Your Cat’s Litter Box: What Does Your Cat Really Prefer?


Guest post by Lorie Huston, DVM

When cat’s begin to urinate and/or defecate outside the litter box, there are a number of different suggestions that are made to help convince the cat to return to the litter box. As a veterinarian, I’ve had this discussion and made these same recommendations over and over again to my cat-owning clients. I’ve also spoken about them here: Cat Litter Box Problems: What to do When Your Cat Decides Not to Use the Litter Box.

To be blunt, we make many of these recommendations based on experience. However, there is very little scientific evidence that supports them. This article by Dr. Jacqueline Neilson in Veterinary Medicine examines some of the literature available pertaining to cats, cat litter, and cat litter boxes. These are Dr. Neilson’s recommendations based on her review of that literature:

“It is important for practitioners to provide evidence-based advice to cat owners regarding litter and litter boxes so toileting problems are minimized.

When providing that advice, remember that cats prefer clumping litters and litters with activated carbon. If a fragranced litter is going to be used, data suggest cats prefer a cedar scent to other scents. I caution owners against purchasing citrus-scented litters, which are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace. Finally, based on the trends noted in the box size study, I recommend that practitioners advise owners to purchase large or jumbo-sized litter boxes for their cats or even consider purchasing large plastic storage boxes to use as litter boxes.

Of course, it is important to remember that you may encounter cats with unique preferences. The best way to identify an individual cat’s set of toileting preferences is to offer a variety of litter choices and box styles and retain the litter and litter boxes that the cat preferentially uses. It is also wise to remind clients that no odor-controlling litter ingredients can substitute for daily litter box scooping and regular box washing.”

Winn Feline Foundation is working to identify some of the preferences that cats experience toward their litter boxes also. This recent study looked at covered versus uncovered litter boxes. Here is the conclusion:

“The authors wanted to determine if cats did prefer uncovered litter boxes when all other factors are equal. Twenty-eight cats were enrolled in the study. Nineteen of the cats showed no preference between a covered or uncovered box. Some individual cats did have preferences for one box type or the other – four cats for uncovered boxes, four cats for covered boxes. With a minority of cats exhibiting a litter box style preference, offering a ‘cafeteria’ choice of litter boxes, including a covered box, might be beneficial. ”

These findings surprised me a bit. My own cats (all six of them) do not care for hoods on their litter boxes and I’ve avoided covered litter boxes as a result. The results of this study does make me rethink recommending removing the hood from the litter boxes of all cats with litter box issues though. It seems, as noted in the study, the a “cafeteria” style choice may be preferable.

It is also noted, in the Winn Feline Foundation post, that “Additional studies related to litter box management are recommended, such as evaluating scented versus unscented litters.”

I can’t emphasize enough that if your cat starts urinating or defecating out of the box, the first step should always be a visit to your veterinarian to rule out medical issues. If your male cat is unable to urinate, seek veterinary care immediately. This is a true emergency situation and delaying veterinary care may lower your cat’s chance of survival.

While I agree with the Winn Feline Foundation that more research studies would be helpful, I also think it is important to remember that, regardless of what the “majority” of cats prefer, your cat is an individual. Like you, your cat may have individual likes and dislikes that do not necessarily correspond to what the majority of cats prefer. Knowing the most popular feline preferences is useful as a starting point. But, in the end, what really matters in your household is what your cat prefers in terms of his/her cat litter and cat litter box.

We’d love to hear about your experiences. Does your cat have preferences for the type of litter or litter box? Have you had to deal with litter box issues? If so, how did you handle them?

Lorie Huston has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 20 years. Besides a successful career in a busy small animal hospital in Providence, RI, Lorie is also a successful freelance writer specializing in pet care and pet health topics.

Photo by Tom Thai, Flickr Creative Commons.

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