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Cleaning my cat's litter box: what is the ideal cleaning frequency?

Cat next to litter tray advice

How often should you clean your cat's litter tray?

© Shutterstock

The cat is a big fan of hygiene. It likes to keep itself as clean and tidy as possible. Next time your cat uses his litter box watch how he hides himself away, how careful he is and where he stands when he uses it.

By Nick Whittle

If you really are the responsible cat owner you say you are, you need to be mindful of his ways and make sure his litter box is always clean and tidy. He may not thank you for doing so but he will be more relaxed about using his box if it is empty and fresh.

Here we look at how to clean your cat’s litter box and how often you should do so. But we will also look at what issues you may encounter when cleaning the tray, what to do with urine clumps and what detergents to use. The tools and tips herein will help you to be best placed to look after your cat’s health and wellbeing.

How do I clean a cat litter box?

It may not be the most pleasant duty of a cat owner’s life but it definitely is a duty. Your cat relies on you for comfort and care, and ensuring its wellbeing is the most important aspect of being a diligent owner.

A dirty cat tray not only harbours deadly bacteria but it also upsets your cat. Cats are clean creatures; they will not enjoy using an already dirty loo.

The reason for a cat’s cleanliness is two-fold:

  1. They have a natural want to groom and to clean their fur to keep it healthy
  2. A cat’s toilet instinct is to bury it rather than leave it on display to avoid giving predators a clue about their location.

Thus, you may notice your cat will use his litter tray and then depart apparently leaving no trace. However, don’t be lulled into thinking that nothing was deposited. There is always something lurking beneath the surface of the litter!

Keeping a clean litter tray is therefore an important part of a cat’s social standing and psyche, and should be respected. Writes Prof Voith, an animal behaviourist,

“Cats will [bury their waste in] a litter box, if litter boxes are used appropriately. You have to maintain [the box] and use substrate [litter] appropriately.”

How often should I clean the cat’s litter box?

Of the frequency of litter cleaning the rule of thumb is: clean soiled litter as soon as possible, add fresh litter every two to three days and clean the tray thoroughly every week.

Litter tray to clean
It's very important to clean a cat's litter tray ©Shutterstock

The process of cleaning

Let’s talk about how best to clean the litter and the box. After all, cleaning just the leftovers of your cat’s last meal will not do.

Generally speaking, whether you are cleaning just the litter or the box as well you should make sure you have the following items to hand:

  • Paper towel
  • Warm water
  • Detergent (or dish soap)
  • Baking soda
  • Sealable plastic bag
  • Latex gloves and face mask

General cleaning: Wear protection

At first glance a cat litter tray looks quite innocuous. But naturally it will be covered in bacteria that are harmful to both you and your cat. We would recommend wearing gloves and a face mask either when you are clearing your cat’s deposits or cleaning the entire tray. These will afford some protection against the fumes given off by what the cat has left, and against the bacteria that will become airborne when you collect up the soiled litter.

Poo cleaning: Remove the soil

Whenever you get the chance you should scoop up any soiled litter. If you notice your cat has used the tray, attend to what he has left at once. Some litter is designed to clump around urine; remove urine clumps and faeces as soon as possible.

Litter cleaning: Add more litter

After two or three days of scooping out soiled litter you will notice the level of litter is lower. If you did not refill the tray at this point your cat is likely not to use the remaining litter to cover up his droppings. That may cause him to become unhappy but it will also cause your living quarters to become unbearably smelly!

Tray cleaning: Empty and wash the litter tray

Each week you should remove all of the litter from the box and clean it thoroughly. This involves some of those items we listed earlier. In order to provide your cat with a clean litter tray follow the steps below:

  1. Empty the entire contents of the tray into a bin bag
  2. Using a mild detergent scrub inside the body with a sponge and rinse with warm water
  3. Dry the litter tray thoroughly and then add a tablespoon of baking soda to the bottom of the box. This will help to keep the box smelling fresh
  4. Add fresh litter to the tray

What about cat litter cleaning hacks?

What detergent should you use to clean a cat litter box?

As tempting as it may be, try to avoid the use of an exceptionally strong detergent (such as bleach) or one that is highly perfumed. Both types of product may make the litter tray smell fresh to your nose but to your cat’s nose it will be so repulsive that it may cause him to find a new toilet.

Where should you put a cat litter tray?

We have already mentioned a cat’s love of privacy. It is a delicate animal in terms of its toilet habits. Make sure the litter tray is in a quiet part of the house. The RSPCA mentions the preference of some cats to use a covered tray. Make sure your cat is not disturbed while it is “on the toilet”.

What size cat litter tray is best?

When it comes to buying the right litter box you should first and foremost take into account how much room the cat has to easily move around. You must then consider how easy a cat litter box is to clean, and whether the material it is made from is toxic.

Cat next to litter tray
"Hello human, I think you have a job to do here!" ©Shutterstock

What happens if you don't change the litter box?

If you did not clean up after your cat and you left the litter box to become foul, you are not just putting your cat’s health in jeopardy. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to nasty and sometimes life-threatening illnesses caused by the bacteria found in cat faeces.

Of other nasties caused by a dirty litter tray we can include intestinal worms, ammonia toxicity, urinary infections and viruses: all caused by faeces and urine which left on display contaminate the air and surfaces of the home.

How to clean a cat litter box while pregnant

That warning brings us on to one of our last advisories about cleaning cat litter while pregnant. In short: don’t do it! It is NOT advisable for a pregnant woman to carry out litter cleaning duties on account of her being exposed to a parasitic virus called Toxoplasma gondii.

Toxoplasmosis is most often suffered by someone who has come into direct contact with faeces. That may not happen often, but is it really worth the risk? Tommys information service warns of the remote possibility that toxoplasmosis may be inhaled by close contact with cat faeces.

Caught during pregnancy Toxoplasmosis can cause a miscarriage or stillbirth; it can even cause the unborn baby to suffer abnormalities.

To avoid your cat becoming infected with the parasite PetMD suggests you keep your cat indoors, avoid feeding him raw meat and forbid him to hunt.

Cleaning your cat’s litter tray is not difficult, but it is a chore, and can be quite unpleasant. However, it is an important part of cat ownership. Cleaning regularly allows your cat to feel more relaxed while using the tray and prevents him from suffering nasty illnesses.

A dirty cat tray not only smells bad, it is a dangerous harbour of bacteria. Make sure you always have to hand a scoop for post-toilet clean ups and the cleaning materials needed to replace the litter each week.

Have you just got a new kitten? Teach him how to use the litter tray