For most cat owners, our kitties become part of the family. We share photos on social media, and we recount our babies' furry little antics to anyone who will listen. Even when it comes to managing challenging behaviors, we tend to confer with fellow cat lovers when one of our pets acts out. We're so used to chatting about our cats that we may not always look for authoritative answers to our pet questions.
The trouble is that anecdotal evidence is wildly inconsistent. For example, a number of cat lovers are convinced that cats overwhelmingly prefer to use litter boxes that are completely open. They're convinced that cats are less likely to consistently use covered, closed, hooded, or enclosed litter boxes.
And "evidence" abounds. Tales of naughty cats who steadfastly refuse to use covered litter boxes are taken at face value. Really, what other evidence do we have? Well, science, of course. Scientific research with sound, repeatable methodology that reduces confounding conditions. Now let's get to the truth of the matter on open vs. enclosed litter boxes.
Open vs. Enclosed Litter Boxes: What does the research say?
In 2012, researchers at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine decided to investigate the open vs. closed litter box question. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery in April 2013. (You can read the abstract here.) Twenty-eight cats with no history of litter box problems were studied over a two-week period. Each cat had access to both an open and a covered litter box. Researchers determined a cat's preference for one type of litter box over the other by measuring the amount of waste deposited in each box.
The study found that a whopping 70% showed no preference for one type of box over the other. Most cats were content to use both boxes equally. A minority of cats demonstrated a preference, but here's the interesting part: four cats preferred open boxes and four cats preferred closed boxes. If you're curious, take a look at Dr. Ernie Ward's analysis of the Ross University study on Pet Health Network here.
Anecdotal evidence aside, research demonstrates that cats in general don't care whether their litter box is covered or uncovered.
What causes most litter box problems?
The fact remains that consistent use of the litter box is a big problem for many cat owners. If an open vs. closed litter box isn't the issue, then what is?
A study published in Behavioral Processes in August 2017 includes a thorough overview of the evidence of a number of scientific studies examining litter box behavior in cats. While the article mainly focuses on cats' specific responses to dirty litter boxes, the overwhelming conclusion is that cats much prefer to use clean litter boxes. For a wealth of detailed litter-oriented information, you can read the complete study here.
Individual cats may prefer one kind of litter over another or exhibit preferences for certain litter box configurations. However, the single most compelling conclusion is that cats want clean litter boxes. While you may be able to discern your individual pet's preferences, they won't necessarily apply universally. In other words, just because your cat likes unscented litter, a self-cleaning litter box, and a location near the laundry room, that doesn't mean your neighbor's cat will want all of the same things.
The only thing that holds true for most cats is that they're more likely to consistently use a litter box that's clean. Studies demonstrate that cats prefer a clean litter box of ample size, with enough litter boxes for the number of cats in the household (generally, the number of cats plus one).
What does it all mean for you?
There's no substitute for knowing your own cat. When you notice litter box behaviors that are out of the ordinary, it's always a good idea to determine if there's an underlying physical problem by visiting the veterinarian.
But when you're setting up your home for a new pet or you're in the market for a new litter box, be wise and rely on scientific research rather than anecdotal evidence. What we know about litter boxes is that cats want them clean, accessible, and appropriately sized. Any other preferences are likely individual differences that won't necessarily hold true for a new pet or anyone else's pet for that matter.