Covered or Uncovered Litterboxes: Do Cats Have a Preference?
8 | Posted 11/22/13
By Dr. Sophia Yin
It was late morning midweek and, as usual, we were working on a number of projects in the office. Projects that require quite a bit of teamwork and collaboration. So a few of us were sitting in the office brainstorming when in walks Dante, the office Bengal cat. True to his M.O. Dante announced his arrival with a big MEOW and then promptly walked into his litter box and pooped right in front of us.
A few of the reasons I never wanted a cat were:
- I knew I would hate cleaning the litter box.
- I knew I didn’t want the litter box to ruin the décor and, since the general recommendation is to have enough litter boxes to equal the number of cats in the household plus one, I would need two.
- While I don’t mind seeing my dog poop in the yard and on walks outside, I really did not want a cat walking into my room and pooping a stinky blob right in front of me.
But then I got stuck with Dante, a cat with a history of spraying, and had to adjust. In spite of my loathing for litter, I cleaned his unscented clumping litter (Freshstep®) almost like a compulsive cleaner. The recommendation is to clean the litter box once a day, but I checked it and cleaned it as needed every time I went into the litter box room (which was the bathroom). Then, so I didn’t have to see his box, I placed it conveniently in a cabinet that housed only it, so it was his personal little potty room. Dante did extremely well and never had any accidents or spraying when he was in this set-up!
Now, interestingly, most of you have probably heard that cats don’t like pottying in covered litter boxes; which is what this setup was, in essence. But according to a recent study, this assumption may be wrong.
Researchers at the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine took 27 healthy cats between 3 months to 15 years of age and provided them with exclusive access to two litter boxes —one covered and one uncovered—for a 14-day study period. 80% of the cats had been using uncovered litter boxes; however 60% had used covered litter boxes in the past.
Few or none had used the type of litter boxes used in this study though. These litter boxes were different from your standard commercial litter box. That’s because, in order to ensure that the boxes were large enough for all the cats in the study, the researchers, lead by Dr. Emma Grigg, used modified plastic storage tubs (82.5 x 50.2 x 47.3 cm). For the covered boxes, a 15.2 cm hole was cut in the front. For the uncovered litter box, they cut the storage tub walls so that the walls were only 10 cm from the ground. Both boxes were filled with Freshstep®, scented clumping litter and refilled as necessary to maintain the 5cm depth.
The litter boxes were placed side by side in a room and, on day 8, their positions were reversed. Each day, participants scooped (using identical scoops) and any waste found in the boxes was placed into separate labeled bags. Then Grigg and her colleagues weighed the bags on a daily basis.
The results were clear—in general, cats have no preference.
Once the study was over, the researchers were able to determine that overall there was no preference between covered vs. uncovered boxes; however, some individuals did like one over the other. Four cats (15%) preferred the covered litter box and four cats (15%) preferred the uncovered box. The rest of the cats (70%) didn’t care. Their findings are published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.
Why would some cats prefer uncovered boxes?
You might wonder, if there’s so little preference for uncovered, why do so many people think that cats prefer uncovered boxes? Well, for one, commercial covered litter boxes are generally pretty small. That is, they are less than 1.5 times the length of the cat. Maybe that’s ok for an uncovered box, but a cat can feel pretty cramped when he’s stuck in a small space with high sides! In fact, two of the cats in Grigg’s study who chose the uncovered boxes more were large cats. Another theory behind why some cats dislike uncovered boxes is the stench that is trapped inside when humans fail to clean or the pungency of the litter fragrance in scented litters. In general, once a day cleaning was enough to keep most cats happy; however, one study cat who avoided the covered litter box, promptly started using it after the study was over when the litter was changed to a non-scented brand.
Of course, the good news here is that if you’re getting a cat and prefer to avoid seeing or smelling the stench, go ahead and try a large covered litter box—1.5 times your cat’s size. Just make sure you clean it every single day. However, if your cat is having litterbox issues, it would be good to do a side by side comparison of different litter boxes and litters. This is called a litter box cafeteria.
A second major bit of good news is that this study now gives us license to make litter boxes out of anything that’s the right size. So, currently Dante has two plastic potty palaces made out of storage bins. One is covered but out in plain view. The other is hidden in an empty microwave stand in one of the offices.
So now when Dante comes in to potty in the middle of one of our meetings, we may still get the announcement and faintly smell a Bengal-cat sized stench, but at least you don’t have to see the ugly act. And you can admire the décor of your hidden litter box!
For ideas on how to hide your litter box, go to ikeahackers.net
Litter box tips
- Clean each litter box at least once a day
- The box should be 1.5x the length of the cat
- Make sure the litter is deep enough (5 cm or 2 inches deep in general)
- Use a litter that the cat likes. Generally cats prefer clumping, non-scented litter but you may need to test for preferences.
- Have n + 1 litter boxes (where n = the number of cats in the household)
- Boxes should be located in different rooms or areas of the house.