Cats and their litter boxes: the relationship can be complex. When cats are unhappy with their litter box, this can lead to a range of issues including inappropriate toileting (accidents outside of the box), generalized anxiety, and even chronic bladder inflammation and urinary tract infections.
As a vet in general practice, I see a large number of cats who have trouble with their toileting, and a good part of the consultation will be spent discussing litter boxes and how to encourage their use.
While we might expect our cat to jump into using a new litter box without question, this will not always be the case. This article explores how to add a new litter box to your home without upsetting your furry friend.
Why Consider Getting a New Litter Box?
You might be thinking about a new litter box because your previous one is old or broken or because you want to add more boxes to your home. You may also be changing things up because your cat is not using their litter box as they should.
Getting Ready for the New Cat Litter Box
Ideally, we would introduce a new litter box to your cat at a time when they are happy and healthy, with minimal stress in their lives. We want to avoid making changes at times of upheaval, like after a house move or when a new person is staying in the home.
Step-by-Step Guide on How to Attract Cat to New Litter Box.
Step 1: Location
Probably the most critical factor is the location of your cat’s litter box. Put the perfect new box in the ‘wrong’ place, and you may as well not have a litter box at all. Cats are incredibly fussy and exacting and they expect their litter tray in a certain type of place. If not, they’ll find somewhere else to toilet; which may be your door mat or bed!
We want to put the litter boxes in quiet areas of the home with low foot traffic where the cat is not overlooked. The hallway or kitchen are probably not a good idea, whereas a quiet box room or bathroom that is not used regularly, may work well.
Interestingly, cats have evolved to not want to toilet near their food or water source. This would have been to prevent infections when they lived in the wild. For this reason, keep their litter box well away from their food and water bowls.
Step 2: Use the same litter
When we introduce a new litter box, if we change to a new type of cat litter at the same time, the cat may find this a little confusing and overwhelming. So, it is best to stick to what your cat knows. If you are planning on changing the litter type, do so at a later date, once your cat is using their new box well.
Step 3: Put some used litter in it
Cats rely strongly on their senses, including their sense of smell. If we put a small amount of soiled litter in the new litter box, it will smell like a toilet to them, so they will know instinctively what they need to do there.
Otherwise, the box can smell like unfamiliar chemicals and plastics, which are not the kind of smells which make a cat feel like toileting.
As well as old litter, we can also keep the old litter box beside the new one for some time. This is especially useful for those prone to anxiety, who dislike changes in their home. We would gradually clean the old litter box less and less, so the new box beside it becomes the more inviting option and they choose to use it.
Step 4: Positive reinforcement
Cats are never too old for some training and encouragement. Many of us will use positive reinforcement to train a kitten to use their litter tray and assume adult cats don’t ‘need’ any encouragement. On the contrary; a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.
When your cat uses their new litter box initially, try to make sure something good happens. This may mean praising them in a calm voice, a little chin tickle or a tasty treat.
What to do if your cat refuses to use the new litter box?
If your cat is not initially sold on their new litter box, do not panic. We often expect a lot from our cats, assuming they should just adapt to something new right away, with no settling in period. It is important to be patient.
Do not let your cat sense your frustration, just continue going about your day as normal. They should still have the option of their old litter box, so should be toileting as normal.
Once we gradually start cleaning the old litter box less, the new box should turn into the more attractive option for your kitty.
Best Tips for New Cat Litter Boxes
As a vet, my top three tips from experience would include:
1. Use the right litter box type for your cat. An old, arthritic cat will not appreciate a box with a steep lip or one that is difficult to fit inside. A cat who craves privacy will likely prefer a box with a roof.
2. Do not underestimate the impact that the location of the box has. If your cat feels the litter box area is too busy or noisy, or if it is close to where they eat, they probably won’t use it.
3. Try to use a type of litter box and kitty litter that is familiar to your cat
Tips for keeping the litter box clean
Cleaning the litter box is an important (if unpleasant!) part of cat ownership. We should be cleaning out stools and larger clumps of wet litter when we see them; at least once a day. A full clean out is needed once or twice a week.
When we do a full clean out, this should include using hot and soapy water, to remove any stains that have dried in.
Remember not to skimp on the fresh litter when re-filling. A good rule of thumb is to have the litter to about a depth of 2cm.
For owners who struggle to stay on top of the cleaning schedule, they might consider a self-cleaning litter box. While costly, they can be a good investment for those who don’t have the time to clean their cat’s litter box as much as they would like.
It can be tricky business, trying to ensure your cat uses their litter boxes happily. There are lots of different things to consider and to stay on top of. However, as long as you follow the guidelines, your cat should happily use their new litter box, avoiding any indoor accidents.
Can cats reject new litter?
Some more sensitive or anxious individuals may struggle with using a new litter type, so it is best to stick to what they know when changing to a new litter box.
How long does it take a cat to get used to a new litter box?
The length of time depends on the cat and their personality. Some confident individuals may not raise an eyelid and start using their box on day one. Others may take a few weeks to be convinced.
Are cats sensitive to litter changes?
Some cats are, yes. This is especially true of cats who have a history of toileting issues and cystitis. For these guys, keeping things the same as much as we can is very helpful.
How often should you get a new litter box?
How often a box is changed will depend on how hard-wearing the material is and how well you have been cleaning it. Most of us change our litter boxes every year or two.
Why do cats use the litter box as soon as you clean it?
Some cats use a clean litter box right away because they find it very inviting. Others do so because they instinctively want to mark their territory; even if there are no other cats around.
How do cats react to a dirty litter box?
Cats are clean by nature and do not like using dirty boxes. Sure, they might do it in a pinch, but it is not something they enjoy doing. Can you imagine using your bathroom if there was urine on the floor and you had to walk on it? Very unpleasant. For some cats, they are so against the idea of using a dirty litter box, that they’ll find their own ‘toilet’ somewhere else. This may mean a towel on the floor or even your pillow.
How many litter boxes do I need?
A good rule of thumb is that we should have 1.5 trays per cat. This means two litter boxes for a single cat household, 3 for a house with 2 cats and 5 for a house with 3 cats.