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January 27, 2021

Cat Litter Boxes: Locations Matter

Poor litter box location

Tucked away in a cabinet, behind the laundry room door—this may seem like an ideal location for a litter box. It is out of the way, hidden from view, odors are contained and it’s private. Although this might be a perfect solution for people, it’s not for cats.

Survival and safety take priority over privacy. Cats need to go to the bathroom in locations where they can’t potentially be trapped by another animal. They also don’t want to eliminate in enclosed areas that retain odors and most cats don’t respond well when startled by sudden noises such as cycling washers and dryers.


What’s wrong with this picture?
Everything is wrong with the location of this litter box. It may work for the cat’s people, but not for the cat. The box being located in a cabinet has two fundamental problems. Cabinets retain odors. Even though this box is scooped every day, the smells remain in the cabinet. People can’t smell the odors, but the cat can. Because a cat has a highly develop sense of smell, they often avoid litter boxes that smell offensive to them.

Everything about the location of this litter box screams ambush and is a set up for the cat to be trapped by another animal. In addition to potentially being waylayed in the cabinet, the cat can be cornered behind the door. Furthermore, because the cat can’t see around the door, he can’t see any threats that he may need to escape from. Cats do not want to be in situations where they can be trapped or ambushed.

In addition to the potential of being trapped, laundry rooms are notorious for sudden noises. The sounds of cycling washers and dryers can startle cats—another factor influencing the cat to find a safer place to eliminate.

Ideal Litter Box Location
An ideal location for a litter box is against the wall in a large room. The box should not be in a cabinet or enclosed in a closet. The view from the box needs to be expansive—the whole room, out the door and down the hall (if there is one). A box with a view lets the cat identify any potential threat which he can easily escape from. Litter boxes should not be placed in high traffic areas or areas with lots of noise and activity. Although cats aren’t as into privacy as people are, they do not want to do their business in high profile areas either.

Some people may not want to put litter boxes in those areas that are perfect for cats. Litter boxes do not need to be the focal point of a room. They can be placed in spots that are both unobtrusive to people and appealing to cats. Litter box placement can make the difference between a cat faithfully eliminating in the litter box and one who avoids it.


Animals Repeat Behaviors…

There is a short video posted on my site of sweet, little Olivia, one of my Bengals, closing the door. This behavior has earned her a little publicity. Animal Planet’s Cats 101 filmed her shutting the door for the Bengal segment that aired for the first time last fall. People are curious about how I trained her to do this behavior. Although clicker training was used to capture and shape shutting the door, it originated as a natural behavior.

Years ago Olivia did a less refined version of the behavior before meal times. It started with a simple headbutt on the door of the bathroom where she and two of her siblings enjoy their meals. Her headbutt always moved the door a couple of inches. Because she always headbutted the door right before being fed, I consistently reinforced the behavior by feeding her immediately after. When I realized this was a step toward learning other fun behaviors, I decided to use clicker training to capture, shape and build this into a cued behavior.

It was easy. Olivia was already being reinforced for the abridged version of the behavior, and she was also fluent in “Clicker Speak”. I stocked my bathroom with her favorite dehydrated chicken treats and a couple of clickers. I was ready. With the aid of the clicker, I captured the natural headbutting movement and then gradually  changed it (called shaping in Clicker Speak)  to the desired behavior of standing on her back legs and pushing the door closed with her front paws. Every step was marked with a click and reinforced with a treat. After she performed the behavior correctly a number of times upon request, I added the verbal cue “door” as I gave her a visual cue.

Sessions were short as it had to be fun for Olivia. If it wasn’t fun for her; it wasn’t fun for me. She started adding her own special touches. One of my favorites is a chirp. She always chirps when she closes the door. Her chirps are always reinforced. I love her chirps; her chirps reinforce me.

As a Bengal, Olivia is highly motivated by attention. She is what I call in my book Naughty No More! an “Attention Seeker”. She will do just about anything for praise and attention. Since I take advantage of bragging rights, I show my cats and their neat behaviors off whenever the opportunity presents itself. My cats love an audience and will happily repeat behaviors for a little praise and attention. Olivia thrives on admiration. People come over to visit Olivia. They call me on the phone and ask if Olivia is in the mood for visitors. Then they come over just to see her close the bathroom door.

Olivia is trying out new variations of the behavior. She rushes into the bathroom when she sees anyone entering and closes the door behind them. Yesterday she followed me into the kitchen. When I opened the refrigerator, she stood on her back legs, chirped at me and closed the door. Of course Olivia is always reinforced for her new, creative approaches to her old standard door behavior.

Introducing the New Cat to the Resident Cat

I’m inspired to write a blog about how to properly introduce cats to each other since so many people do the introductions too fast and in a way that results in stress and aggression.

Introductions can be done with a minimum of stress. They need to be done slowly, it can take a month or longer to properly introduce cats to each other. Cats are territorial. It’s too much to ask any cat to accept a stranger into her house without proper introductions. People are the same way. We don’t react well when an uninvited stranger walks into our home. Neither do cats.

The newcomer needs her own room where she can be safe, away from any other animals. This will be her safe room, her sanctuary. It needs to be comfortable for her, with food, water, bed, cat boxes, a window to look out of and toys. The other reason she needs to be confined away from your resident cat is safety. Whenever bringing in a new cat, ALWAYS keep it completely separate from the other animals. There are diseases that can easily be transmitted to your other cats. In fact, I highly recommend keeping water hand cleaner handy. Use it after you interact with the newcomer. Too many diseases are so easily transmittable.

So… to those of you who think it’s an OK thing to put a cat in a carrier in the center of the room so that the cat “safely” meet the other cats… it is not OK, it is not safe. It also very scary for cats to be in a carrier for hours or days and it’s inhumane… I’m segueing again. Sorry…

Back to introducing cats. The goal is to encourage the cats to have positive associations through mutual activities while they are separated from each other. I’m posting some excerpts from a page that I give my clients on how to introduce cats to each other. I’m being slightly lazy because I need to post next about the 35 Bengals in need… now 45…

Judge by the cat’s responses in each phase to determine the length of each of the phases detailed below. There is no typical time frame. Every cat is different. If there is howling or hissing or any other signs of aggression, prolong the phases. Cats should remain separated from each other throughout the introduction process described below:

1. Twice a day: Use two clean socks or rags. Gently pet the new cat’s cheek with one sock, transferring pheromones onto the sock. Repeat, using the second sock on the resident cat’s cheek. Place each sock where the other cat hangs out, but not under their food, near litter boxes or in their sleeping area.

Socks must always be clean.

2. Continue pheromone exchanges. Also, 2-3 times a day, feed the cats delicious treats or regular meals simultaneously, separated by the closed door. Try feeding close to the closed door. If, at first they either won’t eat or display aggression towards each other, back the food away from the closed door to a comfortable eating distance. When comfortable with the distance, move the feeding stations closer to the door until they are eating next to each other (separated by the closed door) without displaying aggression.

3. Continue the activities in Phase 2.

Twice a day: Continue to pet cheeks with socks. Instead of putting the socks where the other cats sleep, inch socks towards feeding stations. Use clean socks or rags each time.

Twice a day: encourage non-threatening interaction between the cats. Use a toy with something cat-intriguing on both ends. Position the double-ended toy under the door so the cats can play tug of war. Before play sessions spray Feliway spray on the bottom of the door. Don’t leave this toy out if you can’t supervise the play.

4. Continue the activities in Phase 3, separated by the closed door.

Change locations for a few hours every day, putting the resident cat in the newcomer’s room, allowing the newcomer to explore another area of the house.

Twice a day: Continue to pet cheeks with socks. Instead of putting the socks where the other cats sleep, pet their cheeks with the socks that have the other cat’s cheek pheromones on it.

5. Continue the activities in Phase 4, separated by the closed door.

Introduce cats to each other without the benefit of a closed door: Open the door to the confinement room. When door is opened, feed one cat at a distance from the room at the same time the other cat is being fed in the confinement room. The cats should be able to smell and hear each other and if possible, see each other. Gradually increase time the door is open by one second at every feeding time. Supervise! At any sign of aggression, divert the cats attention and close the door.

Watch the body and eye language and the locations the cats choose to occupy. Check for fur rippling, ear positions, fixed stares, pupils dilating, pounce postures, etc. If all OK, gradually extend their times together, supervising them

Once a day: Use clean towels. Pet the resident cat’s back and sides with a towel. Pet the new cat with another towel. Then exchange towels, petting each cat with the other’s towel.

Whiskers (Vibrissae): The First Installment


Miss Mushu

Many years ago there was a lovely cat named Mushu who refused to eat like most other self-respecting cats. Instead of putting her head into her food bowl, she would dip her right paw into the food and scoop up big chunks with the intention of depositing the food in her mouth. Unfortunately, Miss. Mushu wasn’t very adept at this activity and would fling food around the room. Her meals would regularly end up plastered on the walls and sometimes on the ceiling.

Why was Mushu depositing her meals on the ceiling instead of in her mouth? Was Mushu a clumsy example of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? Was she learning to use a knife and a fork?

The answer to this mystery lies in her muzzle whiskers and the shape and depth of her food bowl. A cat’s whiskers help her define her world. They are an important part of her navigation equipment. Whiskers help her find her way around in the dark. Whiskers are very sensitive, sensing changes in the wind and air currents, allowing her to sense objects and navigate around them in the deepest night. Since they are the width of her body; she uses them to determine if she can fit into tight places. They also help her hunt, are like little fingers outlining her prey. Her whiskers help her determine where to strategically bite her prey in order to kill it. Whiskers help her see.  They are sensitive. They feel.

Small bowls can annoy sensitive whiskers. The bowl Miss Mushu ate out of was small and deep, her whiskers touched the sides. Since Mushu couldn’t verbalize that she hated the way the bowl felt on her sensitive whiskers, she scooped the food out with her paw and flung it on the walls and ceiling.


Bok Choi, a Special Boy

One of my Bengals, Bok Choi was diagnosed last night with a large tumor in his lower intestine. He is very sick, the tumor is fast growing. I’m very sad. Bok Choi had a very rough life, was dealt a bad genetic hand, has HCM, disintegrating spine along with some other disorders and to top it off, the previous owner had him 4 pawed declawed and abused him.

Bok Choi is my special boy. Through the years he’s lived with me, he’s been my teacher. I know that sounds a little odd, but he has had just about every behavior problem known and unknown to cat. He has taught me to think out of the box and look at creative solutions. He’s a wonderful boy, I love him dearly and he will be so missed by me and his best buddy Kingsley.

My veterinarian doesn’t think it’s his time yet, but it’s soon. He’s now home, so he can enjoy his last few days with his best friend.

You can see a picture of him in my blog entry about Bengals and litter boxes.