by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
The litter tray is not simply a plastic container for the cat’s convenience; it is an important item in any home where cats spend time indoors. It can be a source of great frustration for both cats and owners, and is often a breaking point in a relationship between cat and owners.
The important factors to consider are position, content, litter tray, the number of litter trays, and cleanliness. Each cat will determine the level of priority of these, and they will probably change as kitten grows to adult, to senior then geriatric cat.
Of high importance for most cats is the position of the litter tray, as being safe when in a compromised position is important. Easy access is necessary, but not near food or water or in high-traffic areas. Enough clear space to see any possible threat approaching, and an alternative escape route are important.
The litter itself must suit the cat’s likes for smell and texture. Crystal litters, apart from being sharp on delicate paws, are scented for the benefit of people; not all cats appreciate the smell. The addition of scenting compounds can also put him off. Kittens and older cats, as well as cats with soft paws or issues of balance, prefer a finer litter while adult cats will tolerate a coarser litter. Some cats do not like the feel of litter on their paws, they may use torn or flat sheets of newspaper. For cats that previously lived outside it may be necessary to begin with garden soil and gradually introduce small amounts of litter to slowly acclimatise him.
The depth of the litter can be a factor – some cats love to dig and need deeper litter while others feel unsteady on the litter and need only enough to use and cover up.
Finding the right litter tray is crucial. Most cats prefer an open one to a closed one; partly from a safety perspective as they cannot see or escape any threat, and also because a closed litter tray will hold smells which make for an unpleasant experience.
The size of the litter tray is important, at least 1 ½ times as long as the cat (or as the kitten will be when he grows up), and twice as wide. This is to allow space for digging, turning around, and covering up.
Litter trays and plastic containers come in all colours. Cats do not see colour in the same way we do, some colours look the same to them. If the litter tray blends into the surroundings cats may not notice it, or feel comfortable using it as it does not have perspective.
Pet shops and supermarkets sell plastic litter trays, however there are other options. Shops that specialise in plastic products provide alternative options. Large trays with high sides are useful for those who like to dig, while display-style containers with an open side are wonderful for small kittens and arthritic cats who cannot manage to climb over the side.
Litter trays do not last forever. Crevices from cracks, and the continual scratching and abrasion of the litter scratches the plastic and allows bacteria to settle. Check the state of the litter tray when it is cleaned and replace as necessary, possibly with a different size or style if appropriate.
The generally-accepted number of litter trays per household is one per cat plus one; where cats have permanent access to a secure and weather-proof garden this number may be reduced. This will give each cat a choice of litter trays at all times. Where this is not possible or practical, cats will learn to use common litter trays; however elimination in other areas can be expected. A common issue is the guarding of pathways to litter trays by other cats, so it is important to have litter trays in various locations around the home.
Cleanliness is important to cats as an instinctive safety measure. Since their – and there predators’ – sense of smell is so good, they need to hide or reduce their smells, hence the covering up of wee and pooh in the litter tray. Many cats will not use a dirty litter tray, or one that has been used by another cat. Litter trays should ideally be cleaned as soon as they are used, or at least twice a day, and washed at least monthly.