How to Clean a Litter Box · The Wildest

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How to Clean a Litter Box

Cats appreciate a clean bathroom as much as you do.

by Elizabeth Laura Nelson
May 22, 2024
Woman cleaning cat's litter box.
buritora / Adobe Stock

Being a cat parent has its perks: For one thing, you never have to take your cat outside to pee in the rain. When it comes to pooping and peeing, cats are easy — unless they're having issues with going outside their litter box. The flip side, however, is that you have to keep on top of litter-box maintenance.

That means, in addition to daily scooping (or cycling, if you have an automatic litter box), regular litter box cleaning. Many people, however, aren’t sure how often to clean a litter box, how to deep clean a litter box, or, if you're a city-dweller like me, how to clean a litter box in an apartment.

Maintaining a clean litter box is crucial for your cat’s health and happiness, as well as for keeping your home fresh and odor-free. By following a few simple steps and establishing a cleaning routine, you can ensure that your cat’s litter box remains a welcoming and hygienic space. Whether you live with one cat in a small apartment with no outdoor space, or you've got a houseful of kitties plus a few roaming in the yard, here’s what you need to know about how to clean a cat’s litter box.

How to clean out a litter box

The first question many cat parents have about how to clean out a litter box is, “How often do you need to clean a litter box, anyway?” (I’m a mom to three cats who share a litter box, and I confess that I can’t remember when I last cleaned their litter box. Sorry, my babies. I’ll do better.)

Dr. Kelly Diehl, who’s a veterinarian and Director Of Science Communication at  Morris Animal Foundation as well as a cat parent, says the best answer to this question is, “as often as you can.” That’s because, when it comes to bathroom hygiene, cats are pretty particular.

“I’ve had cats who are very finicky about the cleanliness of their box and will start soiling outside the box if it is not clean,” Diehl says. And although she admits she’s had other cats who were far less finicky about cleanliness, she still recommends cleaning the whole box “at least once a week.” Here’s how to do it.

Essential tools for litter box cleaning

The first step is to arm yourself with the best litter box cleaning products. You’ll want your scoop, of course — you should have a sturdy scoop made from metal or high-quality plastic. Avoid the flimsy scoops that often come included with a litter box and get the best one you can find within your budget.

You’ll also want garbage bags and a trash can handy, as well as paper towels, a soft cloth you don’t mind using on the cat box, mild, unscented soap and hot water. Rubber gloves are a good idea, as well (especially if you don’t want to ruin your manicure). Here’s that list in bullet form, for reference:

  • Scoop

  • Garbage bags

  • Trash can

  • Paper towels

  • Soft cleaning cloth

  • Unscented detergent or mild soap

  • Rubber gloves

Daily litter box maintenance

I like to think of litter box maintenance this way: Scooping the box is like flushing the toilet, and deep-cleaning it is like scrubbing the bathroom. When it comes to scooping, cat behaviorist Stephen Quandt says that “Twice a day is best practice, but once a day is mandatory and non-negotiable.”

He says an un-scooped litter box is the number-one reason cats pee and poop outside the box. “Different styles of litter can benefit from slightly different scooping techniques, but regardless of what you use — clay, clumping, non-clumping, crystals, pellets, plant-based litters like pine, corn, or even soy-based litters — the bottom line is you need to get the urine and the feces out of the box and disposed of. So, get in there and scoop!”

While you may not scrub your bathroom every day, you probably keep a tub of disposable wipes for wiping down the sink on the daily — as well as making sure the toilet is flushed. Each day, you should be scooping your cat’s litter box and checking to make sure there's no mess spilling anywhere.

Give the litter a rake or a shake to even it out, add some fresh litter as needed, and give the area a once-over to ensure a hygienic environment.

How to deep-clean a litter box

Flushing the toilet isn’t the same as scrubbing the bathroom — and that’s where deep-cleaning your litter box comes in. Once you’ve got your supplies gathered (see above), it’s time to get cleaning. Don’t worry: It's not as bad as you might think! Let’s get in there, step by step:

  1. Figure out where you’re going to do the deed — outside in the yard, in the bathtub, or wherever you’ve got room to maneuver and space to scrub the whole box. Bring your litter box and supplies to the appointed place.

  2. Scoop out the clumps, then empty all the litter into a heavyweight garbage bag. You may need to scrape out some stubborn litter with the edge of your scoop — and that’s why you want a good quality one.

  3. Wipe out any remaining litter dust with damp paper towels or a cloth.

  4. Pour hot water into the litter box and add a few squirts of mild detergent or soap “Plain soapy water like dish soap is all you need and is easy on your cat’s nose,” Quandt says. “Avoid harsh-smelling cleaners like bleach, ammonia (reminder, never mix those two substances), or vinegar. These chemicals are harsh, unnecessary, and ammonia can smell like urine.” In fact, Quandt warns that using bleach, ammonia, and vinegar can actually provoke your cat to go outside of the box.

  5. Scrub the litter box clean with a sponge or cloth. This is pretty self-explanatory. Rub-a-dub-dub! If your litter box has walls or other detachable parts (like the Cove litter box, from Tuft + Paw — a recent addition to my small apartment), wash those, too. Don’t forget the cover, if your cat’s box has one.

  6. Rinse the litter box so that no detergent residue remains, then dry it completely. If it’s still smelly, consider how long your cat has been using it. “Plastic boxes don’t last forever, as they will slowly accumulate urine odors over time, despite one’s best cleaning efforts,” Quandt says. “Some people prefer metal litter boxes for this reason, but not all cats appreciate the noise a scooper makes when scraping the bottom of them.”

  7. Fill the box with your cat’s preferred litter, put it back where it belongs, and you’re good to go. Er, your cat is ready to go.

How to clean a litter box without a scoop

Don’t have a scoop handy? That’s OK! You can use a slotted spoon, if you’ve got one you don't mind sacrificing to the clean-litter-box cause. You can also make a scoop out of an empty plastic bottle. Just follow the instructions in this tutorial.

How to clean a litter box when you’re pregnant

This is an easy one: Don’t! Cat poop can be infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This isn’t dangerous to healthy, non-pregnant humans, but for pregnant people, a toxoplasmosis infection can cause serious problems.

Consider this one of the perks of pregnancy: No scooping or litter box cleaning for nine months! If you live alone (except for the cats, of course), ask a neighbor or friend to help out — hopefully while you put your feet up and rest.

How to clean a litter box when you live in an apartment

This is one of the biggest downsides to living in a small New York City apartment — at least, it is for me. If you don’t have any access to outdoor space, so hosing it down isn’t an option, you're probably going to have to do it in the bathtub or the kitchen, depending on the size of your litter box (and your sink, tub, or shower).

Here are a few things for apartment-dwellers to keep in mind:

  • Cleaning more often makes the job easier. I speak from experience: When you’ve been putting off the job for a while, you not only have plenty of time to dread it, you’re setting yourself up for a bigger mess when you finally get to it. Clean that box every couple of weeks, and soon it will seem like less of a big deal.

  • Disposable litter boxes are an option. If you want to just scoop daily and forget the whole monthly deep-cleaning routine, you can buy a biodegradable, earth-friendly litter box. There are plenty of types to choose from, whether you need one with high sides or you'd like to have a monthly subscription that delivers litter and a box right to your door.

  • Consider using a liner. Lining your cat’s litter box with a disposable plastic bag (get one made for the job) helps keep things tidier, because the litter, pee, and poop won't directly contact the box. Of course, if you have an automatic litter box, like I do, that’s not an option. Keep reading for more on that...

How to clean an automatic litter box

Want to know how to clean a robot litter box? If you have an automatic litter box, like the Litter-Robot, you’ll want to follow the instructions that come with your particular model. Litter-Robot recommends cleaning the globe every one to three months, and deep cleaning the whole unit three times a year.

This involves unplugging it, emptying all the litter, taking the unit apart, and wiping down each part thoroughly. If you live in a cozy apartment, this is challenging — again, speaking from experience. The convenience of not scooping is enough to balance it out, though (I think).

How to clean a litter box with bleach (don’t!)

This is another question with a simple answer: Don’t! Look, I get it. I’m a big fan of bleach. I still use it to clean my bathroom, even though I know all the reasons why it’s not the greatest idea.

There’s just something about that smell that signals your brain to think: clean. It’s kind of like... brainwashing. (Sorry.) But when it comes to litter boxes, we really need to put the bleach down and back away.

Pros and cons of using bleach (spoiler alert: only cons)

When it comes to using bleach to clean a litter box, it’s all con, no pro. “Aside from being a respiratory irritant, if ingested, bleach can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and hypersalivation, among other symptoms pending the dilution and quantity ingested,” says Dr. Laria Herod, Veterinary Advisor to Whisker. “The safest option is to avoid bleach.”

Alternatives to bleach

So, what litter box cleaning products are best to use, if bleach is out? “A pet-safe enzymatic cleaner is going to be the best for cleaning the litter box, but warm water and mild dish soap are typically fine to get the job done as well,” Herod says. “What cleaning product is used should be tailored to the preferences and sensitivities of the individual cat.”

FAQs (People also ask):

We asked Quandt to tackle a few commonly asked questions about litter boxes, from the best cleaning products to eliminate litter box odor, to why cats sometimes leave their business right out in the open. Read on for his answers.

What are the best litter box cleaning products?

“Enzyme cleaners like Anti-Icky-Poo (gotta love the name!) aren’t specifically designed to be used in the litter box; they’re more designed to be used outside the box, and they literally eat the urine. The company even makes an injector for carpets.”

Why cats don’t always cover their poop?

“Cat parents may be rightly concerned about odor or aesthetics, but there is nothing wrong with your cat. They just didn’t get the ‘bury me’ memo,” Quandt says.

How often are you supposed to clean a litter box?

“Generally speaking, best practices with respect to cleaning the whole box (a deep clean) is monthly,” Quandt says. (If you have an automatic litter box, refer to the manufacturer's instructions — it will likely be less often.)


Writer Elizabeth Nelson with her cat, Freddy

Elizabeth Laura Nelson

Elizabeth Laura Nelson is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Elizabeth was scared of cats (claws and teeth, yikes) but she has since gotten over her fear and now shares her home with three sweet and gentle feline companions who make life better (and cuddlier) every day.