Decoding Your Cat’s Litter Preference

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Kitties that are persnickety about their litter are smarter than we think

Kitties that are persnickety about their litter are really just remembering what their mother’s taught them.

By Robin Rhea, PetSafe Senior Brand Manager

Have you ever tried to change your cats litter and lived to regret it? Do you think you have persnickety-kitty when it comes to their litter? Through a little litter research, we’ve learned some keys to understanding cuddly kitties and what influences their preference of litter. These findings may save you some major litter head ache and help you understand, love, and possible even respect your cats better.

Cats have physical attributes that impact their preference of litter that are worth noting. Cats relay on eye sight for hunting, they also have an olfactory and auditory senses that are better developed and sensitive than ours. Impressively, cats have 20 million scent receptors in their nose. For comparison, humans have 5 million. So if our cats litter boxes are unclear or the litter is scented, we may not even notice the smell but our cat sure can. These offensive smells are very likely to negatively impact litter box usage.

Cats paws also contain a large number of mechanoreceptors resulting in great sensitivity and reactivity in their feet. This part of what makes them so paws-atively agile. But they may also dislike certain litter types because of the feel of it on their feet or if it clings to their paws.  

In 1990, Dr. Peter Borchelt, an applied animal behaviorist, ran three 10-day tests to determine feline litter preference. The test included a comparison of 14 types of commercial litter as well as topsoil mixed with clay litter and sand. Each cat had 6 boxes to choose from; midway through the testing, the locations of the boxes were moved to prevent a local preference from overriding litter type preference. In each test, fine-grained clumping litter was used more than twice as often as wood chips and grain litter.  Recycled paper litter went completely unused by the cats. Borchelt concluded, “These data support the clinical observation that an important factor in cats’ preference for litter material is its texture, granularity or coarseness.”

Cats usually develop a preference for litter type and scent as kittens.  Most cats are born with a desire to eliminate in substances that can be scratched and scooped in order to form shallow depression for eliminations and they are more likely to prefer litter that is unscented. So when we change our cats litter, we are going against years of programming that is hard wired in. Some cats adapt to a change of litter without any problem at all, but about 50% cats will feel uncomfortable using a type of litter that they didn’t use when they were young unless it is slowly introduced to them.  For a successful transition of litter types, add the new litter in thirds over three weeks.

There are a few circumstances under which specific litters or litter practices that should be considered to give cats a positive litter experience.

  • Paper Litters:  Paper cat litters may be recommended to pets that are declawed, are long haired, or have other surgery or wounds the may be exposed to litter.
  • Biodegradable litters:  Asthmatic cats benefit from biodegradable litters which produce less dust than other litters.
  • For an Outdoor Cat: If you are trying to train an outdoor cat to use a litter box, mix some dirt or soil in with the litter for a few weeks. Slowly decrease the amount of dirt additive. 

So before you make a change to your cats litter, consider things from your cat’s perspective. Avoid strong scents and quick changes; give your special cat some extra care and patience when making any change to their current litter and box. They are clearly very developed animals and they know it! Let’s give them the credit they deserve and the litter they prefer.

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