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 Cat Behavior Library  

Feline Litter and Box Testing

What is it with some cats? You take them in off the street and provide the lap of luxury, and they repay you by peeing on your carpet - or worse.

Cat pee is too big a topic to cover in one column, so I am going to assume you have had your leaky cat checked by your veterinarian. Thirty percent of the time, the problem is medical. I will further assume that you have already provided numerous litter boxes, and clean them twice a day. The advice here is indicated when the wayward urine is directed down onto the floor and not sprayed up onto walls like some urban territorial tagger.

If you love a toilet-intransigent cat (don't admit this publicly), or consider yourself a cat lover, read on to discover the secret world of litter testing and retraining.

For a human comparison, consider people who are remodeling their bathrooms. Some people would just ask the contractor to deliver the most inexpensive toilet. But other more discriminating people might object to the cheap seats, and actually go to the toilet show room, and struggle over look and feel. These same people might also carefully choose their toilet paper (the human equivalent of cat litter) since that is what they touch.

Now fast forward to the most discriminating of domestic animals - the cat. Since cats bury their waste, they get down and dirty with both the box and the litter. I have news: your cat might think you are a nice person but clueless about kitty potty picking. If your cat's problem is repulsion to the litter or box, this data is for you!

One secret of litter retraining is discovering your cat's toilet preferences. Don't care you say? Then live with scent of cat pee, take the risks of allowing the cat outdoors, or consider the guilt trip of surrendering a good friend because you were unwilling to indulge his or her toilet predilection.

Pick a testing room in the house that is as quiet and neutral as possible and ideally not a location where the cat has soiled. Consider options such as a laundry room, bathroom, enclosed patio, study, or other less used room. Plan on the cat being semi-confined to this room for one to two weeks. Like a college kid participating in a clinical study, your cat will be sequestered, but you can make it pleasant. Make roughly half of the room for living - beds, scratching posts, toys, food and water bowls - and the other half for elimination. The goal is to limit the toilet options.

Starting with brand new litter boxes is preferred but not required. If urine has reached and impregnated into the plastic bottom of the box, your discerning feline may balk at the stinky odor the way you would at an unclean porta-potty. If another cat has used the box, your cat may think it has been marked as private.

If recycling boxes, the proper way to clean a cat box is with hot soap and water, and then let it dry thoroughly. Do not use chemical cleaners that might leave their own smell. Once dry, do the litter-box-sniff-test. First, make sure no one is watching. Then put your head inside the clean dry box with your nose close to the bottom surface. If you smell anything funny, buy a new box.

Start with three different models of litter boxes. Your best bet is one that is large and deep as long as the cat can easily get in and out. The second box must be somehow different, such as a covered box, and the third dissimilar from the other two, e.g. low and long.

Litter cost and brand name do not matter as long as three or more options are offered. First, offer an unscented hard-clumping litter. This looks like fine-sand with minimal dust. Hard-clumping litter does not break apart when buried or scooped. Avoid flushable.

Your second and third litter options probably depend on what your local pet store offers. It might be made from processed paper, wheat or pine pellets, corn, or even silicon. For litter testing, offer your cat a variety.

Start a "Poop and Pee Diary" noting the date and time you start the test. (Hint: don't leave this laying around where your friends will find it.) Number the boxes so you can track them, and write the exact names of each type litter that you start with in each box. Fill each box with two to three inches of the selected litter. Depth matters!

Keep a pen and your secret diary in the room where you are testing and faithfully note the following items for each deposit:  date, time, urine or feces, estimated volume (small, medium, large), stool consistency (formed, loose, liquid) and if the deposit was covered up or not. Lack of covering usually means the material is undesirable. Ichk!

After two days (or an average of five eliminations), put a different litter in each box. Continue rotating and testing until you either you have a clear favorite, OR there is no pattern. This means either random use, or the cat just uses the cleanest available. Now you are ready to allow the cat gradual reintroduction into the rest of the house.

Allow the cat one more room or hall in addition to the testing room. The idea is to see if the cat returns to the boxes, or soils the new area. If your house is not laid out to allow room by room enlargement of the space, then gradually increase time-outside-the-room. Begin the new freedom just before feeding time. The goal here is to use the food or treats to reward the cat for returning to testing room. Place the favorite box-litter combos around the house, and increase the freedom daily about one hour at a time.

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