Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

Jan 19, 2021 | General Health

Should You Clean the Litter Box with Soap? Natural and Hygienic Approaches to Litter Box Maintenance from the Experts

A clean cat is a happy cat. These incredibly hygienic animals have a finely attuned sense of smell. Because of this, when their litter boxes are not cleaned regularly, cats can become disgruntled, experience distress and anxiety, and may even begin to act out. Many pet parents, however, dramatically underestimate just how frequently a cat’s litter box should be cleaned and are subsequently faced with a dizzying array of options when it comes to choosing a litter that will keep their cats happy and healthy.

Dr. Lois Palin, with Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Brittney Toth, a supervisor at Dogs & Cats Rule in Doylestown, offer helpful tips on litter box maintenance to help cat owners and their pets breathe easily.

1. Find a Practical Spot

Just like real estate, when it comes to the placement of your cat’s litter box, “it’s all about location, location, location,” says Doylestown’s Dr. Palin. Plan to provide more than one box per cat. If you have multiple floors in your home, each floor should have a litter box.

Additionally, if you own multiple cats, always arrange to have one more litter box than there are cats in the home. Place them in rooms that are relatively isolated and quiet (i.e., away from a furnace that may roar to life or a clanging washing machine) to avoid frightening the cats. The food and water dishes should not be located near a litter box. If the same room is the only option, keep the food and the “bathroom” at least five feet apart.

“You generally want to avoid any negative associations with the litter box,” says Dr. Palin. For example, don’t attempt to medicate your cat while he or she is using the litter box. Any unpleasant experiences could result in your cat not returning to the litter box.

“Once you find that spot, try to avoid moving it,” Dr. Palin says. “Cats are creatures of habit.”

2. Scoop Daily

“Cats are finicky when it comes to how clean their boxes are,” says Brittney Toth with Dogs & Cats Rule, noting that cleanliness and good health go hand in hand. By keeping up with regular litter box maintenance, pet owners can keep an eye out for any abnormalities and/or red flags. For instance, clumping litter can reveal how frequently a cat urinates – a key health marker.

One thing is certain: Your cat’s litter box should be scooped daily. The frequency will largely depend on how often your cat uses the litter box throughout the day, but Toth suggests a morning and nighttime scooping, at the bare minimum.

“After you scoop, be sure to maintain a 2 to 3-inch level of litter in the box. Add more after you scoop throughout the day. Any lower, and you risk developing a sort of sludge at the bottom, which cats hate as they dig around to make spots.”

3. Deep Clean Weekly

“You’re definitely going to want to do a complete cleanout weekly,” says Toth. “That will help maintain odors and the overall cleanliness of the litter box.”

Dr. Palin agrees: “Owners should remove all of the litter, and completely clean the box using a mild, unscented detergent, before rinsing well, drying, and adding new litter.”

Dr. Palin recommends a mild dish detergent for the weekly deep clean, and Toth opts for a basic white vinegar and water solution – both are non-abrasive cleansers that are easy on the olfactory senses.

“Cats have very sensitive noses,” says Dr. Palin. “You want to stay away from things that have a lot of scent.”

Steer clear of additives to counteract waste odor, says Toth, and simply increase the frequency of your litter box maintenance. It is safer for your cat and better for overall health.

 4. Choose a Quality Litter  

When it comes to choosing the best litter, it may come as no surprise that “unscented” should be a top consideration. Low-dust litters are also ideal, particularly if your cat has respiratory problems.

According to Dr. Palin, many owners are fans of clumping litter, due to its ease of use. But with so many different kinds of litter on the market – from cat litters featuring a blend of herbs that entice cats to use their boxes more frequently to highly absorbent silica gel litters that reduce the need for scooping, and even change color if urinary issues are detected – choosing what works best for your home may be largely individualized. Trying a number of different litters may be necessary to find an option that both suits and soothes your cats, mitigating the possibility of future behavioral issues.

Regarding natural litters, “most are biodegradable, flushable, and low dust. Pelleted paper litters can be good for cats after surgery, as they won’t stick to incisions or skin lesions. And they’re also a good way for owners to monitor a cat’s urine output, if that is a concern, adds Dr. Palin.”

By and large, however, “if we’re talking about health, a litter that is low to no dust, and chemical and fragrance free is going to be the best,” says Toth, who mentions a few – and environmentally-friendly – brands her store carries.

Sustainably Yours is a corn and cassava litter and is completely sustainable. It fits all of those standards for cat health, is good for clumping, and is part of a project that protects the rainforest.”

Also renewable is Cocokitty, a 100-percent organic, biodegradable, and compostable no-dust, no-fragrance litter. Entirely plant-based, it is the first kitty litter ever to be made from coconuts.

The Bottom Line

While automated, self-cleaning litter boxes may sound amazing, they might not be the answer prayer pet owners are hoping for. Those that are effective are prohibitively expensive for the average cat owner, says Toth, and those that are affordable typically are not applicable with low-dust, hypoallergenic litters.

“I’ve also had a patient or two that has been scared by an automatic litter box,” says Dr. Palin. “There’s supposed to be a delay [before they turn on], but … sometimes a cat is in the area and suddenly their bathroom is coming alive! It’s something to take into consideration.”

Both subject experts agree that a standard uncovered litter box that is cleaned regularly and refilled with a quality litter is a pet owner’s best bet.

“The bottom line: once you find the cat litter, the box, and the location – don’t change it,” says Dr. Palin. “When you find what works, leave well enough alone.”

And always seek professional assistance if you believe something is amiss.

“If your cat stops using the litter box, the first thing to do is consult your veterinarian,” she continues. “It isn’t always a behavioral problem. There are a lot of health reasons that a cat may stop using its box. Be sure to rule those out first.”