Cleanliness for the Cat of Your Dreams
Dr Dhananjay Pandit
Your cat is the sweetest, most adoring love of your life…until they drop a land mine in their litter box that’s toxic enough to clear buildings and send villagers running for the hills. If your cat’s litter boxes are always a little too… ripe… here are some simple tips and tricks to tame the smell.
When cat litter was invented in 1947, it was made of grains of absorbent clay called Fuller’s earth. There was just one brand, called Kitty Litter, and cat parents had a choice between that or natural sand or sawdust. Let’s start with scent. A cat’s sense of smell is far better than yours. Cats have from two to forty times as many smell-receptor cells in their nose as you do. That means scents that might seem light and pleasant to you can be overwhelmingly strong to them—especially since they are standing right in the litter.
Litter preference—It’s Cattitude!
Not surprisingly, then, studies tell us that cats prefer unscented litter. That doesn’t just mean added scents and scented deodorizers; it also applies to scents that might occur naturally in the litter, such as pine. Cats prefer their litter to smell like nothing at all.
You may be tempted to buy the litter that appeals most to you; maybe it tracks less or smells good or is inexpensive or is environmentally friendly. But it’s your cat who has to step in it every day, so really, it’s only fair to let her choose. It’s important to scoop your cat’s litter
box at least twice a day, even if it doesn’t smell.
Smaller litter particles
Cats tend to prefer fine particle litters, as opposed to pellet and crystal-type ones. It makes sense, of course, given that cats were originally desert-dwelling animals that buried their waste in sand. Not to mention that a finer particle feels better on their paws. I mean, would you rather walk barefoot on a rocky beach, or a soft, white sandy one? Similarly, your cat will probably prefer fine particle, clumping clay litters.
Cats tend to prefer unscented litters to scented ones. Your cat’s nose and sense of smell is quite a bit more fine-tuned than yours. So, to play it safe, you should resist the urge to get a scented litter, whether that’s a flowery scent or any other kind. Opt for unscented litter instead.
Fast & hard clumping
This will help minimize messes and make it easier for you to scoop/clean, not to mention minimising the chances that urine-soaked clumps of litter will stick to your cat’s paws or tail.
Nobody likes the smell of cat pee or poo! Baking soda or activated charcoal can be added around the litter box or directly to the cat litter — either manufactured into the litter itself, or added by you after the fact. This can help keep ammonia and other litter box odors in check.
This isn’t just important to keep your floors, furniture, and electronics free from a fine layer of litter dust, it’s also important for keeping yours and your cat’s lungs clean. And that last part is especially important if you, your cat, or anybody else in your home has asthma.
It’s safe to say that you want your cat’s litter to stay in their box and not get tracked around the home. You should be able to find an anti-track litter that suits your cat’s needs and your own. Even if you can’t, there are a number of anti-tracking cat litter mats on the market that will keep the litter where it’s meant to be.
Litter box rules
There are four common conditions/scenarios where special litters might be needed—1. Cats with asthma 2. Cats recovering from surgery 3. Cats who need help learning (or remembering!) to use their litter box 4. Diagnostic or medical litter.
Number of litter boxes
The general rule is to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have — it’s called the “n+1 rule.” For example, 2 cats=3 litter boxes, and so on.
Size of litter box
Make sure the litter boxes you choose for your cat are large enough for your cat to fit inside comfortably, with some room to spare. They should have ample space to move and dig around in it, without having to step out. There should be plenty of space for them to easily avoid any ‘deposits’ that are still around from earlier visits. As a general rule, the correct size litter box should be at least as long as your cat, from their nose to the tip of their tail (when extended), and its width should be at least as wide as your cat is long (with their tail not extended).
Best box height for most cats: For cats who aren’t ‘sprayers’, or don’t routinely kick litter out of their boxes, a box with walls around 5–7” high is typically great (especially if the box is large).
If you’ve got a ‘sprayer’, ‘kicker’, look for boxes with three sides that are tall enough with wall heights of around 8–12” are good, but that also have a lower entry/exit side to make getting in and out easy (this side should be around 5–6”).
Best box height for mobility issues
If you’ve got a young kitten or any cats with arthritis or other mobility problems, then you’ll definitely need boxes with at least one side that’s super low. For most of these cats, an entry/exit side that is around 2.5–3.5” typically provides a good balance of ease of entry/exit for your cat, while still being able to keep litter in.
Covered and uncovered litter boxes
Some cats prefer an uncovered box, others don’t. So feel free to go either way here or to test it out by giving your cat a selection of boxes to choose from. Just be ready to adapt if your cat starts giving you indications of a clear preference one way or the other. If you do go the ‘covered’ route, just make sure the opening isn’t too small or difficult to get to, and be ready to switch to uncovered boxes should your cat ever develop asthma or arthritis. For older cats, opt for low entry model to avoid litter mess from leaping.
Placement is the key
Ideally, your cat should have at least two ways to get to and from each box. This is to keep their box from becoming completely blocked (e.g., by the family dog, a bully cat, a closed closet door, etc.). If they can’t get to or away from their box reliably, they’re not likely to use it reliably.
Plenty of space between
Even if you have the right number of boxes, it’s just as important to spread out your cat’s litter boxes to prevent problems.
Good air circulation
Your cat’s nose is quite sensitive, and cramming their litter box in a small cupboard or a dingy basement is likely to force them to deal with scents and odors that could stress them out and dissuade them from using their box.
Heating and air conditioning vents can create unpredictable (as far as your cat’s concerned) drafts of air that can startle and stress out your cat. Try to avoid locating their litter boxes near such vents.
If your cat has to cope with the possibility of a bunch of people walking (or running, especially if you’ve got small children in your home) by their loo every time they’ve got to go, it definitely won’t be comfortable or fun for them. Try to find a place that doesn’t get too much foot traffic.
Going to the bathroom is a fairly vulnerable scenario for cats, and they can often be on ‘high alert’ when in their box. If they’re doing their business in an area where there’s a lot of noise — especially if the noise is loud or sudden — then your cat isn’t going to be able to go in peace. Though laundry rooms are common places for people to put their cat’s litter boxes, the noise from a clunking clothes dryer or the end-of-cycle alarms from either machine can be enough to stress out your cat when they’re feeling exposed. Try to avoid the laundry room if you can.
Catliness is cleanliness
The best way to reduce litter box smells is to get rid of the stuff that’s smelly. Clean the boxes at least once per day (preferably twice). Not only will your cat be happy; your nose will be, too. Clumping litters can often be the easiest to scoop and keep clean, and having a low-dust litter is important, especially if you’ve got a cat with asthma (or have it yourself).
If you’re scooping at least once per day, then it will be far easier to clean the boxes when the time comes. Once per month, empty the litter from your cat’s boxes and scrub them thoroughly (it might go without saying, but be sure to wear gloves to protect yourself from any urine and fecal pathogens that can also infect humans). Simply use soap and water to clean the boxes. The smell of bleach and other chemicals from harsh cleaners can cause your cat to avoid their box even after it’s clean. To finish up, dry the boxes and addfresh litter.
Replace the boxes
Over time, the boxes can become scratched from the frequent clawing as your cat buries their waste. These scratches are great places for bacteria to hide out and build up a smelly residence. Make sure to replace the boxes about once per year. When looking for a litter box for your cat(s), keep these features in mind—the box should be at least as long as your cat from the tip of their nose to the tip of their (extended) tail; at least one of the sides should be low so that your cat can comfortably and easily get in and out.
If you’re still having odour problems, try sprinkling a little baking soda on the bottom of the box before you add fresh litter each week, or place an open box of baking soda in the same area as the box. This can help absorb some of the smells, but without adding irritants that will upset your cat’s sensitive nose and lungs. Or try the Zero Odor Litter Box Odor Eliminator, which resulted in ‘significantly fewer behaviours associated with feline litter box dissatisfaction and fewer undesirable eliminations,” according to study. Activated charcoal also works well at absorbing odors.
Whatever you do, don’t use perfumes or sprays near the box. This might temporarily mask a smell, but it will irritate your cat’s sensitive nose and lungs (or worse). In fact, using sprays, perfumes, and other scents might even discourage your cat from using their boxes at all.
Cleanliness is godliness
Use a good enzymatic cleaner to take care of any potty accidents if your cat misses the box (such as right next it). A good, thorough cleaning will eliminate the smell, prevent odours from developing over time, and prevent your cat from going outside of their boxes in the future. An effective cleaner works to neutralise the odour. If your cat is going outside their box, like on your living room carpet, then getting the smell out effectively can help prevent them from sniffing it out and choosing that same potty spot again.
Think like a cat
Think like a cat. In order to make a happy, comfortable home for cats, you need to think like one.
(Dr Dhananjay Pandit is National Vet Affair Manager at Scientific Remedies Pvt Ltd. He is a vet with
more than 20 years experience in food, hygiene, animal nutrition and pet care)