Cats are fastidious creatures, so it follows that they require an environment that is likewise fastidious. First and foremost, that applies to their litter boxes. That plastic box filled with ground clay, recycled newspapers, wood, corn or wheat products or crystals sitting in your basement or in the corner of the laundry room may look innocuous.
Therein lies the danger, and that danger is the cat will not use a dirty litter box, perhaps finding your heirloom oriental rug more appealing. According to a much-cited study by the National Council on Pet Population, litter box avoidance is listed in about a third of cats relinquished to shelters. Often the solution may be as simple as keeping the box clean: cats frequently use the box after you have scooped almost as a way of saying “Thanks, Mom.”
You can never scoop too often, especially with multiple cats. That basement may be convenient from a human’s viewpoint, but it’s easy to overlook litter box duty, “Kitty KP,” and easy for the kitty to find a more convenient and cleaner location. By the way, clean includes vacuuming up the scattered litter, hosing out the box periodically with mild detergent and water and replacing even scoopable litter every few weeks.
Self-cleaning, electric litter boxes minimize scooping but still require regular cleaning, especially if your cat overshoots the box. Similarly a hooded box may hide the contents; however, odors collecting in that small space may be offensive to your feline, especially if the litter box is not cleaned.
The Kid Factor
Another dirty box danger can be found in curious toddlers–all the more reason for keeping the box clean. Along with teaching respect for animals at the earliest age possible, even the smallest children should simply be kept away from the box. That means placing the box in a location that is accessible to the cat yet inaccessible to the child. Obviously, a dirty litter box harbors germs and bacteria, which can linger even after scooping. You wouldn’t let your toddler play in the toilet, would you?
Interspecific coprophagia is more distasteful than dangerous, according to Jacque Lynn Schultz, CPDT, Companion Animal Programs adviser for the American Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Simply stated, some dogs may like to snack on what the cat leaves behind in the box.
Despite the grossness factor, Schultz says that “fresh stool from healthy, domesticated animals is generally safe to eat.” The problem occurs when dogs eat the stool from wild animals with internal parasites or that of free-roaming cats. Along with vigilant scooping, some canine training and dietary adjustments may be required.
And, speaking of parasites, toxoplasmosis from cat feces is frequently cited as a reason why pregnant women and those whose immune systems are compromised should avoid scooping the litter box, or worse yet, give up their cat. The danger here lies in the contents of the box, not whether the box is dirty or clean. To minimize that danger, get the cat tested; a healthy inside-only cat will probably test negative for the disease. Humans can be tested as well, although according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, they have a more likely chance of acquiring toxoplasmosis from raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables. Avoiding Kitty KP will not help matters. If you’re uncomfortable scooping, leave it to your better half or don rubber gloves and a mask when doing the dirty deed.
The Nose Knows
All in all, the biggest danger of a dirty litter box is aesthetic. It offends the senses of the feline, who may choose to eliminate elsewhere, and the humans, who must live with the odor. The message is simple. Scoop often.