Litter boxes aren't the most pleasant part of being a cat parent, but they're part of the deal. Litter boxes act as place for your cat to go to the bathroom so you probably want your cat to actually use the box. Cleaning the box regularly, selecting a box that is appealing to cats, and picking the right litter are all important factors in if your cat will use the box (and thankfully, you don't need to train your cat to use the box!).
One sometimes overlooked factor in a cat using the box is where the box is located. While some cats are tolerant of less than ideal locations, placing a box in a good location is extremely important. Box placement is even more critical as your cat ages, if they are sick, or if they are under a lot of stress as they may not want to use a box that isn't appealing to them under those circumstances.
Let's go over some things to think about when deciding where to set up your litter box!
(Not) Over the River and Through the Woods
Let's get this one out of the way first as this is one where a lot of owners put up some resistance. Placing your litter box in the furthest corner of your basement or in a distant closet is usually not a great plan.
Why? Think about it like this: Pretend something happened to the sewer system in your neighborhood. There isn't running water not only in your home, but all your neighbors' homes. The closest place that has running water, and thus functional toilets that the public can use is about a mile away. To make matters worse, your car is broken so you have to walk there to go to the bathroom!
When the time comes to take a leak, you start your journey. If the weather is nice, the walk is flat, you're in somewhat decent shape, and you don't have to go THAT badly yet, you might be fine going on the walk. However, you're probably not going to be thrilled about having to do it multiple times a day.
Now imagine any number of things about the above scenario changes: The weather is bad, there is a large hill you have to go up, you're under a lot of stress, there's a long line once you get to the working bathroom, you're sick or injured, or you don't quite leave in time so you REALLY have to go. You might be tempted to find a nice bush along the way and check to make sure no one is coming before doing your business there. Heck, you may even decide your own backyard is the most appealing solution!
Hopefully you see where I'm going with this: Cats aren't going to like having to trek all the way across the house to go to the bathroom. What may not seem like a big distance to you is actually really far for your cat. Cats are much smaller than us! Plus, why would you want to go all the way to use a toilet when there's a perfectly good bush right there? That's what your cat is thinking.
Okay, they're probably not thinking exactly that. But you get the idea!
Your cat might tolerate a long walk across the home to get to the box that is in the attic, but if there is anything that makes it more difficult to get there such as mobility issues as your cat ages, stress, or if something about the location becomes unappealing, it won't be worth going all that way to the box. Instead, your pile of clean laundry suddenly becomes extremely appealing...
Where is a good place for a box instead? You want to select some place that's accessible for your cat so they can easily choose to use the box in spite of any stressors or extra obstacles that may come up during their life. This doesn't mean it has to be the focal point of your living room, but having at least one box on each floor and in a location your cat can easily get to is going to encourage them to keep using it.
Don't Spook the Cat
"Fine, fine! I'll move the box out of the dungeon," you say. "I think I'll put it in the laundry room on my main floor instead."
Oh boy, do I have some bad news for you.
The laundry room may not be the best choice of location for the box either. Large appliances like washers, dryers, and furnaces can frighten a cat if they turn on suddenly or may keep them away from the box if they're running when the cat wants to use them. Depending on how long the appliance is on for, that may may keep the cat away from the box for a while and an unexpected loud noise may cause the cat to develop an aversion to the box.
Similar to before, even if the appliance isn't super loud to us as humans, think about it from the cat's perspective: Cats have more sensitive hearing than we do. Something that to us is fairly quite may be like a loud rock concert to your cat. It's better to choose somewhere away from the appliances.
Likewise, you don't want to place the box in a spot that's got a lot of sudden comings and goings. This means if your laundry room is connected to a garage, your cat may be frightened if someone opens the door to return home. You'll want to pick someplace a bit more private.
Don't Eat Where You Poop
I really hope this next one goes without saying. Unfortunately, it has to be pointed out: Don't put your cat's food and/or water right next to to box.
If you were forced to eat in your bathroom, you probably would decide to go somewhere else. Cats are no different. Instinctually, it makes a lot of sense: If a cat poops in their water source, that water source may become contaminated. The cat may become sick or even die. It could also spread disease to other cats.
How close is too close? Like many things with cats, it's variable between cats. However, cats were the original social distancers so 6 feet of separation is a good rule of thumb. Even better is a separate room entirely, though that may not always be possible. If you have a really small space, consider at least a visual barrier between the box, food, and water.
If you have multiple cats, there's another factor in choosing location that becomes extremely important: escape routes from the box. Litter boxes can easily become a source of tension for cats that don't quite get along. Even cats that are friendly with each other may accidentally cause the other cat using the box to feel frightened if the cat using the box feels cornered. This can lead to not only a litter box problem, but fighting cats which is an even more challenging problem to solve.
How do you get around this? First, skip the covered box. In some cases they may be needed or make sense, but generally they'll make the cat using the box feel more trapped. Second, make sure there are always multiple ways for your cat to leave the box. Even if they have to jump out of the box, they can still leave if needed which can prevent an altercation. Generally, this means you want at least two sides of the box that aren't blocked off.
This also means that you don't want to keep the box in a small closet or anywhere that the cat may feel confined. I know it's not ideal to have it sitting out in a room, but your cat will thank you by continuing to use the box! Plus, with proper maintenance (read: scooping at least once, or even better twice, a day and doing a deep clean every month) it's not that challenging to keep odors at bay. Your home doesn't need to smell like a litter box as long as you take care of your litter box!
Picking a spot for the box can sometimes be tough and balancing your cat's needs with your wants can take some work. It will be worth it when your cat uses their box on a regular basis and you don't have to clean up cat pee out of your carpet every day. Of course, if you aren't finding a great place or need help figuring out why your cat isn't using the litter box, I am a litter box expert! I can help you figure out why your cat isn't using their litter box and what to do about it.
That said, even if you don't want to, the solution may be to move the box out of the basement. Sorry!
About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.