In Search of the Right Litter Box Solution

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Today’s pets enjoy attention as they never have before and are considered to be members of our families. An array of every type of pet accessory imaginable – some practical, some extravagant – enable our pets to enjoy very comfortable lifestyles. In the feline world, ever-expanding choices in litter box products are no exception.

In the wild, cats prefer soft or sandy soil for easy digging and burial. For years many cat owners created homemade litter boxes for indoor cats and used sand, dirt, shredded newspapers or ashes to fill them. But eventually, owners wanted something that wasn’t messy and would control odors and bacteria more effectively.

From Chicken Litter to Kitty Litter
The concept of more sophisticated cat box litter became popular in the 1940′s by an entrepreneur named Ed Lowe. After a stint in the Navy, Lowe worked for his father selling industrial absorbency products made from sawdust, clay and concrete. One day Lowe helped a neighbor, Kay Draper, who was tired of the sooty paw prints her cat was tracking from its litter box. She had asked him for some sand, but instead he gave her kiln-dried clay granules he’d been trying to sell unsuccessfully to chicken farmers as litter for nesting.

Draper was so thrilled with the results that she wouldn’t use anything else. She found the clay to be much more absorbent than sand and it stayed in the litter box. Lowe wondered if other cat owners would feel the same way; he talked to local pet store owners but they were skeptical. Would people actually pay for cat litter when sand was so cheap?

In time, Lowe began filling five-pound brown paper bags with the clay granules and wrote “Kitty Litter” on them. He traveled all over the country, selling the litter at pet stores and cat shows, often cleaning the cat cages at shows in exchange for booth space to display his new product.

Customers liked the product’s odor control and absorbency features and began asking for more. Soon the Kitty Litter® brand was born and became a commercial success, followed by Lowe’s Tidy Cat® brand a few years later. Eventually, Kitty Litter became 99 percent dust free, was sanitized and provided a better environment for cats and their owners by controlling odor-causing bacteria. Since then, a variety of litter types have evolved.

Choosing the Litter that’s Best for your Cat
Not all cat litter types are best for all cats. Age, size, health and behavioral issues are all factors. The litter that’s best for your cat is the one your veterinarian recommends for its needs and the one your cat will use. Some primary types of cat litter to consider include:

  • Non-clumping, Clay Litter — is conventional clay often containing baking soda and odorized crystals for their odor-absorbing properties. Dust-free varieties are also available.
  • Clumping Clay Litter — is made from granulated bentonite clay that clumps together when wet and forms a solid mass separate from the other litter in the box. Clumps can be scooped out and disposed of without changing the entire contents of the litter box.
  • Natural and Biodegradable litter — is made from various plant resources, including pine wood pellets, corn, wheat, wheatgrass, beet pulp, recycled newspaper, clumping sawdust, barley, and dried orange peel. It’s estimated that each year, over two million tons of (non-renewable or biodegradable) cat litter in the U.S. ends up in landfills. One option that biodegradable cat litter offers is that it can be safely composted it at home.
  • Silica Gel litter — Is a porous granular form of sodium silicate and offers the highest absorbency of any litter, as well as moisture control and complete odor elimination for an extended period of time. It comes in two shapes, irregular lumps and small beads, and in sizes ranging from 0.5 mm to 4 mm.
  • Grain-Based Animal or Poultry Feed — provides an economical alternative to products marketed and sold specifically as cat litter.

Litter that is scented or perfumed should be avoided. Cats have a very keen sense of smell and can be put off by certain fragrances, just as much as being repelled by a dirty litter box.

How Much Litter Should You Use?

The amount of litter filler you should use varies by type. The recommended amount is usually specified on the packaging. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Conventional: two to three inches
  • Scoopable: three to four inches
  • Crystals: about an inch and a half

It’s important to read the packaging labels carefully before using any type of litter. Know the ingredients, what the recommended replacement intervals are and whether or not it can be flushed down the toilet. (If not, some types of litter will clog plumbing.)

Litter boxes should be kept clean at all times to prevent urinary tract and other health problems. Cats are instinctively clean and their sense of smell is much more sensitive than our own. Some cats are also more finicky than others, requiring you to replace litter more often than the directions might recommend.

Which Litter Box?
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate litter type for your cat(s), there are several kinds of litter boxes to choose from.

Cats need to have adequate room to turn around before choosing a spot to dig, so it’s important to select a litter box that will easily accommodate your cat’s size. The ideal litter box is one that is the right size for your cat and can be easily cleaned.

When considering litter boxes look at size and depth, material, durability, ventilation, accessories, cost and guarantees. Litter boxes with smooth corners are more desirable since sharp edges can hold moisture and increase odors more quickly. Some litter boxes require a specific type of litter. If you select an electronic or flushable model, ask for a demonstration before you buy and understand the warranty options that come with it.

Cats prefer a litter box that’s in a quiet, low-traffic area, away from food and water. Some veterinarians advocate a separate litter box for each cat in a household while others approve of multi-cat litter boxes. If you use more than one litter box in your home, be certain to put them in different places. Cats need to feel safe and comfortable when using their litter box. If several litter boxes are all crammed together in one room, some cats may be too uncomfortable to use them.

Multiple litter boxes can help avoid a cat ‘ambushing’ another one trying to use a litter box, or a ‘bully’ cat that might be blocking litter box access. Many dogs are attracted to the rich, high-protein odor of cat feces and are naturally curious; if you have a dog in your home, find a way to keep it away from the litter box.

If you have multiple cats, keep in mind that some of them will not use a litter box after another cat has used it. Kittens and senior cats, as well as cats with long hair or medical problems, often have special litter needs and might not be able to share a litter box.

Types of litter boxes include:

  • Basic, Pan Style Litter Box This is the most basic type of litter box, usually in a rectangular plastic pan shape with sloped sides (some include a detachable rim to help prevent litter from falling out as a cat comes and goes). They can be found in different sizes and depths but might be too small and shallow for some cats. Optional accessories usually include a removable covered top (for privacy, odor or aesthetic issues), side shields and pan liners, making litter removal easier.
  • Covered / Hooded / Domed Litter Box – These styles are also in a pan shape and often include a vent and a charcoal-type of odor control unit, although it might be ineffective if too many cats are using it. These work best for one or two cats, although some cats might not like being in such a confined space.
  • Designer Litter Box — If your home is cramped for space or you consider litter boxes too unsightly, there are some other more attractive choices for cat owners in various styles and colors. One design is a litter box, available from several manufacturers, that serves as a side table or nightstand and includes a swing-door entrance or rounded opening on one side. These enclosed litter boxes should not be used for more than two cats.

Another is a jug-style floor vase, such as one offered by Pets Best Products (with the choice of one of four interchangeable, artificial plants on top). Their models include a special side opening for cats to come and go, as well as ample ceiling aeration to reduce odors. Other companies offer models designed as cabinets, dressers, benches and dollhouses, all with an opening for cats to come and go. Some of these types of litter boxes are not ventilated.

  • Disposable Tray Litter Box – The disposable tray models simplify clean-up and feature a litter tray that is designed to easily slide in and out.
  • Sifting Litter Box – These types includes a sieve-type grate that enables you to lift out the clumps from a lower tray, while keeping the clean litter in the box. (Some cats might not like the feel of a grate when they dig). Self-sifting models reduce manual work by using a remote sensor to automatically sift and re-sift once a cat leaves the box. You’ll still need to keep the box clean, but litter needs to be changed less often.
  • Self-Cleaning or Automatic Boxes – These models have electric combing mechanisms that automatically scoop and rake the clumps out of the litter box and into a sealed, disposable-bag-lined container. They typically use a pressure pad or an infrared light to determine when a cat has left the box.

One brand, The Litter-Robot™ is a globe with a very large capacity waste drawer. Its enclosed sphere rotates as it sifts, seven minutes after a cat leaves the box. Its patented sifting system coats clumps prior to sifting, before separating them into a sealed drawer. This product can easily accommodate multiple cats and includes an extra large carbon filter to contain odors.

  • Self-flushing Litter Box – This design connects directly to a faucet connection in a bathroom, laundry or utility room. One popular brand is the CatGenie®. It looks like a litter box but works like an appliance and flushes like a toilet, using a T-adapter to a sink or toilet water supply line. It drains liquids and scoops solids before scrubbing, rinsing and drying permanent litter pellet granules. This takes away the need for disposable litter.

Some cats can become skittish about the noise from a self-cleaning litter box and might need time to adjust. Consider making a traditional box available for your cat during the transition to an automatic one. When the old box becomes soiled, your cat will likely begin to use the self-cleaning one.

When choosing the best self-cleaning litter box for your cat, remember that you still need to keep the box clean. Although automatic litter boxes keep themselves much cleaner than traditional ones, routine maintenance is still required to keep them sanitary. Also, you might need to scoop any leftover waste that the cleaning system missed.

A litter mat is an accessory that can significantly reduce the tracking of litter outside of the box. This makes it easy to pour the litter granules that have collected back into the box. One alternative to a litter mat is a folded, textured (not smooth) towel, to help minimize litter tracking.

What if Your Cat Won’t Use a Litter Box?
“Over nine million cats suffer from litter box aversion,” Dr. Bruce Elsey, DVM, points out. “It’s a leading reason why cats are abused, abandoned and put in shelters.” Dr. Elsey is a feline-only veterinarian with over 30 years of experience. He has developed a series of cat litter solutions, based on his flagship product, Cat Attract™, all designed specifically for cats that do not consistently use their litter box.

“Cats are attracted to litter that has an outdoor, natural scent,” Dr. Elsey emphasizes. “Although cat owners may regard inappropriate house soiling as spiteful, a cat with litter box problems is either following its natural instinct or has a medical problem.”

Dr. Elsey tested his litter solutions in his clinic and in cat shelters, over a period of several years. Cat Attract’s scoopable, clumping litter was designed with a unique herbal scent that attracts feline curiosity. Some of Dr. Elsey’s other litter solution products are especially formulated for the special needs of kittens, seniors, long-haired cats (some litter types can stick to a long haired cat’s rear area) and cats with respiratory issues.

“Cats are creatures of habit, so a litter box problem that began with a urinary tract infection may continue long after the infection has been cured,” Dr. Elsey says. “Harsh treatment for soiling outside of the litter box only contributes to a cat’s stress and can worsen the problem. Veterinary evaluation and treatment is key — along with behavior modification and stress reduction techniques. Other signs of medical trouble to watch for include blood in urine, small hard stools and loose movements.”

Finding the Right Litter Box Solution Might Take Some Time
Remember, there is no one perfect litter box solution. Finding the right litter box and litter for your cat(s) can be a difficult task and you might need to experiment before you find a solution that works. The best litter box is one that is appealing to your cat — one he will use, that can be easily maintained, and that is clean and odor-free.

Cats are very intelligent animals that love routines. With a little patience and focus on the needs and preferences of your cat(s), you can come up with a liter box solution that will please everyone and allow you to live together in harmony.

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