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Cleaning the Litter Box When You Struggle with Mental Health

published on
April 23, 2023
Hayley Williams
Table of Contents
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Cat guardians, do you struggle with the care task of cleaning the litter box? I think a lot of us have shame around this task. Know this. You are not a bad cat guardian for struggling to clean the litter box. I hope this post helps you find ways to overcome your barriers to cleaning the litter box.

First, I want to validate that cleaning the litter box is hard. Add your own personal mental and physical barriers or a cat that’s going outside the box and it only gets harder. For those that don’t know, I am neurodivergent and have sensory issues. I have struggled with mental and physical health issues my whole life. If you want to know more about my personal experience go here.

My cats have helped me on my mental health journey and caring for them has been one of my reasons for being. I may not have known when I started my blog and named it Cat Therapy that the name would be so fitting for what I do now – creating functional spaces for cats and their guardians. One of the things that keeps our homes functioning is cleaning, so here’s what I would start with when trying to clean the litter box:

Some barriers to cleaning the litter box

  1. Too many steps
  2. Sensory issues
  3. Out of sight, out of mind
  4. Physical disabilities
  5. Not having the right tools
  6. Not part of a routine

Too many steps

It’s natural to get overwhelmed when you’re thinking about all the steps it takes to clean the litter box. Here are some ways to break it down into something more actionable.

  1. List out the steps it takes to clean the litter box and see where you’re getting stuck: Maybe you can eliminate that step such as having to get the scoop out of the cabinet or adding a litter pail next to the litter box for easy disposal. For example, I personally use a Litter Genie and my scoop hangs on my litter box.

  1. Cut down the cleaning steps with sifting boxes: There are several kinds of these types of litter boxes. From personal experience cleaning these boxes as a pet sitter they do sometimes come with their own issues. For example, the ones that roll to separate the dirty litter have come apart on me and then I had to clean that up. The liners that sift sometimes get large holes in them if your cat is a digger. But some people don’t have these issues and it's their favorite tool. Some popular ones I’ve seen and personally cleaned are this one and this one.

  1. Cut out the cleaning step with disposable: Similar to disposable plates or toothbrushes, there is such a thing as disposable litter boxes. Being able to skip the cleaning process and toss the box completely can cut out one of the biggest challenges to owning cats. And while I don’t think you should eco-shame yourself if disposable is what you need. There are some environmentally friendly ones on the market such as this one if that’s one of your concerns.

  1. Create the habit of regularly picking up the scoop and putting it down: One of the hardest parts is starting. Practicing just picking up the tool can help us prepare ourselves to do the rest of the tasks.

  1. Alternating multiple litter boxes: While it may seem like creating more work for yourself. Having more than one litter box for your cat can actually be less work overall and super beneficial for you and your cat. Having more than one allows them more options and a better litter box experience overall. The boxes will be easier to clean too because there’s not as much build up. However, you don’t have to clean them all at once. To break it up into a smaller task, consider alternating days while still giving your cat at least one clean litter box to use. For example, say you have three litter boxes. You can do two on Monday and one Wednesday. This will obviously depend on the number of cats you have, how many litter boxes they need and how much space you have so don’t be afraid to experiment.

  1. Set a timer for 1 minute and clean what you can – When the time is up, call it good enough. Any progress is better than none at all and makes it easier to clean next time.

  1. Gamify it: Keep a chart with a check mark or star every day you clean the litter box and see how long of a streak you can reach. Remember it’s okay if you miss a day.

Sensory issues

  1. Overwhelmed by your senses: The fact of the matter is litter boxes can send our nervous system into a frenzy, especially when we’ve gone a long time without cleaning them. Having to clean a dirty litter box is fun for no one, cats included. One thing that helped me be motivated to clean before it got really bad was knowing that my cats were super sensitive to smells and would go elsewhere if I didn’t clean it regularly.

  1. Litter issues such as tracking, not clumping, dust and so on: This deserves its own post in of itself. And I’ve written about my own litter disposal system and posted on my Instagram about trying a lower tracking litter. A system many neurodivergent people like is the Tidy Cats Breeze Litter System. So know that you are not alone if litter on the floor is a sensory nightmare or the dust overwhelms you. There are options out there for reducing these common problems with litter and I write about litter and litter boxes often so stay tuned for more solutions.

  1. Inability to smell: While many rely on smell to remember to clean the litter box if you lack the ability to smell or don’t notice strong smells as much it can be easy to forget it exists. This is when you have to rely on other things such as alarms, automatic routine and even using the scoop to feel if there’s clumps.

Out of sight, out of mind

  1. Throwing out the rule book on where you have to have your litter box: Forget any rules you may be holding on to about where you have to have the litter box. Put the litter box in high traffic areas where you will walk by it and see it or where you spend the majority of your time. Yes, even in the kitchen. Someone may say that the litter box doesn’t belong in the kitchen, but I can promise you a clean litter box in a kitchen is far better than a cat who is eliminating outside the litter box on your furniture or clothes because we didn’t see that the litter box was dirty.

  1. Having an aesthetic litter box you’re okay leaving out: One of my personal barriers to having my litter box out was it was visually stimulating. This is why I wrote a post on styling your litter box to match your personal style so you don’t mind having it out and it can blend in. I also wrote a review of the litter box I use here.

  1. Uncovered litter box to keep it in sight and top of mind: For some, an uncovered litter box might be the solution for you and your cat. Many cats don’t like covered litter boxes anyway. Tuft + Paw has one of the most beautiful uncovered litter boxes with built in cleaning tools.

How to create a habit in your routine

  1. Set up a routine and pair it with another task or trigger: Many of us don’t have cleaning the litter box built into our routine. The best way I’ve found to create a habit is to pair a trigger with a current habit in my pattern. For example, my trigger is going to bed by putting the cats in the office and closing the office door. Before I can do that I have to clean the litter box that is in there. Another one might be when you feed your cats that you also check their litter box.

  1. Alarms to remind you to clean: Many people struggle with time blindness or even just the day getting away from them. Which is why alarms can be helpful to create that trigger to clean. Setting one at the same time every day can make it part of your routine.

No shame in asking for help

  1. Asking for help is valid: Sometimes we just need help from others. Whether that be friends, family or even a professional pet sitter. I used to clean litter boxes for a living actually. It’s a very valuable service for those who are struggling. You can schedule for a certain day and time a week for someone to come in and clean it for you. If that’s out of your budget and the litter box needs a reset consider asking a trusted friend to come over and help.

  1. Body doubling: What is body doubling? It's essentially a social method to start and finish a task. Have you ever noticed that you get more done when you’re in a coffee shop surrounded by other people working? This is a form of body doubling. It's basically an accountability partner but they don't have to physically be doing the same thing as you or even be in the physical space. For cleaning the litter box you can find a body doubling group, call a friend, or even text and ask another cat owner to clean their litter box at the same time as you. They probably need to do it too.

Not having the right tools

  1. Automatic litter boxes: With manual litter boxes there can just be too many barriers to keeping it clean. I can understand an automatic litter box is a big investment, but many neurodivergent people say that having an automatic litter box was a game changer for them. Be sure to read the return policy and set a reminder to return it if your cats can’t adjust to one as the moving parts may scare some cats. One of the most popular is the Litter-Robot 3 but there’s more lower end options like this one too from PetSafe.

  1. A long-handed scoop: Whether for sensory, physical or other reasons that you can’t be close to the litter, consider a long-handed scoop. It allows you to clean without a lot of bending over.

  1. A convenient disposal system: There are days that people with mental or chronic illness have no spoons left. We just don’t have the capacity to get the dirty litter out of the house, mess with waste bags and so on. That’s why having a litter pail, similar to how parents have a dirty diaper pail, can help you when you've reach your limit.

  1. Having a handheld vacuum nearby for around the litter box: No matter what litter box, litter or litter mat you choose. Cats have an uncanny ability to get litter outside the box. Having a handheld vacuum you can use for a quick once over is one of my essential tools for keeping the litter from spreading further afield.

Listening to your cat

  1. Thinking about how your cat feels as a motivator: One of my big mental shifts was realizing that my cat Leon is a very sensitive being like me. When I realized that a clean litter box was one of the most important things in his world and the strong smells were keeping him from using the box, it shifted my priority from the stressors I was feeling to the way he was feeling. It was highly motivating because I know what it feels like to be flooded by something in my environment and I’m the one responsible for controlling his.

  1. Your cat’s preferences may be different: While frequent cleanings are good for you and your cat’s health overall, you should also consider your cat’s capacity as well as your own. I call this choosing my battles. If your cat is perfectly content with having their box cleaned once or twice a week and that’s all you can manage in this season of your life then that’s totally valid too.

  1. Rule out a medical issue if your cat is going outside the box: When your cat is going outside the litter box they are often trying to tell you that they’re uncomfortable and they’re associating their discomfort with the litter box. And a lot of times it is because of a health issue. One of the health issues that happened with one of my cats was too many crystals in my cat's urine, which can be life threatening if untreated.

Self compassion and time

While I tried to be inclusive in this post, it is by no means exhaustive and based on my personal experience. What may work for me may not work for you. Try not to let that discourage you though. It’s taken me years to find things that work for me and the cats. It’s a process to find your pattern and your cat’s preferences as you get to know them and changes with time as you continue on your mental health journey.

What are some of your barriers and/or solutions to the care task of cleaning the litter box? Comment below and share your wins or struggles. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing in the comments I’d love to help you or listen to what you’re finding challenging.

Remember. You are not a bad cat guardian for struggling to clean the litter box.

Disclaimers: This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please talk to a mental health professional if you’re struggling. I am also not a cat behaviorist or a veterinarian. If you think your cat has an underlying health condition causing them to eliminate outside the litter box please find a licensed veterinarian.
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