Why Do Cats Need Litter Boxes?

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Cats can be a bit of a mystery to pet owners. They have certain habits that we'd like to understand better, and some things about their behavior can strike us as odd. For example, cat behavior toward litter boxes. Why do they need them? Why do they like using them? Or why do they use them at all if they don't really have to? Are litter boxes only used by cats, or can other animals use them? Let's explore the possibilities and better understand this behavior.

Most cats prefer a clean litter box with unscented, non-clumping litter.
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An instinctual response

Most cats are drawn to using litter boxes because they have a natural instinct toward burying their urine and feces in order to cover their scent.​ In this way, litter boxes are helpful to them and easy to use. Moreover, they are convenient and satisfy these burying instincts. In fact, according to Jordan Cassidy, DVM, cats are naturally drawn to the "texture and consistency" of most litter brands because they make it easy to cover their waste. You might have seen outdoor or stray cats eliminating outside and immediately burying their feces, so it's not just a domesticated cat thing. Historically, cats have been prey to bigger animals. By covering their feces and urine, they were thus able to prevent predators from finding their location. It's a survival tactic.

However, there are other theories as to why cats may bury their waste like this. ​"It's also thought that sometimes less confident cats will bury their waste as a signal to other cats in the area (or home) that they are not a threat,​" Dr. Marci K. Koski, a certified feline behavior specialist, said. In a multi-cat household, it's possible that younger cats will cover their scents to avoid irritating older cats.

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Eliminating outside the box

It's rare for domestic cats to eliminate outside a litter box, and it is usually a sign of a problem. If the litter box becomes associated with pain due to a medical issue like a urinary tract infection, you might find that your cat eliminates outside the litter box. Other medical conditions that also affect the frequency or urgency of urination can be cause for eliminating outside the box. There are also age-related diseases that can ultimately interfere with either mobility or cognitive functions – basically affecting the cat's ability to get to the litter box in a timely manner. Contact your veterinarian if the issue persists.

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An aversion to the litter box is also a possibility for house soiling. It could be any number of reasons, like the box itself, the type of litter, the location of the box, or even all of the above! Cats are also naturally tidy creatures. They clean themselves well and like to keep their surroundings tidy as well. If you don't keep the litter box clean, it might influence your cat to eliminate elsewhere. It's a cat owner's responsibility to clean the litter box on a regular basis. Make sure you always have a clean litter box to encourage your cat to use it. Some cats will absolutely refuse to use a litter box that has any urine or feces in it at all. Even abruptly changing litter brands can affect your cat's behavior. If you do decide to change litter, make sure you introduce the change gradually (by adding a scoop or two of the new litter to the old brand) to prevent a shock to your cat.

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Can dogs use litter boxes?

Though it seems unorthodox, dogs (particularly small breeds) can be trained to use litter boxes. Special dog litter is even available. For people who cannot walk their dogs regularly or want an easier option than pee pads, litter boxes might be a good choice. According to Jennifer Mauger, CPDT-KSA, dog litter has a "unique smell and texture" that won't be confused with other surfaces such as wood floors or rugs. This minimizes the frequency of accidents.

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Quick tips for litter box success

  • Most cats prefer unscented, non-clumping litter.
  • Grown cats may prefer the litter they became accustomed to as kittens.
  • Scoop waste from the litter at least once a day (preferably more often), and wash the box with soap and warm water at least once a week.
  • Most cats prefer large, uncovered boxes with 360-degree views of their surroundings. And with multiple escape routes!
  • Most cats prefer shallow litter about one to two inches deep.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

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