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San Diego Humane Society

Litter Boxes 101

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Going to the bathroom outside the litter box (inappropriate elimination) is the most common reason cats and kittens are surrendered to animal shelters. This behavior can be frustrating, but the good news is that it can often be addressed before making the decision to give up a beloved pet.

Cats are naturally very clean — they groom themselves throughout the day and prefer litter boxes that are cleaned daily. Unlike puppies, most kittens and cats don't need to be 'trained' to use a litter box. Pop a tiny kitten into a box and they know what to do! Therefore, it is unusual when a cat stops using the litter box, and we know something is wrong either medically or behaviorally. 

It's important to understand that your cat is choosing not to use the litter box to communicate in the clearest way they know how that they are struggling. They are not doing it because they are being "spiteful" or "vindictive". This behavior is the cat equivalent of holding up a huge neon sign that says, "HELP!". So, let's help our cats be as successful with their boxes as possible by selecting a setup that works for them and building consistent cleanliness habits on our end! 



Location, Location, Location

The first rule for litter box placement is access must be easy! If your cat has to climb up or down a flight of stairs or venture into a cluttered room to find their box, they may struggle. This is especially true for older or ill cats, those new to your home or shy/fearful cats who may find it difficult or scary to make such a trek.

Another consideration is that the litter box should be in a quiet part of the home and should not be placed immediately next to their food or water bowls. Many cats like privacy, so something as simple as positioning the box so it's not facing the door or the main room can help a cat feel more secure while going to the bathroom. If they are regularly startled or interrupted when trying to use the box, a cat may decide the litter box isn't a safe place and may seek alternate locations.

Another thing to consider is other cats in the home. Place the box in a spot your cat isn't likely to be ambushed by another kitty while using or exiting the box. Don't worry about your litter box being out in the open for all the world to see — these days there are a number of stylish and functional furniture pieces designed to disguise the litter box while still creating an environment for your cat that feels safe and accessible. 

Size Considerations

Speaking of safe and accessible, cats are known for adorably squeezing into boxes that are too small for them, but litter boxes are an exception to that rule! Make sure your cat can easily get into or out of the box. Are the sides too high for your young kitten or aging cat? Can they comfortably clear the doorway of a covered box? Do they still have room to comfortably turn in a circle (or two, or three) and sit? Are they half in and half out while doing the deed? Do they have room to dig a hole and bury the evidence? Make sure your cat has room to move comfortably while getting into and moving around inside their box — tight squeezes aren't appreciated and can lead to litterbox challenges. Remember that your cat’s preferences around the litter box may change during their lives and physical development. 

To Cover or Not to Cover?

Cats may have specific preferences when it comes to their litter boxes, and whether it’s a covered box or not can be an important one.undefined When adding a cover, height and the ability to move inside the box becomes an even bigger consideration for our cats. While many enjoy the privacy an enclosed box provides, sometimes finding appropriately sized boxes for larger cats can be challenging. This is when you may need to get creative! For example, you could buy a large plastic storage tub with a lid and cut a hole in the top to make the entrance be on the top as opposed to the standard side entry. 

If your litter box comes with a lid, it may also include a plastic flap. We recommend removing this to ensure your cat is comfortable in the box. The flap makes the space darker and further confines your cat and the odors in the box, which can be overwhelming for your cat. Remember, your cat has a sense of smell 14x better than ours (that's 200 million scent receptors for them and just 5 million for us!). As you can imagine, this contributes to why so many cats prefer a very very clean litter box!

Pro tip: Top entry boxes can also help keep curious or peckish pups out of the litter box. 

If your cat prefers an uncovered box and you're looking for something a bit more contained, compromise with a box with higher sides or a piece of furniture designed to hide the litter box. These are often shaped like side tables or floor cabinets that have a large open compartment for a box to fit inside but don't feel as confining as a traditional enclosed box. You can also create a top entry box but leave off the lid! 

"Self-cleaning" and Automatic Boxes

For owners looking for a slightly cleaner or potentially more efficient litter box cleaning experience, self-cleaning and robotic litter boxes have come a long way! Rolling litter boxes can be a decent cleaning solution for single cat homes. These boxes are covered and are designed to be rolled over, depositing all the litter clumps into a tray that can be easily dumped into the trash. These boxes tend to be enclosed and smaller, so they may not be a good option for some cclipboard_e027a7c58820af136dec305e3effccb07.pngats. 

If your cat likes their box cleaned right after they use it, if you have multiple cats with different cleanliness preferences or if it's helpful to have an extra 'hand' to assist with the scooping, investing in an automatic or robotic litter box can help! These boxes are more expensive but worth it for some cats and their owners. They can be helpful for addressing inappropriate elimination due to a box needing to be cleaned, and some boxes come with phone apps that will help you track the weight of the cat(s) in the home — a useful and functional perk that helps us monitor their health and the frequency of times they're using the box. Make sure to research the internal dimensions of the litter box in the models you're interested in as these are designed for average sized cats. 

Keep in mind, these boxes can seem scary when you initially introduce them to your cat, so make sure you have the boxes they are familiar with available and let your cat investigate the new one at the pace they need. Let them explore it or use it before plugging it in, and then cycle the box while they watch from a distance and get treats for watching calmly or not moving away. Some cats may benefit from some desensitization and counterconditioning training around unfamiliar sounds or novelty

Number of Boxes

The general rule is that there should be one litter box per cat plus one extra box spaced throughout the home. In a multi-cat home, make sure a cat can't get 'cornered' in or near the box by another cat. Multiple boxes can help reduce the amount of waste per box, which for cats requiring a very clean box as well as for multi-cat homes, can help reduce stress around us not being able to always clean the boxes immediately after use. Additionally, some cats will have preferences over which box they use for what, or which cats use which box, so more options are better. 

Pro tip: If you're planning to make a change either to the box or the litter, add an additional box with the change implemented and see how your cats feel about it. In addition, it can be helpful to only make one change at a time. For example, if you're testing out a covered box, use the same litter they're used to. Don't change both the box and the litter at the same time. We'll explore this more below! 

Litter Type, Texture, and Scent

Cats can be sensitive to many aspects of cat litter — from texture to smell. Some cats prefer soft or sandy litters while others prefer grittier litter, pellets, etc. Scent plays a significant role, and while many cats will tolerate relatively neutral odor control agents like baking soda, most cats are less tolerant of artificially scented litter that might smell floral or 'fresh'. Scent alone can be enough to make a cat avoid a litter box! Look for litters that help with odor control without relying on added fragrance.

As a general rule, very young kittens often start with non-clumping unscented litter to prevent them from accidentally eating some of the litter. Most older kittens and adult cats prefer unscented clumping litters, but within this category of litter there are still lots of options regarding type and texture! 

If your cat is new to your home, try to start them with the same litter they've been using to avoid another potentially stressful change they'll need to navigate. Many elimination issues are due to sudden changes in the litter box — whether it's the litter itself, the type of box or its location.

If you do want to try making a change, add an additional litter box with the new litter, or a combination of the new and old litters, if compatible. See if your cat shows a strong preference for one box over the other. From there, if your cat seems comfortable with the change, you can transition the original box to the new litter while moving at a pace your cat seems comfortable with. It's important your cat always has at least one litter box they are comfortable using, so keep both boxes until you've completely made the switch. Always remember, your cat has the final say. 

Clumping Litters

These are very popular and there are many options to choose from! Clay is the most common, and you'll also find more environmentally friendly litters made from walnut shells, corn, various types of wood (such as pine), paper and more! While all these litters clump, the textures and size and scent (not including any added fragrance) of the litter itself may vary considerably. Clumping litter is easy to clean and most adult cats are comfortable with this style of litter. Clay litter tends to have the strongest odor control without needing to add additional masking fragrances (like lavender). If you have a sensitive sense of smell, it may be good to consider how you feel about a strongly scented natural litter before introducing it to your cat — for example, the corn and walnut litters smell strongly like what they are made of. With very young kittens (under 8-10 weeks) it is often safest to start with a non-clumping litter because they are more likely to ingest litter either while in the box or while grooming. 

Non-clumping Litters

Non-clumping litters are typically safer for kittens and also come in a variety of formulas, from clay to crystals, paper, wheat, pine and other plants. These litters can be a bit more challenging to clean, as only poop can be directly removed, so the full litter box is emptied instead when it's time to change the contents and this should be done every two to three days. Some cats will avoid using a box that isn't cleaned at least once a day, so this type of litter may not be appropriate for all cats. 

Litter Box Liners

If using a box liner for potentially easier box cleaning, make sure they're tightly fitted, and the box has enough litter in it that your cat is unlikely to dig to the bottom or scratch at the liner itself. Some cats my not like the smooth slippery texture of the liner if they commonly wipe their paws along the edge of the box, so if you're trying liners for the first time, make sure it's only in one box initially and try to observe your cat when they first investigate or use the box. If they appropriately interact with the liner itself or use the box, give them a reward to positively reinforce that behavior.

Cleaning & Maintenance

Everyone has witnessed their cat jumping right into the freshly cleaned litter box to eliminate, which serves as testimony that cats love a clean litter box! It’s important to keep the box scooped daily and some cats prefer the box to be cleaned almost as often as it's used. Depending on the number of cats using the box, litter should be replaced often enough so no wet litter is left sitting in the box from overuse and there are plenty of 'clean' areas for your pet to walk around in the box — your cat will not want to step on their own mess, let alone another cat’s. It's recommended you do a full litter change about once a month, but some cats and litters (such as non-clumping, which requires changes about twice a week) may require you to do this more frequently. 

Keeping the litter box scooped and clean is important, and equally important is cleaning the litter box itself! Do a full clean of the litter box about once a month, or as appropriate if you have more cats using the box. When cleaning the litter box itself, avoid strong cleaning products such as bleach or Lysol (which is toxic to cats) or cleaners with a strong scent. Rather, use plain hot water. If you must use a cleanser, pick a gentle, natural enzymatic cleaning product such as Nature's Miracle or Simple Green. Even when using a gentle cleaning product, make sure you rinse the box thoroughly so the scent doesn’t linger. 

Bonus Box Tips:

  • Replace the boxes themselves on a regular basis. If litter, poop or pee begins to accumulate on the bottom of the box, it’s time for a new one. Most boxes will need to be replaced on average every six months to two years.
  • Do not flush litter! Even the “flushable” types of litter can clog older pipes, so it’s best to dump the clumps in the trash. Not only that, but cat feces can introduce harmful bacteria to the environment. 
  • For your own health and safety, don’t dump litter into gardens or your yard. Used litter may contain parasites that will not be killed by outside temperatures. Always dispose of litter in a trash can.
  • Don’t clean litter boxes where you prepare food! You can use your bathtub, but be prepared to scrub down that area with a bleach solution when you’re done. If you have one, a laundry sink is a great area for this task.

Changes can be hard!

Cats are creatures of habit and do best with a predictable routine and environment. They can be extremely sensitive to stress, and it can take days to over a week for their stress levels (and blood chemistry) to return to normal. When a cat suddenly becomes stressed you may see changes in their behavior, including use of the litter box. Any sudden change in this behavior should always be evaluated by a veterinarian first to make sure there are no underlying medical issues. Medical reasons and stress are the most common reasons a cat will stop using a litter box or change their behavior in relation to it. Therefore, a trip to your veterinarian should always be the first course of action especially if litter box problems are also accompanied by changes in appetite, activity level, sleeping patterns or other distinct behavioral changes. 

While we have less control than we'd like over our cat’s health and aging processes, we do often have control or the ability to predict when a change will be occurring within the home environment. How does your cat cope with small changes or stressors like company coming over, the trash truck or the neighbor’s dog barking? How do they feel about loud noises like storms or fireworks? If your cat is already sensitive to stress, make sure they have a litter box available in the room where they feel safest in a place they can easily access if they're still trying to stay as hidden as possible. Moving a litter box further from your cat’s safe space won't build confidence or 'encourage' exploration and can result in your cat choosing to not use the litter box. 

When you know changes are coming, try to plan for them as much as you can. This might involve speaking to a vet about medications, using calming pheromone sprays like Feliway, adding additional litter boxes or doing training related to the changes.

This training, for example, could include rewarding your cat for not reacting fearfully to loud noises in the month leading up to an expected firework display or practicing getting your cat comfortable with a carrier well before you plan to move or travel. The more we train our cats to feel comfortable and confident in their environment, the more resilient they're likely to be when changes and challenges occur. Our 5-week Shy Cat class can help with this. It’s available live online for cats who experience either general or situational fear/shyness. 

Household Changes

Changes in the household, from people and pets to changes in regular schedules and routines, can be extremely stressful for cats and can result in changes in litter box use. Even something minor to you, such as rearranging furniture, can be unsettling to a cat. This doesn’t mean you can’t do these things, just be sensitive and watch for any behavioral or litter box changes. Socializing your cat while they are young (ideally prior to 14-16 weeks of age) can make it easier for them to accept new people, pets or situations throughout their lives. Older cats can also benefit from additional socialization exercises, but it's important to go at their pace and set appropriate expectations. We offer free weekly Well-Socialized Pet Chats online at San Diego Humane Society and have included the associated resources playlist for you to view on YouTube. 


Moving is very stressful for cats — whether it's into your home as a new pet or into a new home with you. Even for confident cats, it’s a good idea to restrict your cat to a single room when you first move with all their supplies, including the litter box for at least a day or two, remembering to keep the food and litter separated. This is also a good way to keep your cat safe in case you're still moving things into or around the home! Gradually increase your cat’s space until they can freely roam the house. Allowing immediate access to the entire home may lead to your cat hiding somewhere farther from their litter box than you anticipated. In some cases, they may feel unsafe returning to use the box as they try to process all the changes that come with being in a new home.

If you are able to easily travel to the new home, and you've taught your cat to ride comfortably in a carrier and car, you can give them opportunities to explore the new home one room at a time before you move in. This way, they can still return home to their familiar space before the full move occurs. If you can, set up a space for your cat in your new home that mimics the old setup, even if you plan to change it as you get settled. If your cat sleeps on the bed, try keeping your old bedding on it for the first week so it smells more familiar than freshly laundered sheets. If your move will involve traveling, check out this lecture on Traveling with Pets

Pro tip former tenants and new neighbors: Cats are territorial, and they may mark their scent or go to the bathroom outside of the litter box when or where they smell other cats in their space. Sometimes, if there were other cats previously in the home (especially if they ever had litter box challenges), your cat may go where the previous cat went rather than where you would like them to go.

While you settle in and get a feel for the local cat, dog and wildlife populations, it may be helpful to keep blinds closed in the room where your cat will be spending most of their time. By reducing their ability to see unfamiliar animals outside and adding an extra box and scratching post in the areas where they may see other animals, you can help them feel more comfortable in their new space. This will encourage them to continue engaging in both appropriate litter box and scratching behavior while they get used to the change in environment. Be sure to have some enzymatic cleaner on hand (like Nature’s Miracle) just in case, and be patient — your kitty is going through a lot! 

Leaving Cats Alone

Because most cats need their box cleaned daily, it's important to take this into consideration when traveling without your cat, especially if your cat also struggles with people visiting the home. Invite friends, family or cat sitters over to start building a relationship with your cat prior to your trip and ensure someone can visit daily to clean the box and provide fresh food and water. For more fearful cats, recommend your cat sitter makes a quick, quiet visit and consider adding an additional box to the space your cat feels safest when you're not around. The tips in our Introducing Pets lecture can also be applied to people! 

Multiple Cats

When cats struggle with social dynamics, it can result in litter box issues, including stalking and ambushing around the litter box itself. For instance, if one cat stalks the other, the stalked cat may feel they are unable to get to the box or may be ambushed when they try to use it. For more tips on inter-cat dynamics check out this resource on introducing cats or join us live online for some cat training classes!

Cats outside your home may also impact your cat’s litter box habits, whether your cat sees, hears or smells them. For example, if you have a male cat who has not been neutered, other male cats or females in heat outside of your home may cause your cat to spray to mark his territory.

What to do? Management! Restricting a cat’s space — especially if they’re nervous or bothered by another cat — can lower the chances of accidents. Try this by closing blinds or even reducing access to a particular room that might offer the most visual access to the other cat. Having a male cat neutered usually stops him from spraying and helping with TNR / SNR (Trap Neuter Release / Spay Neuter Release) efforts for unowned community cats in your neighborhood can also decrease urine marking or inappropriate elimination as well as related vocal behavior, inappropriate scratching or window fighting between your cat and others in the neighborhood. As a bonus — it will also help reduce the number of homeless kittens in the community! 


Behavior Helpline: Contact Our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within seven days, but responses may take up to two weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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