How to Cat: Litter

I love cats and have had them since I first moved out on my own when I was 18 or 19. I meant to adopt one cat but somehow one became three, then later five, then down to four, and now it's been fifteen years of fighting with Martin, mitigating Snap's murderous tendencies, and cleaning up after Lump, and being creeped on by Uriko. I've learned a lot in those many years and that's probably why everyone comes to me when they need cat advice.

I'm not the Cesar Milan of cats or anything, but I have sat for cats, taken in strays, and dealt with having five of my own, so I've usually got a pretty good answer when people ask a question about why their cats are doing something weird/destructive/annoying/silly/illegal.

The top questions I get are about litter boxes, so I'll start there.

All about the butt.

Cats can be super particular about their litter boxes. My cat Snap doesn't really care the state of the box, but her brother Lump has always been excruciatingly picky about where he'll poop. If I don't scoop every day he will protest pee in the worst possible places. If you've never turned on the stove to find that your cat has peed all over that burner, well good, because it's horrible.

It took me a long time to realize that Lump is weird about the texture of litter as well. He doesn't like crystal litter, pine litter, pellet litter, paper litter, or much except clay litter or some type that approximates that sandy, grainy feel in his exceptionally furry paws. Clay is said to be pretty bad for cats, and for the environment, so I don't use it unless I'm too broke to afford anything else, but that's his favorite kind of thing to pee on with the exception of maybe a pile of clothes on the floor.

He also won't use the litter box if it's too small, if his butt fur is too long, if the room it's in is too dark, or if it's in a small closet. Basically he's a poop diva.

My favorite litter is SmartCat, which is expensive, but worth it. It's made of grass, so it's really light. You can get a giant bag for $27 and it's about the same amount of litter as a 40lbs bag of clay but soooo much easier to scoop and carry around. The other environmentally-friendly answer that Lump would approve of peeing all over is World's Best Cat Litter, which I think has a very misleading name.

It's made of corn and it basically smells fresh out of the bag like it's already been in use for way too long. Lump will use it, however, and it's not as pricey as some of the other options, so it's definitely worth mentioning.

You need something to stick the litter in, of course. You could just toss the unopened bag on the floor, but trust me, your cats will not take your laziness as a cue to teach themselves to use the toilet. (Though, Reuben will spray the toilet, so maybe he's trying his best and just can't figure out how to lift the lid.) You'll have to suck it up and actually buy a box in which to dump the litter.

I'll let you in on a secret that Big Litter Box doesn't want you to know: litter boxes are bullshit.

They're expensive tubs made of plastic that get sold for way more money than they're worth and you pay it because you you're a decent person so you don't let your cat play in traffic. But, you also don't want poop on your carpet and your kitty is too stupid to use the toilet. Advertising has sworn up and down that THIS $500 litter box is THE thing that will finally save you from scooping, that THAT $300 litter box never smells bad, that THE OTHER $500 litter box is encrusted with pee-vaporizing* crystals and that if you don't buy all three for your one cat, your house will constantly smell like urine and feces and all your nice things will be set on fire by your arsonist cat or something.

(*in reality, you really don't want cat pee vaporized, especially not near those nice new drapes you just bought)

It's not true. Like I said, it's a plastic tub in which you dump litter. You can get a plastic tub for next to nothing, and you can find one that will make YOUR cat WANT to pee in it! Your best bet for figuring out what shape and size your cat may like best is to look at the litter box you currently have and assume that is NOT what your cat wants to use. Assuming she isn't already using it just fine. If so, you probably don't need this How-To at all and I don't know what you're doing here when you could be buying ten to twenty copies of my books and giving them to your friends as gifts.

If your current litter box has low sides and is roughly the size of a sauce pan, you're doing it wrong. Your cat is probably a digger, a flinger, a gargantuan-sized behemoth, or claustrophobic. Go to local thrift stores and search for a giant bin deeper than your forearm is long, and wider than you are. Unless you're a gargantuan-sized behemoth yourself; NFL players the size of a house can go a bit conservative on the size of the litter box as it relates to their own barrel-chested girth.

My oldest cat Martin is too old to do much in the litter box now (and is a little senile, so sometimes he angrily forgets where it is he should be going and so he pees in the living room in front of the door, instead) but when he was young, he was a digger and a flinger. He liked his poop a foot deep and his litter all over the floor.

Alllllll over the floor.

Until I figured out that he really wants a very deep litter box, he was such a pain in the ass. He's still a pain in the ass, but it's not because he hates the litter box now.

Your cat may not like jumping up high into the box, though, and he may just want to step daintily over the edge, do his business right on top of a shallow layer of litter, and then bolt away in shame. You can settle for a low, wide litter box if that's your cat's jam. Your cat may be too old to get over the high-edge of the box you're currently using, so he's moved on to peeing on your couch, who knows.

Next time you see Snuffles on her way to the box, maybe follow her in and observe her litter tendencies to see if she's offering you clues as to what she wants. Take notes. Dress up like a reporter, Yell questions her way when she finishes. Address her as, "Mister president" and ask if the rumors about her and Ms. Monroe are true.

Really get into it.

Once Snuffles has charmingly deflected your questions about her extra-marital affairs, figure out from your observations what it is she wants. Did she spent a lot of time "digging" even though after two swipes she was just scratching the bottom of her current tray? Did she mash her butt up against the corner of the box and pee down the side? Did she look like she wanted to turn around but couldn't? Did she go in with a head-lantern and spelunking gear on?

Make changes if they seem necessary. Get lights up if it's too dark (I have white Christmas lights around my litter cubby; they stay on 24/7, but aren't too bright), move the box if it's in a dark, enclosed space that she usually avoids except when she really has to go, get a bigger box if she doesn't have a lot of room, etc.

I don't subscribe to the notion that you need at least one litter box per cat and an extra just in case. If you keep the box clean and as fresh as possible, you'll probably be fine. We have 8-10 cats in our place at any time, and we have five litter boxes. I scoop and bleach them out once a day, unless I try to get one extra day out of spent litter, it's usually fine.

The bleaching part helps more than you could know. I have Clorox bleach wipes in the garage and I use a $30 litter box I bought ages ago as a dump site so I can clean the boxes completely each day. I find the litter lasts WAY longer when you don't let bacteria or viruses or fungi or 80s hair bands hang around in your litter for too long. I dump the whole container gently into the extra bin, scrape off the chunks that stick around the bottom and edges (not scraping and breaking these up IN the litter helps too!), dump them, bleach the box, scoop the solids out of the dump box, then put the scooped litter in the clean box and slide it back into the cubby.

Maxwell immediately climbs in, nests, and watches me scoop the rest of the boxes as if he needs to make sure I'm doing a good job.

I think that's about it for litter. Some people swear by things like litter additives and baking soda and those aren't a bad idea, but honestly once your litter is to the point where it smells dirty even when you've just scooped and bleached, you should be changing it completely anyway. Anything you can smell, your cat smelled a few days ago and if they're discerning, they're going to find something different to pee on that doesn't smell like it's already been peed on. Like your favorite blouse. Unless that's already been peed on.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask! I'll be out of town on vacation until a few days into the new year, but if your New Year's Resolution is to ask me questions about cat feces, you'll still be able to get that taken care of by week two of 2017, I promise.


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