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Outside the Box, Part 1

How to Prevent Problems


Nothing puts kitty in the proverbial doghouse like a urine spot on the carpet. Inappropriate elimination tops the list of problems feline behaviorists deal with, and it's the number one reason cats are surrendered to shelters or pounds. That's the bad news. The good news is that housesoiling problems can be prevented. That's what I'll be discussing in this story. In Part Two, you'll read about how to deal with problems that have already appeared.

What Cats Want
Understanding what cats look for in a desirable toilet area reveals preferences that are not unlike our own. For example, it must be clean, private and easily accessible. They also have some requirements that are based on their survival instincts: It must contain an easily-raked substrate and it must offer escape potential. Although our pets live in the safety and comfort of our homes, from their point of view these considerations are still vital to their well-being. This survival know-how is pre-programmed into your cat's brain, just as it was in his ancestor's, the African wildcat-a cat who had unlimited access to a sandy substrate. By covering his waste, he was able to elude detection by prey or potential predators. He was also alert to the danger of being caught in a vulnerable position, so escape potential while eliminating was a life-saving priority.

How does all this translate into setting up the ideal litter box situation in your home? If we look at it from the cat's point of view, we will make decisions that will be in harmony with the cat's basic nature-making it more likely that kitty will find the litter box acceptable.

For most people, scooping and cleaning the litter box is the most unappealing aspect of cat ownership. Manufacturers of litter and litter boxes capitalize on this fact. New products are popping up every day, and the manufacturers claim they can take the mess, smell and work out of litter box maintenance. It can all be very confusing to the well-meaning but not well-informed cat owner. Should the litter box be open or covered? Should the litter be scented or fragrance-free? Should the litter be clumping or non-clumping? What about litter box liners?

Always base your decisions on what is most natural from the cat's point of view. What would kitty use if he were in the great outdoors? He would look for a soft, diggable substrate, such as garden soil. There would be no artificial fragrance and, of course, no plastic liners. He would have plenty of room to perform his elimination ritual of sniffing, digging, squatting and turning around. A clean spot would be selected each time-at least six inches from the last spot he used.

The Bigger, the Better
Now, how do we meet these requirements indoors? Let's start with the litter box. Select a box that is at least 16 inches by 22 inches. Avoid boxes that have rims that slant inward-they cut out a lot of interior space for the cat and are awkward for the cat to enter. The sides can be six inches high, unless the litter box is for a small kitten or a handicapped cat.

Some of the best litter boxes are not sold in pet supply stores, but in hardware stores, where they are labeled "all-purpose tubs." People whose cats like to throw the litter out of the box, or who overshoot the box by not squatting down enough while urinating, have found that a large, high-sided storage box (minus the cover) works well to contain the mess. An entryway can be cut into one side to give the cat easy access.

Hooded or covered litter boxes are popular with consumers, but if cats did the shopping, they would be left on the shelves. Humans do not want to see or smell what kitty leaves behind in the litter box, but for that matter, neither does kitty. The hooded litter box forces him to enter a cramped, cave-like structure that concentrates odors, creating an outhouse effect. Since the cat's sense of smell is at least 14 times more sensitive than ours, this may be all it takes to send kitty in search of a fresher smelling toilet area-quite likely a corner of the dining room. The dining room has another advantage, too: Unlike the hooded litter box, it offers a spacious area with escape potential. This is especially important to felines in multicat families, where litter box ambushes are likely.

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