14 Litter Box Mistakes to Avoid: The Massive Guide

Dr. LaShelle Easton

Last updated:

Keep both you AND your cat happy by avoiding these common litter box mistakes.

If you have a cat peeing or pooping outside of the litter box, and you’ve already been to the vet to make sure your cat doesn’t have a medical problem, get your litter box game on point by addressing these common litter box issues.

1: Sick as a Dog… er, Cat

I know I just said this, but it bears repeating, ’cause half of y’all aren’t gonna listen to me:

If kitty is eliminating outside the box and you haven’t been to see your vet, STOP. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200. GO TO THE VET.

If I had a dollar for every poor cat with a urinary tract infection whose owner said “he’s peeing outside the box to get revenge,” I’d be riiiiiiich.  Girl, it’s never revenge.

Or, “I know it’s not a urinary tract infection because last time he did this it wasn’t a urinary tract infection.”  Yeah, well, last time I limped I didn’t have a broken leg. But I might NOW.  Yeesh.

Get that kitty some veterinary help!

AFTER you’ve done that, you’re allowed to keep reading.

mash up of a monopoly card saying, No vet visit? Go directly to the vet, do not pass go, do not collect $200

2: It’s Never Enough

How many litter boxes do you need? Most people do NOT have enough. The general rule of thumb is:

One litter box per cat**, per floor of your house, plus at least one box

If you have one cat, and live in a one-level home, then you need two litter boxes. If you live in a two-story house, then you need at least three litter boxes: one on each floor, plus one more.

If you have two cats, and live in a one-level home, then you need three litter boxes. If you live in a two-story house, then you need at least five litter boxes: two on each floor, plus at least one extra.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! That is WAY too many litter boxes! I don’t have the space for that many litter boxes!”

I call BS. I have three litter boxes in 800 square feet and I could probably squeeze in a couple more. You have the space, you just don’t want to use it for litter boxes.  That, my friend, is a different problem. Invest in some litter box furniture.

Cat behavior around toilets is often pretty similar to ours. They’re picky, just like us. Give them enough litter boxes.

(**Per cat or per cat group. What’s a cat group? If the kitties are buddy buddies, in that they snuggle with and groom each other, that counts as a cat group. They’re usually okay with sharing a box, so you may be able to use fewer boxes.)

3: Side by Side, by Side

Did you count your litter boxes wrong? Maybe.

If you put two litter boxes side by side and count them as two boxes… **insert annoying buzzer sound here**

If I put two toilets right next to each other in your bathroom, would you count that as two toilets? No way!

Unless you have some weird toilet kink, two side-by-side toilets does NOT give you double the number of toilets in your house. It gives you a weird bathroom that gives you a vaguely uncomfortable feeling any time you use ONE of the toilets at a time.

Same with litter boxes. Two boxes side by side still equals ONE box.

Space those suckers out.

cat litter box saying "thou shalt not put the litter box near kitty's food"

4: Location, Location, Location

Speaking of spacing the litter boxes out, those boxes need to be in convenient locations. CONVENIENT FOR YOUR CAT, that is, which may not necessarily be convenient for you.

I once talked to a cat who was peeing outside the box. Why? He told me his box was down a short flight of steps and through a cat door inside of a cold garage. It was like sending kitty to the outhouse.

Kitty shouldn’t have to hike five miles to get to a litter box. It should be easy for your cat to get to, so put the box near to the places where kitty hangs out, except…

Don’t put the box near where kitty eats or drinks.  Because, ew. No one wants a bathroom in their dining room.

5: I Can’t Stress This Enough

When you’re thinking about where to put the box, you’ll also need to consider sources of stress.

If you’re a middle school student and the school bully hangs out in the bathroom at the end of the hall, you’re going to avoid that bathroom like the plague.

If you’re a kitty and a big slobbery dog can get to your litter box, you’re probably going to avoid that box.

Think about common stressors when considering where to put the box: other animals, noises (washing machine, anyone?), funky smells, weird vibrations…

The room with the litter box should feel like a spa resort bathroom vs. bathroom down the back hallway of a noisy bar. Kitty shouldn’t be stressed going to, coming from, or using the litter box.

cat in covered litter box saying it is too small, one of many common litter box mistakes

6: You Can Cover a Lot of Ground, But Don’t

I hate to tell you this, but it may be the box.

Most cats prefer a box without a cover. Unlike us, they’re not thinking about modesty here. They’re thinking about not being ambushed, and they want a spot that lets them see what’s going on around them.  They also don’t like feeling squished into a small, covered box.

That being said, a lot of cats are perfectly willing to use a box with a cover. They just don’t prefer it.

So why do people use boxes with covers? Usually it’s to hide the smell (see mistake #9 about that), or to hide the box from visitors, or because their self-cleaning litter box comes with a lid.

What kind of lame-o visitors don’t love cats? Okay, okay. Consider investing in some litter box furniture. These hide your box, but are usually much bigger than boxes with an integrated plastic cover, and they often have slats to let kitty see out. You can also buy little folding screens to hide the box, but leave it uncovered.

As far as covered self-cleaning boxes go, I can’t help ya there. If kitty hates it, she hates it.

7: This Box Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us (Or Even One of Us)

Most cats prefer large litter boxes. Sure, tiny kittens and dainty little adults may be okay with smaller boxes, but most adult cats want a big ol’ box.

Which do you prefer? A restroom stall where the door hits your knees when you’re sitting on the toilet? Or a stall with plenty of room?

It’s the same for our kitty friends. They need space to be able to turn around and cover their business.

The general rule of thumb is that you want the box to be at least 1.5 times the length of your cat. You don’t necessarily have to include the tail for this measurement, but it’s even better if you do.  (Yep, some cats need boxes the size of an underbed storage box. BIG BERTHA BOXES.)

If you watch a cat in the wild, you’ll see that they use quite a bit of space around where they pee or poop to turn around and scratch over it. We should give our indoor kitties the same luxury.

tiny litter pan is too small for gray cat

8: Rolling in the Deep, But Not Too Deep

The average cat likes to have about 1-3 inches of litter in their box.

Less than that and there’s not enough litter to cover their deposits. More than that and they might feel like they’re climbing sand dunes.

Unless kitty tells me otherwise, I like to err on the deeper side. That makes it easier to scoop, and if the box is already pretty clean, I can top up the litter in between full cleanings.

Because we know how much kitty likes a clean litter box, right?

9: Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat, Why are They Torturing You?

Do not, for the love of cat god, use a scented cat litter.

Little kitty noses are super sensitive, and unless you’re using mouse-gut scented litter, your kitty will hate the smell of that scented stuff. Floral scented? Really? Use unscented litter. Please.

I am not sure why people buy this stuff. I mean, I can’t stand the smell of it. If you’re using it to cover the smell of the litter box, does it really disguise the scent? Or do you just have floral-scented poo?

A healthy cat’s feces and urine do not have a strong smell. Let me repeat that, for the folks in the back: A HEALTHY CAT’S FECES AND URINE DO NOT HAVE A STRONG SMELL.  (The exception is urine from a tom cat that hasn’t been neutered–that stuff stinks.)

If your cat’s poop smells bad, it could be that she’s having digestive troubles, or she’s on a poor quality diet. (Fix that by taking a look at what to feed a cat.) Cat poop should have very little odor.

And cat urine, fresh out of the cat, doesn’t usually smell much either. If it sits around in the box for a long time, it can start to break down and release an ammonia smell. But that’s not happening to you because you are scooping that box at least once a day, right?

Ditch the scented litter.

10: Living in a Material World

What’s inside the box matters. Cat litter is made from all kinds of different stuff: clay, paper, corn, wheat, pine, wood shavings, sawdust, silica, plastic, coconut, walnut, soy… So what’s the best type of litter?

Most cats prefer an unscented, clumping clay litter. The end.


That being said, there are some reasons why clay might not be the right litter for your cat.

1) It’s not the most eco-friendly, since it requires mining, and it doesn’t break down very easily.

2) Some cats are dumb enough to eat it, and it can cause digestive issues. Usually these are kittens with only one brain cell.

3) It can get stuck to the fur of long-haired cats, or stuck in between toes.

All of these are good reasons to look at other options, depending on your situation. Here’s the problem.

1) I’ve never found a litter that clumps as well as clay. When litter doesn’t clump, urine oozes down to the bottom of the box, and little clumps break off as you’re scooping the box. That leads to a dirtier, stinkier box. Litter needs to be completely changed out much more frequently, and boxes need to be replaced more often… which isn’t very environmentally friendly, either.

2) Some cats are dumb enough to eat any or all of these, and they can cause digestive issues. Corn and wheat and walnuts and whatnot are tasty!

3) These can still get stuck to fur.

4) They’re often more expensive.

Try all the fancy litters you want, and if they work for you, GREAT!

But if kitty isn’t having it, unscented, clumping clay litters (like Dr. Elsey’s) are where it’s at for most cats.

11: Don’t Talk Dirty To Me or My Litter Box

Why does kitty like to use the litter box right after you cleaned it? Because every kitty wants a clean litter box!

Asking a cat to use a dirty litter box is like asking you to use a toilet that hasn’t been flushed after the last ten people used it. EW. Just no.

You need to scoop the box at least once a day, and be thorough when you’re scooping. Your goal is to make it pristine–as though you just scrubbed it and put in fresh litter. You wouldn’t like it if I cleaned your toilet and left little smudges everywhere. Kitty doesn’t like any residue, either.

You’ll also need to completely change out all the litter once every two to three weeks or so. Some litter boxes will need refreshing as often as every week, and some can get away with once a month. It depends on how messy your cat is, how thoroughly you scoop the box each day, and how well your litter clumps. The more often you can do this, the better.

cat is not amused by stinky human smells

12: Smells Like Teen Spirit and Other Things Your Cat Hates

Speaking of cleaning the litter box, don’t just change out the litter and call it good. That’s like “cleaning” your toilet by flushing it. You need to scrub that sucker.

Problem is, many of the things we like to clean with smell awful to cats. And you don’t want to completely rinse away your kitty’s smell, either–that’s one way they know it’s THEIR box!

Hot water and a scrub brush work just fine. You definitely want to avoid harsh detergents, bleach, and anything that smells perfume-y or citrus-y. Sensitive kitty noses will not approve.

Although vinegar is safe around cats, many of them don’t like the smell. In fact, it’s often used to PREVENT cats from peeing in places they shouldn’t.

If you must use a cleanser of some kind, try an unscented biodegradable cleaner.

Mistake? To Line, or Not to Line

You can avoid scrubbing as frequently by using unscented, plastic litter pan liners. Make sure they are large enough to lay fairly flat against the box–you don’t want kitty poking a nail through plastic that’s stretched tight.

Most kitties don’t mind litter box liners, but some will protest, especially if they catch their claws in it frequently.

Then there’s the environmental question: is it better to use litter pan liners, and keep your box longer, or is it better to get a whole new litter box every now and then and not use pan liners? I don’t think there’s a good answer to that.

13: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes are No Bueno

Would you like it if I came in and switched up your bathroom every night?

One day your toilet’s here, the next day it’s over there. One day we’re blasting essential oils, and the next day it’s perfume. BTW, your favorite toilet paper is too pricey, so I left you a stack of newspaper instead.

You. Would. Hate. It.

Your kitty doesn’t like change either. So if you need to change something about their litter box setup, do it gradually.

Switching litter? Mix in the new stuff gradually over several days or weeks.

Moving the box across the room? Try adding a new box in the new location, and leaving the current box in place until the new box is getting regular use.  Or try moving the box to the new spot gradually, over several weeks.

Getting rid of an old box AND switching litter AND installing a washing machine? Maybe go slow and do these one at a time, eh?

The exception to this rule is if kitty isn’t using the box at all… that may be because kitty is demanding change!

super tall litter box with cat saying they're gettin' too old for this crap

14: Forever Young, Your Cat is Not Forever Young

As your cat moves through various stages of life, his litter box needs will change.

Kittens do best with low sided boxes that they can easily climb into and out of. They don’t need large boxes yet, so those small pans will work just fine for them. Clumping litter can be pretty dangerous for these cuties while they’re figuring out what they can and can’t eat.

Adult cats, well, maybe you read about the thirteen common litter box mistakes before this one? That tells you what you need to know about adult cats.

Senior cats, though… let’s talk seniors.

As cats age, they start to get creaky, just like us. Sometimes they’ve put on too much weight. High sided litter pans are hard to get into and out of. Little pans and sometimes large pans just don’t give them enough space to turn around.

A litter box that’s an easy walk to a healthy adult cat might seem miles away to a senior cat.

And sometimes it’s hard to groom when you’re old and creaky, so litter gets stuck every which where.

As your cat ages, be prepared to adapt your litter box arrangements to meet the needs of a senior cat.

Litter Box Mistakes? You Got This

Now that you know the top 14 mistakes cat owners make when it comes to litter boxes, go make life easier for yourself and your cat by thinking outside the litter box!

Photo of author

About Dr. LaShelle Easton

Dr. LaShelle Easton is a holistic veterinarian, animal communicator, and author. She is passionate about helping people and pets deepen their relationships and live healthier lives.