paula Fitzsimmons
Cleaning the cat’s litter box is not on anyone’s list of favorite things to do. It’s a tedious and messy job—even more so if your cat goes outside the box. But it’s also essential to the health and well-being of your family, both furry and human.
As long as you share your life with a cat, you won’t be able to get out of cat litter box duty. But there are tips and techniques you can use to make this thankless job more efficient.
The following recommendations can help make the litter box more appealing to your cat. If she loves her litter, she’ll have less incentive to poop elsewhere—which means less time spent on cleaning and more time showering her with affection.
“Cleaning up cat poop from a litter box should be relatively hassle-free, especially if you have an uncovered litter box,” says Dr. Cathy Lund, a veterinarian with City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats in Providence, Rhode Island.
If you keep your box covered for convenience or appearance, you’re probably just creating more work for yourself. A covered box promotes an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude, one in which poop can quickly pile up, Lund says. “Some cats are super fastidious about their litter boxes, and if fecal material accumulates, those cats can find some other area outside the box to do their business.”
“Most cats prefer an uncovered box because it provides good visibility if other cats (or young humans) are nearby,” says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service of clinical animal behavior service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. If you do need to use a lid, she suggests using a transparent one, “so that they can see whether they're about to be ambushed.”
The tools you use to clean kitty’s mess outside the box will depend on the condition of her poop, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behavior expert based in Nashville. “Well-formed poop can be picked up with toilet paper. I prefer that over paper towels because you can feel where you're grabbing so you don't squash the poop down into the carpet.”
For soft poop, she recommends using a small, thin spatula or even a putty knife to lift up as much of the feces as possible. “Once you've gotten the bulk of the soft waste, use a stain and odor remover labeled specifically for cat urine and feces,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Every product is a bit different, so be sure to follow the manufacturer's specific directions.”
Opt for an enzyme-based cleaner, which is non-toxic and will break down stains and eliminate odor naturally. “Not removing the odor may encourage the cat to continue to use the same area for toileting,” says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian with Truesdell Animal Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Most cats poop two or more times a day, Lund says. So “boxes need to be scooped at least on a daily basis, and the cat litter should get changed and the box washed once a week.”
This task is easier if you scoop your litter box according to a schedule, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in the San Francisco Bay area. “In other words, scoop the boxes at the same times every day. Make it a habit. Scooping boxes should become automatic, something you routinely do, such as brushing your teeth.”
Your routine should include removing poop completely from the home. “Don’t keep it in containers that are dumped only every few day,” Krieger says. “Cats have a very keen sense of smell and even if you can’t smell it, they can.” Reminder: Experts advise against flushing waste down the toilet.
Cats are desert animals, says Sheena Wheeler, program coordinator for Sherwood, Oregon-based shelter, Cat Adoption Team. “So, the litter box should replicate a desert—a large open space with no scent with a fine-grained substrate.”
Ideally, it should be about one-and-a-half times the length of the cat from the nose to the base of the tail to allow for free movement, Jeffrey says. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on an elaborate setup, either. “Many boxes found at stores are too small, so people can use a storage container.”
The box should also be accessible, she says. “If there is an older cat who has difficulty getting in and out of the box, a side can be cut down for easy entry. Be sure the cut edges are smooth.”
If you like the idea of an automatic litter box, first consider your cat’s needs. “It is powered by a motor, so if the cat is startled by noises, this may not be a good idea,” Jeffrey says. “It may be scared of the box and go elsewhere.” And this will defeat your goal of creating less mess.
Having one litter box per cat plus an extra is standard, Wheeler says. “Many cats do not like to defecate or urinate in a box that another cat has been using. Some cats even get so picky that they will not defecate in a box that they urinate in, and prefer to have a box for defecation and a box for urination.”
Location is as important as the number of boxes you offer. “Many people will have four litter boxes, but they are all placed next to each other in the garage. They need to be easy for the cat to access and in a quiet area where the cat is unlikely to be startled,” Wheeler adds.
Stelow, who is board-certified in veterinary behavior, says most cats like boxes to be conveniently located, but in areas with limited traffic, away from major (loud) appliances. “Utility rooms, dark basements, and other out-of-the-way spaces are tricky because they are often not comfortable and the owner is more likely to forget to maintain the boxes there.”
Cats are picky about their litter and prefer it to be soft, unscented, and clumping. “Most would prefer to avoid litter that smells like citrus or pine, or feels like rocks,” Stelow says.
Depth and litter texture are also important considerations. A good sign that you’re doing both correctly is if your cat scratches around in the litter, Wheeler says. “A good depth to start with is about two to three inches for adults, and about one-half to an inch for kittens.”
Consistency is also critical, she says. “Cats do not like change, so make sure you are using the same litter—unless they are not using the litter box, then you want to experiment with litter type.”
A clean litter box that your cat enjoys using is good for her health and well-being, and can ultimately result in reduced cleanup time for you.