How to Choose a Healthy Litter and Cat Litter Box

Know Your Options and Explore What Might Work for Your Cat

Scooping litter is a chore enjoyed by no one. But finding the right cat litter box and accompanying litter can make that job a lot easier. While we encourage you to take your own household’s needs into consideration, the biggest stakeholder in your litter box choice will be your cat. Some cats are flexible about litter choices, while other cats refuse to deviate from their box and litter of choice.

Knowing your options allows you to explore what might work for your cat. And that right litter should work for you, too—the best litters provide odor control, reduced tracking and other fine qualities. Don’t discount how choosing the right box fits into your overall litter solution, especially if your cat is particular about their habits.

Why Some Cat Owners Are Switching from Clumping Clay Litters

If you buy your litter from a big-box store or grocery store, typically you’re buying clumping clay cat litter. Many cats love this litter, and your cat might refuse to use anything else. A worry with clumping clay cat litter is the dust created by the litter. All litters create some amounts of dust, but clay litters can create a lot of dust that can affect your cat’s lungs. So if your cat has a condition that affects her breathing, it makes sense to look for a low-dust option.

In addition to how cat litter affects your cat, you may also want to consider how the environment is impacted by your litter choice. A cat can use hundreds of pounds of litter per year. If you’re buying a mass-market litter that contains sodium bentonite clay–a common ingredient in clumping cat litters–the clay may be derived from strip mining that harms the environment.

There’s some evidence that this clumping clay litter with added silica could cause intestinal blockages in cats. This is particularly true when your cat has long hair–litter will often collect between their toes and they’ll consume it as they groom. If they ingest too much, there’s a risk to their health. Silica gel crystal litters present an even bigger risk to your cat if you’re worried about intestinal blockages.

Due to these concerns, it might be worth switching your cat to a renewable litter. Not every cat will agree to a litter switch, but some cats will. And we’ve heard reports that the owners actually prefer some of the renewable litters due to their superior smell, clumping action or other features.

With all this information, you might be ready to make an immediate litter change if you’re using a clumping clay or silica gel litter. But not so fast. Both studies and conventional wisdom agree—some cats will only use a clumping clay cat litter. So, keep in mind the very best litter for your cat is one they’ll use happily. Cats are creatures of habit, so you’ll have to take your cue from your cat to find out if they’ll accept a litter change. If they won’t accept a transition after several tries, it’s not worth a battle of wills. Use the healthiest clumping clay litter you can find and trim the hair between their toes when necessary to reduce the chance of their accidentally consuming litter.

A pile of clay cat litter above a photo of a bentonite clay strip mine

Choosing a Healthy, Renewable Litter for Your Cat

So where do you start if you want to use a renewable litter? Our recommendation is to consider whether you want pellets or granules. Litter pellets provide the firmer footing that larger cats or cats with joint pain need. Also, if your cat has beautiful long hair, they’ll probably appreciate a litter that won’t attach itself to their strands. But pellets don’t clump, which means you’ll have to change how you care for your litter box if you’re used to clumping clay litter.

Clumping litter is always granule based, but not all granule-based litter clumps. Litter clumping will depend on the material and the grind of the granule.

After you’ve determined texture, consider what your primary goal is for a litter. If it’s odor control, there are some litters that are better for that type (though, be forewarned that some litters smell better to different people). For cats that go outside the box, you might want a litter with an attractant (or you may consider buying an attractant to add to the litter). And if tracking annoys you, you might want to look for litters with larger particles.

Renewable Litter Materials: Corn, paper, grass, walnut, wheat, and pine and other woods are just some of the materials used to make renewable litter. Each material has its own unique smell and properties, so don’t be afraid to try several litters before you decide what works best for your household.

Picking a Cat Litter Box for Your Cat

Having the right sized litter box encourages your cat to love their litter box. You want to make sure that the box is at least 1.5 times the size of your cat. Bigger is almost always better–in one study cats greatly preferred the bigger box, even if the box exceeded the 1.5-size rule of thumb.

You’ll also want at least one box per cat, plus one additional box. That means, if you have two cats, you’ll need three litter boxes. Having additional boxes increases the chance that your cat will always have a clean litter box to use, while reducing the chance that the guarding behaviors of other cats will make them feel too uncomfortable to use the box. Even if your cat is an only cat, having two litter boxes will help them find a quiet spot to go to the bathroom.

What Type of Cat Litter Box Do You Need?

Many humans prefer covered litter boxes, and some cats like them too. A covered box can prevent your cat from flinging litter outside of the box, or accidentally peeing outside of the box. But a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that 70 percent of cats didn’t have a preference. And those cats that did? Their preference was precisely divided in half. This is probably just a case of knowing your cat but do consider the type of litter you’re using when picking a box.

For cats with breathing problems, you might want to consider an open litter box if they will tolerate it. Open litter boxes give dust a chance to escape, but of course, you’ll want to pair an open litter box with low dust or dust-free litter.

Cats who like to urinate on walls might prefer a top-loading litter box. These boxes have the entry-point at the top of the box, so they’re less likely to leak if your cat has poor aim. Top-loading boxes also reduce tracking, because many cats will pause on the top of the box and leave the granules on their paws on the box top before they hop down. But keep in mind, less nimble cats might hate top loading boxes, and as cats age they might become less able to use one.

Some cat owners prefer a DIY approach to litter boxes. They take a large, high-sided plastic tub and cut a door out on one side. The door is several inches above the floor of the box, so there’s a lip that prevents the litter from easily spreading outside of the box. This project creates a high-sided litter box that makes it harder for a cat to shoot litter outside the box or pee over the side. But the top of the box remains open, so litter dust can escape the box. Another added bonus? You can find regular plastic boxes in sizes that are much larger than many commercially-made litter boxes. This can make them ideal for a Maine Coon, Savannah or other large cat.

Finally, there are self-cleaning litter boxes that use some type of mechanism to clean the litter box. While you’ll still need to remove the clumps, this option works for some people who find regular by hand cleaning doesn’t work for them. So, if cleaning your litter box is physically difficult or just too time-intensive, a self-cleaning litter box might be your best option. Just make sure it also works for your cat—we’ve seen cats who are afraid of the sounds self-cleaning litter boxes make or refuse to use them for some other reason.

Locating the Perfect Spot for a Cat Litter Box

Your cat is a predator–so they know that they’re at their most vulnerable when using the litter box. Therefore, they might be very particular about where each box is located. When positioning a box, look for a spot that’s quiet and away from plenty of traffic but also has expansive views so they’re not worried about an ambush. Avoid stashing a box near a washing machine, furnace or other machine that might turn on unexpectedly and startle your cat.

Litter boxes should never be near feeding areas, and multiple litter boxes shouldn’t be located close to one another. If two litter boxes are too close your cat might perceive them as one. Avoid placing a litter box in a basement or other area if your cat is young or old enough to have any sort of mobility issues–convenience for your cat is key.

One prime location for many litter boxes is inside the bathtub. An agile cat can easily go into the bathtub, where they feel protected, to use their box. Owners like this location because any litter that’s scattered outside the box is easily cleaned up. However, if your cat is a kitten or a senior cat, they might not be able to easily hop in and out of the tub. In these cases, it’s better to place the box in another area.

An unclean cat litter box may cause your cat to consider other areas--such as the floor in your closet--as a good bathroom substitute.

Expect to scoop each box at least once a day. While some cats are fine with waiting a few days in between scooping sessions, many are not. An unclean cat litter box may cause your cat to consider other areas–such as the floor in your closet–as a good bathroom substitute. Certain cats may insist on a clean litter box every time they use it. That means you’ll need to scoop each box after every use.

Oddly enough, your cat probably doesn’t care if they’re sharing a litter box with other cats. A 2017 study found that the cleanliness of the litter box was the determining factor for litter box preference–and the cat didn’t care if they or another cat had used the box last. So, if you add another cat to your household, it’s unlikely it will impact your cat’s bathroom habits. Just be sure to add another litter box and another five minutes of scooping into your daily routine.

Once a week, you’ll also want to dump all the used litter and clean the box thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner. It’s tempting to forgo the weekly clean-out for some extra scooping and adding fresh litter, but that doesn’t work with all litter brands. It also depends how diligent you are about regular scooping the box. If you scoop twice a day, every day, you may be able to top up the litter every week and wait two to three weeks to clean the box.

If you don’t intend to do a full clean every week, it’s important to inspect the litter carefully and make sure that there’s no smell. Any type of odor or degradation of the litter means a full litter box clean is essential. And if your cat is skipping using their litter box, regular full cleanings can possibly correct the problem.

You might also want to consider replacing the box once a year, especially if you’re not a fanatic about keeping the box clean. Over time, smells will soak into the porous plastic of the box, especially if there are scratches at the bottom of the box. Just like cleaning the litter box, let common sense be your guide:  when there’s a lingering smell or has tons of scratches, it’s time for a new box.

What to Do When Your Cat Stops Using Their Box

Follow all these tips, and there’s a good chance you and your cat will live in litter-box harmony. But sometimes, even if you do everything right, your cat might eschew her box. Before you get upset, take them to the veterinarian. It’s not unusual for cats with feline urinary tract infections to stop using their litter box. This type of infection makes it painful for cats to urinate, so they sometimes associate painful urination with their litter box. Other possible medical conditions that might cause your cat to skip the litter box are diabetes or kidney disease. Arthritis or any general sickness may also make entering the litter box feel like an unwelcome challenge.

Hopefully your cat gets a clean bill of health at the veterinarian’s office. Of course, if your cat is healthy, you’ll still need to find the source of their litter-box angst. Sometimes, the problem is just stress related. A new visitor, a dog outside the window and a change in food may all occur on the same day. Then, your cat goes to use her litter box, and it doesn’t meet their preferences. For them, it’s the last straw during an already stressful day, and now your dirty laundry is doused in cat urine. If your cat’s stress levels decline, you may find that their willingness to use their cat litter box increases, too.

Multi-cat households also have unique litter box woes because one cat may guard a favorite litterbox—or lie in wait ready to pounce while the cat uses the box. Having multiple cat litter boxes—placed in multiple places throughout the home—will diminish the chance that one cat is scaring the other cat.

Litter box cleanliness may also be an issue to examine. Scooping every litter box—ideally twice a day—and completely cleaning the box once a week with an enzymatic cleaner, could make the box more appealing to your cat.

Repeated issues indicate a problem that may need some detective work. We favor the suggestion often made by Jackson Galaxy to fix litter box problems: Make a reverse treasure map by using painter’s tape to mark where your cat is leaving their deposits. Try to find out what those places have in common, and then work from there to fix the problem.

A cardboard cat carrier

When to See Your Veterinarian About Cat Litter Box Usage

Changes in your cat’s urinary habits always merit a prompt visit to the veterinarian. Limited urination, squatting without urinating, straining to urinate or crying while urinating is all indicative of a serious problem. General illness or blood in the urine is also a sign that you should call your veterinarian. Don’t wait either–urinary blockages can overtax the kidneys and cause death in as little as 48 hours.

When your cat suddenly develops a litter box problem, prepare to troubleshoot the problem with your veterinarian. But many litter box problems are behavioral issues that don’t have a medical solution. In these cases, patience and the willingness to experiment will be your best friends.