Tag Archives: litter boxes

What do cats love about their litter box? Well it might depend…as I’ve blogged about before, research as clearly demonstrated the importance of cleanliness, and we can use cats’ behaviors to help us better understand when they are having a good experience in their kitty commode. And when they aren’t having a good experience? That is when you are likely to find cat urine on your backpack, your bathmat, your bed, your tub, your fruit basket, your shoes, oh and all kinds of other very strange and interesting places.

A new study adds another piece to the puzzle, testing the effect of a litter attractant on the box behaviors of sixteen cats.

The study, The behavioural effects of innovative litter designed to attract cats, was a collaboration between the University of Guelph, Purdue, and the funders, the Kent Pet Group (more on them later). Previous studies have shown that cats prefer clay clumping litter compared to other types (pellets and pearls). Likely due to the sensitive nature of cats’ feet as well as their desire to dig and scratch in a substrate before and after eliminating, they prefer a very fine-grained litter.


However, some cat owners do not like clay litter, and are looking for something that might be more environmentally friendly, or less dusty than clay litter, which can often send them down to the pet store in search of alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives cause more problems than they solve (TIDY CAT BREEZE and FELINE PINE, I’m looking at you – your products should come with warning labels). But how do cats feel about alternative litters? And can they be made more attractive with an “attractant”? That’s what the current study sought to find out.

The cats were brought into the lab from an animal shelter for about a month - the duration of the study (and they were all adopted out into homes after the study). The cats were housed in groups of eight, and their room had perches, hiding spots, beds and toys. The cats received social visits during the study.

Picture by Frayne et al., via a Creative Commons License.

Each group of cats had access to eight litter boxes that were cleaned twice daily. At first, half of the boxes had clay litter and the other half had a plant-based litter, and the cats were gradually transitioned to 100% plant-based litter by mixing the two, increasing the amount of plant-based litter in the clay litter boxes each day.

After about a week of transitioning, the test began, which was to compare the cats’ use of plant-based (PB) litter with a PB litter that included an ”attractant” (PB+ATTRACT; although the nature of this attractant is not revealed). Half of the boxes had PB+ATTRACT in them and the other half just had plain old PB litter. Video cameras were installed so litter box behaviors (digging, covering, number of paws in the box, sniffing, and whether the cat actually peed or pooped) could be assessed over the next few weeks.

The key findings included that, NO SURPRISE!! Cats really went to town in the box right after it had been scooped. They also seemed to prefer the location of one box (#3) and used that one more than any other box, which may have impacted the results (this box contained the plain PB litter without attractant added). Also, none of the cats eliminated anywhere besides a litter box during the duration of the study.

Did the cats prefer the litter with the attractant? The only difference was that the cats urinated significantly more often in the PB+ATTRACT litter. There were more effects of the sex of the cat, such that males spent more time covering and sniffing their eliminations compared to the female cats in the study. This behavioral difference has been found in other studies and likely reflects some of the behaviors related to mating that are retained even in neutered cats.

As I’ve mentioned before, litter box use does not equal preference. This study would have been strengthened if they had compared the PB litter with a clay-based litter of similar texture. But I think that would have gone against the funding source’s interest. The Kent Group, who funded the study, is the maker of “World’s Best Cat Litter” – so I’m guessing that the unnamed products in this study are WBCL and their new formulation that includes an “attractant.” My own experience as a consultant is that plenty of cats will use this litter, but a fair amount will not, and when tested with other choices, cats do not tend to prefer it.  I appreciate that a company is willing to publish their findings, as many corporations keep their research under wraps.

Is this how your cats perceive their litter boxes?
Picture by Jeff Barton via a Creative Commons License

Behaviors were only recorded during daytime hours, which may have limited observations of some cats who may prefer to eliminate overnight. The researchers also could have rotated the positions of the litter boxes with PB and PB+ATTRACT litter to eliminate any influence of litter box location. Another issue with the way the study was set up is that all of the litter boxes were in the same general location, which is not recommended in a home environment. Cats may experience multiple litter boxes that are side by side as one “elimination area” rather than separate boxes, which may make the area less attractive (think of the difference to us between a public restroom with a bunch of stalls versus one that is private!). This litter box crowding may have made some cats uncomfortable when eliminating, especially if all cats were interested in using the boxes right after they had been cleaned. An alternative approach would have been to have multiple locations in the enclosure that had the two types of litter side by side.

The finding that cats preferred to urinate in PB+ATTRACT litter is important – urinating outside of the box is an issue that sends many cats to the shelter, or even to their death, so anything that increases a cat’s interest in the litter box is good to be aware of. However, my mantra for your own cat is to give them some choices (here's a quick guide), and let them tell you what they like…and SCOOP SCOOP SCOOP!!!!!!!


Frayne, J., Murray, S. M., Croney, C., Flickinger, E., Edwards, M., & Shoveller, A. K. (2019). The Behavioural Effects of Innovative Litter Developed to Attract Cats. Animals9(9), 683.

A recent study helps us better understand cat elimination behavior

If you build it , they will come. Photo by CambridgeBayWeather courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Going to the bathroom, it seems so simple – everybody does it! But when it comes to cats, things can get complicated. When we provide what they prefer in a litterbox, it’s like magic – you build it (the litterbox), they will come. Thanks to cats’ natural proclivities for eliminating in a loose substrate, we don’t even have to “train” cats to use the litterbox.

But when things go wrong, and by that, I mean pee on your bed or poop on the floor, they go horribly wrong. Nothing sends guardians into despair, and cats into homelessness quicker than a litterbox avoidance issue. Any research that can help us understand the intricacies of feline elimination behavior is a good thing in my book.

Recently the folks at Purina published a study in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science called, “The ins and outs of the litter box: A detailed ethogram of cat elimination behavior in two contrasting environments.” This study was all about observation, no judgment, with a goal of providing a detailed ethogram of the behaviors that cats exhibit during elimination.

Twelve cats (six female, six male) who live in an enriched environment at the Purina cattery participated in the study. First the cats were allowed to acclimate to the testing room for 4 days. The testing room was 12 x 13’, with elevated resting areas, toys, and a large litterbox (approximately 3’x3’ square, and six inches high) with sandy clay clumping litter. On the 5th day, filming of the cats began, focusing on pre-, during, and post-elimination behaviors. On days 9 to 13, the cats were moved to a small enclosure (2 x 2.3 x 2.7’) within the room, to mimic the “clinical” environment a cat might be housed in while in a veterinary hospital or boarding facility. Cats were also given a smaller litterbox (16” x 12” x 4” high) and the litter was switched to polypropylene beads, similar to pellet litters that are sometimes used instead of the softer litters.

Ninety-one elimination events were recorded during the study, 58 urinations, 24 defecations, and nine 2-for-1s (or a number two with a number one!). From this, the researchers were able to come up with a detailed list of observations and differences between the two conditions (original vs clinical environment). Let’s take a closer look at some of the interesting findings!

First of all, 7 to 8 AM was the most popular time to pee and poop. In case you were wondering (of course, this might be related to what time the cats are fed, which was not noted in the manuscript).

From this study, 38 elimination behaviors were observed and included in an ethogram, which covers everything from tail positions to paw motions and body postures. From the observed behaviors, and what we know from studies previously published by Wailani Sung & Sharon Crowell-Davis, and by Nicole Cottam & Nicholas Dodman, we can assume that there were some things about the clinical setting that the cats didn’t like.

A cat who doesn't put all their paws in the box might be trying to tell you something. Photo by 十字花剑 via Wikimedia Commons.

During urination, cats did more pawing at the litter when eliminating in the beads; they also did more “paw shifting” and kept fewer paws in the box with the beads. They also urinated less frequently and for longer periods in the clinical setting. When defecating, the cats were more likely to balance their paws on the side of the box, and were more hesitant to enter the box in the clinical setting with the bead litter.

For both urination and defecation, the cats spent more time sniffing their eliminations, and scratching at the walls or sides of the box in the clinical setting; there were no differences in time spent digging in the different litter substrates. The only times that the cats eliminated outside the box was in the clinical setting, with four urination and five defecation events occurring elsewhere.

Unfortunately, one issue with the current study is that in the “clinical” environment, the experimenters changed three things at once: the size of the enclosure, the size of the litterbox, AND the type of the litter. It’s hard to say for certain that the behavioral changes observed during the switch from enriched to clinical setting were due to one of those things, or perhaps because of an additive or interaction effect between more than one change. To tease factors like these apart, it’s really best to only change one thing at a time.

The authors suggest that a quick elimination experience may actually be a good thing; the extended time cats spent pawing at the areas around the box may have been because they kept smelling their waste in the box (also supported by more sniffing post-elimination in the clinical setting) – suggesting that the beads may not have provided enough odor control for the participating cats.

Another observation of concern was that the cats urinated less frequently and for longer periods in the clinical setting. This may be due to urine retention – in other words, that the cats were holding their urine for some reason (possibly because something about the litterbox experience was unpleasant). Urine retention can be a risk factor for urinary tract disease, which is another reason for us to better understand what helps cats love their litterboxes!

Perhaps most importantly, if we can assume that something about the clinical setting was distasteful to the cats, either the litter substrate, the size of the box, or both – this assumption further underscores the importance of understanding that USE does not equal preference. I’ve blogged about this before. Basically, just because your cat uses it, we should not assume they like it!

Because the cats showed some “frustration behaviors” in the clinical setting even when still using the box, including not putting all paws in the box and spending more time scratching at other areas besides the litter, the authors of the current study state, “out-of-box elimination alone may not provide a sufficient indicator of whether the cat finds the litter box experience acceptable.” Nuff said.

Photo via cheezburger.com: http://cheezburger.com/697955072/did-you-have-2-git-the-cheap-litter