When it comes to the litterbox, will your cat tell you what she really, really wants?

Okay, first of all, leave it to youtube. Look for cats singing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls and you’ll find this bizarre video:

Now, time to get serious. I help a lot of people who are experiencing behavior problems with their cats – and a lot of those cases have to do with litterbox avoidance. There are several reasons that cats may stop using the litterbox – including medical problems, an undesirable litterbox location, substrate dislike, or even stress. Solving the problem often requires several different approaches, including modifications to the litterbox and the owner’s behavior. Sometimes the problems are obvious – like a dirty litterbox, or a box that is hard to access. Other times the cause is more subtle.

But one important question – can you assume your cat likes the litterbox just because she uses it consistently?

Think of it this way: if your only bathroom option was an outhouse, would you use it?

Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go. My guess is yes.

(Don’t make me show you more outhouse photos.)

But if you had your druthers, maybe you’d rather pee here.

If you didn’t have a choice, I might assume you LOVE using the outhouse, because I’d see you doing your biz there. But having a choice could significantly change your behavior! You might find the same is true of your cat.

I’ll speak from my own experience. My dearly departed kitty, Jesus (his name is another story), had asthma, so I used pellet litter to prevent dust-induced asthma flare-ups. He always used his litterbox, and I assumed he was just fine with our litter arrangement. THEN I got new cats, who got clumping, sandy litter in their boxes. Once he realized what *they* were getting, he wanted to try it out too. And then he stopped using his own litterboxes so that he could use what he REALLY liked, the sandy stuff. I ended up switching all the cats to the same litter. All those years that I thought he was “fine” with the pellets he was probably bumming out on those hard pebbles under his delicate paws.

So what do cats want in a litterbox?

Keep it clean, keep it simple.

No need for a robo-box. Just a basic box, four walls and some unscented kitty litter. Studies show that cats tend to prefer clumping and sandy litters over chunkier litters (1), and if we think of their natural history, it makes sense. Cats are descended from wildcats who used desert sand to eliminate in. Keep it real, feline style. And don’t forget to scoop at least once a day!

Size matters.

Modified storage bin as litterbox – this is one of my cats’ litterboxes.
Litterbox with live cat, for size reference.
Litterbox with live cat, for size reference.

One study looking at whether cats preferred covered or uncovered boxes (2) found that some cats liked covered boxes, some cats preferred uncovered boxes, and some cats were happy to use both. The key to this study (in my opinion) was that both types of boxes were jumbo! They used modified storage bins instead of traditional litterboxes, which are way too small for most adult cats. Most covered boxes that you can buy commercially are NOT big enough, as the recommended size of the litterbox is one and a half times the body length of your cat. And commercially available covered litterboxes like the Booda Dome take up a ridiculous amount of space for the actual amount of litterbox you get out of them.

I LOVE the storage bin as litterbox, and my cats seem to, too. You can cut an entryway at whatever height works for your cat. They prevent litter scatter, and they are also good for cats who don’t squat when they urinate and tend to pee over the edge of the box.

Ease of access.

This is especially important for older cats and kittens, but really it may matter to any cat. Humans want to have a bathroom on every floor of their homes, why shouldn’t cats? Would you want to trek out into your chilly garage to go to the bathroom? I didn’t think so. Furthermore, some covered boxes (such as top-loaders, boxes with flap-doors, and litterboxes that are hidden in furniture) can be difficult to get into, much less turn around to find just the right position to poo in.

So if they’re using it anyway, why does it matter?

Not to stress you out, but it might be stressing your cat out.  Just like you might use that outhouse because you had no other reasonable option — your litterbox might be “close enough” to bring out your cats instinctual behavior (let’s face it, one thing that makes cats so amazing is that they need NO TRAINING to use a litterbox — put down a box of kitty litter and they know what to do), but not quite close enough to make them feel completely-kitty-comfortable doing so. Cats that do not enjoy the litterbox may be less willing to use it, and may hold their urine, which increases the concentration (“specific gravity”) of their urine and may lead to bladder stones or crystals. Urine retention is one possible cause of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD).

So give them a choice and let them vote!

The reality is that many cats may not care. I’ve seen situations where five cats shared one box (not recommended, but…) without incident, I’ve met huge cats who would faithfully use a teeny tiny litterbox, or have no problems navigating through an obstacle course of cat flaps and stored junk in a garage to get to their litterbox that was in the most remote corner of the house. But once you’ve got a litterbox problem, you’ve got to solve it, and it’s much easier to just prevent a problem in the first place.

So, if you want to be sure, try offering your cat a few choices of litterboxes (a cafeteria, so to speak) to see what she really, really wants. If she loves her original box, she’ll come back. If she doesn’t, it was never meant to be…


1. Neilson JC. (2001) Pearl vs. clumping: litter preference in a population of shelter cats, in Proceedings. Am Vet Soc Anim Behav, 14.

2. Grigg, E. K., Pick, L., & Nibblett, B. (2013). Litter box preference in domestic cats: covered versus uncovered. Journal of feline medicine and surgery15(4), 280-284

For further reading on animal choice behavior (a rather complex subject!!!), I recommend starting with:

Measuring Animal Preferences and Choice Behavior

How many choices can your test animal compare effectively? Evaluating a critical assumption of behavioral preference tests

Behaviour and the Concept of Preference

Context-dependent decisions among options varying in a single dimension


7 thoughts on “When it comes to the litterbox, will your cat tell you what she really, really wants?

  1. Once upon a time, about 7 years ago I offered my then about 7 yo declawed (I didn’t/would never do it) tiny Ragdoll maybe 3 different kinds of litter and she chose Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract. None of them were unusual pine, newspaper, etc; we’d eliminated those years before. I did the same with litter boxes. She’d obviously been a problem kitty before I adopted her since I was her third or fourth human by the time she was 5 but I couldn’t imagine giving u … no- I never once considered de-adopting her.

    I won’t risk buying any other brand of litter for her after struggling with inappropriate urination, not unless I live with nothing but sealed concrete. Maybe. Experimentally.

    As an undergrad I had a tuxedo cat who flat out refused to use any litter box, no matter what. He insisted on going outside so once when I needed to collect a stool sample I had to follow him after failing to get him to leave one inside. I found myself removing chunks of limestone gravel, 1″-2″ across from a hole he dug to deposit and bury the specimen I needed. He was an impressive little kitty.

  2. Hi Mikel! Thank you for this great post! I am curious, when you talk about stress factors in cats, in regards to sanitizing/cleaning your cats litter/box : Could they become stressed due to removal of scent caused by the scent of a cleaner taking their scent away?

    Thanks so much!

    1. It is possible; I’m not a fan of “overcleaning” – I am a big fan of frequent scooping. But I do think that people do change out and sanitize their litter boxes more than they need to. Since I have four litter boxes, I always have one with “older” litter in it, so not completely removing all scent at the same time.

      1. Thanks for the reply! I am huge fan of frequent scooping as well and just realized when I do clean our 3 boxes, I do leave one with old litter for around 24 hrs or so prior to cleaning it too. Was a question that had come up in conversation. Thanks again 🙂

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