Do outdoor cats need a litter box?

Do outdoor cats need a litter box?

Strictly speaking, an outdoor cat may not need a litter-box. That said, there are good reasons to litter-train your outdoor cat — not least the fact that you should really be transitioning her to become an indoor cat. In situations where the cat lives outdoors for some specific reason, it’s still a good idea to provide a litter-box in a sheltered location. This will prevent the cat from sneaking indoors or fouling sheds and outhouses if the weather is bad. You might also wish to have a litter-box indoors if you have an indoor-outdoor cat.

Do outdoor cats need a litter box? It’s not a necessity but providing a litter-box for your outdoor cat can help prevent fouling in inappropriate areas.

You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about caring for your cat? You’ve come to the right place because we have all the answers.

  • Do outdoor cats need a litter box?
  • How can you litter-train an outdoor cat?
  • Is it healthier for a cat to live indoors or outdoors?
  • What is the best way to transition your cat from roaming outdoors to being an indoor kitty?

To learn more about these topics, keep reading.

Do outdoor cats need a litter box?

The short answer is that no, a litter-box is not an absolute necessity for an outdoor cat the way it is for an indoor cat. The long answer is very long, as it takes in not just cat behaviour but the vexed question of indoor versus outdoor lifestyles for your cat. Like so many other things, this is a matter of some contention among cat owners.

An outdoor cat usually takes care of business in areas where there’s some loose dirt to bury everything. They also tend to pick spots which they feel they need to mark as their personal territory. If your outdoor cat sees another cat or even a different animal visiting their territory, they may mark the area with urine or faeces as a way of deterring the intruder.

Problems occur when the cat fouls areas you would prefer she left alone, such as your flowerbeds or a child’s sandpit. A cat’s meat-heavy diet can make their excreta very acidic and bad for a lot of plants; in addition, their digging and burying antics can uproot seedling and damage flowers or small shrubs. In the case of children’s play areas, the problem is more serious: cats can carry a lot of diseases that can be very dangerous for undeveloped immune systems. In this sort of situation, training your outdoor cat to use a litter-box is imperative.

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As well as persuading your cat not to foul areas where you’re planting or where children play, there are other reasons you might want to provide a litter-box. If the cat dislikes cold or wet weather, it may be helpful to set up a litter-box in a sheltered area. If your cat has been fouling a shed or another enclosed space, this is a good place to set up the litter-box.

You will also need to train your outdoor cat to use a litter-box if you’re planning to transition her to live as an indoor cat. Some people find they have an easier time with this if they allow a period of inside-outside living; this makes a good opportunity for litter training.

Setting up a litter-box for your outdoor cat

An outdoor cat will probably not be happy in the kind of box that has a cover. They’re typically less fastidious about privacy than a cat who’s lived indoors and may feel nervous or uncomfortable if they have to use an enclosed box. You will also need to make sure that the box is properly sized for your cat. The rule of thumb is that a box should be as wide as your cat is long (measured from the base of the tail to the nose) and half as long again. So for example, if your cat is around 40 centimetres from nose to hindquarters, her litter tray should be around 40 cm across and 60 cm long. For larger cats, it can be difficult to find a litter-box of the correct size. In this case, you can buy a large plastic storage bin and cut it down so that the cat can easily climb in and out.

When choosing a litter-box for an outdoor cat, keep in mind that the box will need to be more durable than a box for an indoor cat. It will be exposed to rain, wind, freezing temperatures and solar radiation, which may cause some materials to break down faster than they would indoors.

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You should have more than one litter-box. Generally speaking, it’s best to have one litter-box per cat, plus one extra. Thus, if you have one cat you should have two litter-boxes, if you have two cats you should have three litter-boxes and so on. If you don’t have enough boxes, some cats may decide to go somewhere else. Cats can become territorial about litter-boxes and fights can break out if a cat uses another cat’s designated box.

Litter-training your outdoor cat

Place the litter-box near somewhere your cat already does her business. Place any excreta you find in the box; the smell will alert your cat to the purpose of the box. If she uses other sites, scoop up the mess as soon as possible and either dispose of it or transfer it to her litter-box. Should you catch her in the act nearby the box, gently pick her up and set her in the box.

You will need to be very patient with your cat while she’s learning to use the box. It’s important not to punish your cat for bathroom accidents outside of the box. The cat is not punishing you or being disobedient; she simply doesn’t understand what’s required of her. Reward your cat when she uses the box successfully (after she’s finished). If your cat immediately jumps out of the box when you place her in it, you may need to try a different type of litter. Sometimes the sensation of a particular variety is unpleasant for a cat and they will need an alternative.

Should I allow my pet to be an outdoor cat?

We can’t really discuss the topic of litter-boxes outdoors without acknowledging the issue of indoor versus outdoor cats. Like pure-bred versus rescued kitties or free feeding versus scheduled feeding, there is much debate in the cat-owning community over which is really the best, or if it even matters.

The pro-outdoor camp point to a cat’s need for ample physical exercise and a rich, stimulating environment. They argue that a cat’s natural urges to explore, chase, hunt and play are best expressed in an outdoor environment. While most outdoor cat proponents acknowledge that there’s a degree of risk, they hold that indoor living comes with its own hazards, often unacknowledged. There are dangers within the home too, from such everyday items as hot stoves or cleaning products. Outdoor cat fans hold that the risks posed by obesity and stress from living indoors as offsetting any additional security.

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While cat owners may differ, however, the expert consensus right now is that it is far better to keep cats indoors. As well as the dangers posed by inclement weather and unsafe locations, cats who are allowed to roam outside are at risk from multiple other hazards. Traffic is a major risk for outdoor cats, as are attacks by rival cats and other animals. Humans, too, sometimes deliberately injure or kill pet cats out of spite. Aside from the risks to the cat, it’s also worth noting that cats themselves pose a risk to the local wildlife. Even the most docile domestic kitty can become a ferocious hunter when confronted with prey such as small rodents and birds. While a drop in the population of rats or pigeons might not be especially concerning, cats can also kill more popular creatures such as songbirds.

While it’s true that a cat may become bored or fussy indoors, there are ways to address this. Making your home into a cat-friendly environment, full of exciting equipment and activities, will more than offset any loss of outdoor entertainment. You can supply your cat with habitats, climbing structures, cat tents and tunnels and interactive toys. If you really feel that your cat needs to spend time outdoors, training her to walk on a harness or constructing a sturdy enclosed “catio” can provide her with plenty of stimulation without putting her safety at risk.

It may be that you have some specific reason for allowing the cat to live outside. Perhaps the cat is not precisely your pet but a semi-feral animal who can’t be induced to enter the house. Alternatively, it may be that the cat “works” outside (for example, a cat who controls pests and scares off the local feral cats from a farm or smallholding). Unless you have a very pressing and unusual reason for your cat to live outside, however, the risks posed by an outdoor life are simply not worth it.

Article by Barbara Read
Barbara read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.