A Letter to the OG of Our Feral Cat Colony and Our Lion King, Oreo

Oreo-Winter, 2017

It’s been one year since Oreo crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

That first anniversary is always the hardest, isn’t it?

I decided to write him a letter to let him know what was on my heart…

Oreo, 

We watched you for years as you ran around the neighborhood. Dad would go out on his walks and talk about this super-fast black and white cat on the next street over.

You lived under my neighbor’s barn across the street. Feral. Afraid of human contact. 

When I first started feeding in 2014, you would sit in front the barn and feel the ground vibrations so you would know it was safe to cross the street and come over to grab a snack.

Sometimes, I would see you on the heated bed inside the shed the morning, waiting for me to bring breakfast. 

I always told you to stay. But you never did. 

Sometimes you greeted me with this loud meow that sounded like a cat bird. 

If I took even one step too close to you, you would run away. 

You protected Fluffy and her Kits before I rescued them. I remember The Kits stealing your food right out from under you inside the shed. So I would meet you outside of the shed with a bowl of food to call your own. 

Oreo – Summer, 2015, eating with The Kits

When you were recovering from your neuter in our bathroom in 2015, you started crying at the top of your lungs at 3am and didn’t stop until I released you around 8am 😂😂

But not before you got loose in the bathroom and we stood there for an hour, both too scared of each other to move 😂😂

You were over 10 years old when you were neutered…

You took Trouble, who was just a kitten at the time, under your wing in Winter, 2016. 

You spent two years grooming him to be the next Lion King. 

You and Trouble had one of the cutest and most dysfunctional relationships I’ve ever seen ❤️❤️

Trouble and Oreo – Spring, 2016

You FINALLY officially moved here in Winter, 2016. And, thus, our colony was born. 

And you were The Lion King. 

The first time I played with you, you were too interested in play to be scared of me. 

You danced around my legs for over a month before you got the nerve up to make contact. 

It wasn’t long after that I was FINALLY “allowed” to pet you and show you how much I love you. 

Your colony lives on. 

Your little “seedlings”…Charlie, Junior, Domino, and The Kits…carry your legacy. 

As well as your little Lion King “in training”, Trouble, who is sitting right next to me, purring, as I type and I cry. 

Your grave and flag overlook the colony that YOU created, protected, and mentored. 

Oreo’s final resting place – March, 2018

At last, you found your FOREVER HOME. 

You live on in our colony and in our hearts. 

This morning, I heard your signature “meow” in two cat birds carrying on right above us. 

We hardly ever hear cat birds here. 

I know that was your way of telling me that you are still here. 

I hope you know how LOVED and MISSED you are. 

Thank you for giving me the chance to make right when other humans failed you. 

Thank you for caring for us, our property, our colony and Fluffy and The Kits. 

Thank you for letting us LOVE you. 🌈🎈❤️ 😇 

Love, 
Mommy Kitten 😘

Trouble (left), Rascal (inside) and Oreo – January, 2018. Oreo took his last breaths here just two months after this pic was taken.

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The Scoop on Your Kitty’s Litter Box – What They Want You to Know

Patchy playing in the litter box just after I added fresh litter!

Just Another Article about Kitty Litter…

Right?

No.

It’s all been written already. If you Google search “cat litter boxes”, there is probably a bazillion articles on the “best” way to set up their boxes.

So, instead, I decided to just share how I have mine set up, and maybe help you to understand, through our own human experiences, why your cat may not like using his litter box.

Inappropriate elimination and litter box problems are among the top reasons for pet cats losing their homes and being surrendered to shelters.

I hope that this post helps to save at least one cat’s life, if not MANY!!

How the Wrong Litter Box Setup Could Cost Your Cat’s Health

He Was Holding His Pee Until He Couldn’t Anymore

I have a friend who adopted a former feral cat in 2016. As soon as he arrived at his new home, it was love at first sight for both of them. Once we let him out of the carrier, he started purring, and I don’t think he has stopped purring since!

He adjusted to indoor cat life very well and had no problems.

However, just about a year ago, my friend realized something was “off” with him. He wasn’t eating much and appeared lethargic. So we called my vet to come out and take a look at him.

When our vet examined him, his bladder was SO painfully full that he eliminated all over the room. That ruled out a urinary blockage, but they had to get to the bottom of this, so they took a urine sample.

No crystals, no signs of infection. The only thing that was abnormal in his urinalysis was that his urinary pH was 7.0, which is a little higher than I would like to see, especially for a male cat since they are so prone to blockages from crystals. I aim for a pH of 6.5 for my own cats.

It Was His Litter Box

Soon after, I was cat sitting for my friend while she was away for the weekend. When I went downstairs to scoop his litter box, the FIRST thing I noticed was a horrid perfumey smell. If you ever had a grandmother that used to wear the Jean Nate body splash, THAT’S how offensive it was to me.

Now, follow me here. Kitty was raised feral in my yard. He used sand to cover his “business”. Plain, old unscented sand.

Imagine how unpleasant the Fresh Step with Febreze was to him?

That stuff should SERIOUSLY be outlawed!

I got on the phone with my vet and told him my theory. The litter box was SO unpleasant to her cat that he only went in to use the box when he ABSOLUTELY HAD TO. The poor baby waited until he could no longer hold his pee to eliminate in the box!

Isn’t that just heartbreaking? What’s more heartbreaking is that her kitty still used his box like a GOOD little boy rather than eliminating elsewhere in the house.

When my vet did a house call for his followup visit, he checked out the litter box and agreed that it likely was the litter scented with Fabreze that was causing his issues.

Since we switched him to Young Again Zero Mature to balance his urinary pH and we switched him to Tidy Cats Free & Clean unscented litter, (knock wood) he hasn’t been having any problems and uses his litter box much more frequently!

If she had just followed my suggestions when she first adopted her kitty, she would have saved herself over $500 in vet bills! And saved him A WHOLE LOT of pain and discomfort!

When I Took the Hood Off of His Litter Box, I was HORRIFIED

My neighbor asked me to feed his rescue cat while he and his boys were away for the weekend.

I decided to scoop his litter box and was HORRIFIED when I took the hood off the box….

That box hadn’t been scooped in at least a week. And God only knows the last time it was changed completely.

And he was using scented litter.

It was so disgustingly dirty and smelly that I don’t even know how kitty didn’t start using another area in the house to do his “business”.

This is animal cruelty in MY book.

Let’s put it this way. Imagine leaving your toilet lid open, not flushing the toilet for at least week, leaving the bathroom door closed at all times, and using the worst perfume you can find to cover up the odor, and add ammonia to the mix. In other words, a Porta Potty that hasn’t been cleaned in AGES.

Wouldn’t that make you reluctant to use the litter box? Have you ever held your pee until you could get to a REAL restroom rather than using the Porta Potty? Because I know I have!

I talked to my neighbor about his kitty’s litter box when he returned and how it can affect his cat’s health if he didn’t make some changes. I can only hope that he took my suggestions.

The Method to My Madness

I have a “system” for EVERYTHING. Our litter boxes are NO different!

How I set up my boxes is loosely adapted from Dr. Lisa Pierson’s recommendations on Catinfo.org.

How Our Litter Boxes are Set Up
How Our Litter Boxes are Set Up

After I rescued The Kits, I needed to come up with a better way to handle six litter boxes. Since I was graduating from two indoor cats to FIVE, I couldn’t see discarding 120lbs of litter every week. I used to do a complete litter change once per week.

I didn’t love the idea of using Rubbermaid totes as Dr. Lisa suggests, especially since Penny was having problems with spinal arthritis. So, I modified Dr. Lisa’s recommendations by using the large Nature’s Miracle litter boxes. By using Dr. Lisa’s method of keeping the litter REALLY deep (at least 3-4″), the pee and poop never hit the bottom of the litter box, therefore eliminating the need to scrub the boxes every week and/or use litter box liners.

Another reason why you want to make the litter DEEP is so that they can completely cover their “business”. This, instinctively, is VERY important to cats. Cats bury their “business” as a way to keep predators off their track. If predators smell their poop, they will know cats are nearby, which means either there is a food source nearby or the cats ARE the food source. This behavior is ingrained into their DNA, so a cat is more comfortable when they actually have enough kitty litter to completely cover their “business”. Therefore, they need litter deep enough to bury the hole that becomes their “toilet” and they need enough litter to bury it completely.

Creamsicle buff tabby, Teddy (feral), digging a big hole in the ground outside before he uses the bathroom.
Teddy digging his way to China before he does his “business”.

I use Dr. Elsey’s Cat Ultra Premium Clumping unscented scoopable litter. This stuff binds SO well that you could lay a foundation to a house with it when it gets wet, so it’s easy to get ALL of their “business” out of the boxes while scooping.

TYPE OF BOX

Like I said, I use the corner Nature’s Miracle Litter Boxes. They have a nice “entry way” that was great for when Penny was in her final days and very weak. As sick as she was with kidney disease at the end, she never once failed to use her litter box. Most recently, this helped Fluffy easily get in and out of her box after her mammary mass removal. She had a large incision that extended under her left armpit and she had NO trouble getting in and out of the box while she recovered.

They are large enough for even my bigger cats to turn around in. Penny was once 16lbs and she was a large Maine Coon mix. If she can turn around in the box, any of my cats can!

I’m slowly switching over to the high-sided boxes to reduce the amount of litter being scattered all over the house by some of our more rambunctious cats, who seem to think bathroom time is also play time!! These high-sided boxes still have that “entry way” that older or arthritic cats need to easily enter and exit the box.

Nature’s Miracle High-Sided Litter Box

WHY I DON’T USE HOODED BOXES

I’ll admit I once used a hooded litter box for Taz and Tabby. They were also as bonded as two cats could be, and I’ve always scooped litter boxes twice per day, so it was not an issue for them. Honestly, I really didn’t know any better then, either. I was very lucky with Taz and Tabby as they were the best-behaved cats a girl could EVER ask for. In EVERY way!

That being said, I really don’t like hooded litter boxes. And I have several reasons why. I watch my Yard Cats do their “business” outside every day. And usually, when one of them is going to the bathroom, there’s at least one cat stalking them to chase them. When a feral cat is going to the bathroom, they are vulnerable.

Charlie preparing to ambush Teddy just after Teddy went to the bathroom.
Charlie getting ready to ambush Teddy after Teddy went to the bathroom!

I noticed my indoor cats like to stalk who is using the box too. So, if there’s a hood on that box, they are TRAPPED inside and cannot escape. This happened to Penny when she was still at the rescue and using a communal litter box with a hood on it while their cages were being cleaned. There was a large male cat on top of that hood waiting for her to jump out. And he attacked her as she jumped out of the box.

Unless your cats are super-bonded and join paws every night to sing campfire songs together, a hood could be a problem on that box.

P. U.!!!!

Another reason why I don’t like hooded boxes is that it confines all of that odor inside the box. I totally get it. I don’t want my house smelling like cat poop either. But if you’re keeping the box well-scooped, using the right litter, and keeping the litter boxes out of high traffic areas (we will get more into why this is a good idea, anyway), smell should be a non-issue.

If you INSIST on using that hood, I want to ask you to try something for me. I want you to use your bathroom all day and ONLY flush it once. Close the door to the bathroom and keep the toilet lid open all day…

Now, if you can honestly say that at the end of the day, the stench in that bathroom didn’t bother you or make you want to vomit, then be my guest and leave the hoods on!

But, also remember, your cat inhaling all of that dust confined into the box is no good for their respiratory tract, either. And I’m not afraid to dust. Those Swiffer dusters are a cinch to use!

WHY I HAVE SIX LITTER BOXES

Because I have five indoor cats. And even though four are litter mates and the fifth one is their former feral mama, they don’t all get along. My shy, timid Patchy does not like to use the litter box with ANY other cats around, even the cats she’s friends with. Following the “number of cats + one” rule is an assurance that Patchy won’t ever have to hold her “business” for fear of being ambushed.

WHY I USE UNSCENTED LITTER

Remember that my indoor cats were all born and raised “feral”. They are used to using sand outside. When I rescued The Kits, I wanted the transition from using the great outdoors to a litter box to be as easy on all of us as possible.

Our Yard Cat (feral), Domino, covering his "business".
One of our Yard Cats (feral), Domino, going to the bathroom.

Also, having had a cat with chronic kidney disease, I cannot help but to wonder if the scent agents and Fabreze in kitty litter aren’t going to have any long-term health effects on my cats. These scented litters are made with CHEMICALS. They use the litter box, and later, when they are grooming, they clean their paws that stepped into that litter box. Cats like my Patchy enjoy rolling around in and sitting in the litter box.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Believe me, once you’ve had a cat with chronic kidney disease, it makes you question EVERYTHING you are using around your kitties!

SCENTED LITTER SMELLS LIKE BAD PERFUME ANYWAY!

Did you ever have that one co-worker/relative/friend who drenched herself in the foulest smelling perfume around and it made your eyes water and your throat hurt whenever you were in the same room or car with them?

Cats’ respiratory systems are sensitive and they have a MUCH stronger sense of smell than we do. I imagine that’s what these scented litters smell like to THEM. Especially the new brands that have Glade, Fabreze or any other air freshener in them. If my friend’s scented litter with Fabreze made MY eyes burn, imagine what it did to her kitty’s? Did I mention that his third eyelids were protruding when the vet saw him? And did I also mention that they stopped protruding and his sneezing stopped when my friend switched to unscented litter?

WHY I ONLY USE CLUMPING LITTER

Since I don’t do complete litter changes (unless I suspect a parasite or illness), GOOD clumping litter makes it easier to totally remove their urine when you scoop the box. Scoop, top off with fresh litter, and it’s CLEAN!

I also use litter box scooping time to get a good idea of their urinary tract health. Back in the 1990s, my Taz became blocked with urinary crystals when he was just a year old. My sweet, shy boy spent five days in the hospital with a catheter in him so he wouldn’t die. That ordeal cost us over $1500 and cost Taz a whole lot of unnecessary pain and anguish. Although he never became blocked again, he suffered with urinary tract infections for the rest of his life.

I swore if I ever had a male cat again, I would take what I learned from Taz to spare them the pain and suffering that Taz endured.

My Siamese mix Taz during Christmas of 2000. He was 4 years old.
Taz, Christmas 2000. He was 4 yrs old.

When I scoop the litter boxes, it’s much more to me than making their boxes nice and clean and odor free. It’s also my time to check to see how the kitties are doing in THAT department.

LEARN YOUR KITTY’S BATHROOM HABITS AND WHAT’S NORMAL FOR THEM

Paying attention to my cats’ bathroom habits is also how I caught Penny’s feline diabetes so early. As soon as I saw the LAKES of her urine, I KNEW.

In this case, size DOES matter! A healthy, well-hydrated cat should produce “pee balls” anywhere from the size of a rubber bouncy ball to a small tennis ball. If you’re using clumping litter and seeing pee balls smaller than the size of a ping-pong ball, and ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE A MALE CAT, treat this as a medical emergency and get in touch with your vet ASAP!

The size of the “pee ball” also depends on the cat. Patchy, my female runt, only weighs about 6 1/2 lbs even though she’s over 3 years old. Her “pee balls” are much smaller than her brother Rascal’s, who is a hardy 14lbs. However, I know her habits, so I will know if she develops a problem.

On the flip side, if you have a cat peeing LARGE amounts and/or really large pee balls, this could be a sign of feline diabetes, feline chronic kidney disease, or hyperthyroidism, among other diseases. A vet check with blood work and a chem panel should be a PRIORITY if you encounter increased urine output.

POOP IS IMPORTANT, TOO!

Often, people will come to me for help because their cat stopped eating. The first question I ALWAYS ask is, “When was their last bowel movement?”

Most of the time, they have NO idea.

After parenting a senior cat who suffered with chronic constipation and a Maine Coon with hairball issues, I can honestly tell you on most days when each of my five indoor cats pooped in the past 24 hours. And some of my ferals, too!

Our Maine Coon mix, Penny, sitting on the bed - 2013
Penny – Spring, 2013

PAY ATTENTION to what they’re doing in that litter box! It very well could save their life!

WHY I DON’T USE THOSE PLASTIC LITTER LINERS

I’ve tried to use them in the past with Taz and Tabby. And they just tore them to shreds while trying to bury their business.

I’ve scooped litter boxes with those liners in it. They never quite fit right. The liners push all the litter to the center of the box. And trying to keep the “pee balls” intact while scooping a lined box is damn near impossible. They break apart. And then I cannot see how big they are.

If you pour the litter deep enough, the liners are completely unnecessary.

I don’t think they are BAD, but I see no reason to use them. And my cats’ boxes never stink.

I SCOOP TWICE PER DAY

No ifs, ands, or buts on this one. I flush the toilet more than once per day, so I scoop their boxes more than once per day.

AND, if someone poops and I happen to be around, it only takes me a SECOND to scoop that poop out.

I don’t ever want to give my cats ANY excuse to go outside of the box. I’ve had cats with urinary issues my entire adult life, between Taz’s crystals and chronic UTIs, and Penny’s diabetes and her chronic kidney disease. And I can honestly say that NEVER ONCE did any of my cats do their “business” outside of the litter box (knock wood).

Believe me, barring a medical problem, if your kitty is going outside of the box, they’re either adults who are not spayed or neutered (why isn’t your kitty fixed, anyway?), or they are telling you they don’t like their litter box.

My Choice of Poop Scooper

I cannot STAND most of the poop scoopers on the market today. They are plastic, with holes that are too big, so “little bits” go back into the litter box. Some of the really big, cumbersome scoopers just don’t do the job right. The plastic scoopers make it hard to sift the litter around to locate kitty’s “business”.

This is my FAVORITE poop scooper and it’s well worth the $12 I spend on it! It’s lightweight (great for carpal tunnel syndrome), metal, easy to clean, and I can wack the side of the box to bang off any “pee balls” that are half on the side and half in the corner of the box. Since it’s more flat, it’s easier to get under the pee ball to scoop it out intact, which is neater and cleaner. This scoop even passed the “my Penny has kidney disease and pees lakes” test!

Make It as Easy as Possible for Yourself, Too!

I’m a convenience gal. If something is not convenient, I won’t do it. Or I will procrastinate until I absolutely HAVE to… ie: meal prep! I live in fast-paced New Jersey. Life here demands convenience!

So, I have a poop scooper by each one of my litter boxes, as well as bags to put their “business”. It takes me less than five minutes to scoop six litter boxes in six different rooms on two levels of my house. Easy, peasy.

WHAT IF MY CAT LIKES TO PEE ON THE SIDE OF THE BOX?

I have one of those, too. Actually, both of my boy cats like to pee on the side wall of the box. So, I keep Lysol Daily Cleanser Disinfecting Wipes and a roll of toilet paper by each of the boxes. I push the litter out of the way, wipe with the wipe, dry with a wad of toilet paper, and push the litter back. I like these new unscented, “pet area safe” Lysol wipes. However, I take the extra step of drying the area I wiped just as a precaution.

LITTER BOX PLACEMENT AND TOILET TRAINING

I do have a three out of my six boxes in corners of bedrooms. However, I make sure they have an escape route on either side of the box so if one of my other cats decides to ambush, they ALWAYS have an “out”.

I have four boxes upstairs and two down in the unfinished basement that is slowly turning into a large cat playroom! My cats never have to travel very far to use the litter box.

I set this up this way back when Penny was still alive. I never wanted to make it difficult for her to get to a litter box with her health issues.

PLEASE consider your cats when choosing to place the litter box(es)! It’s not fair to an older, arthritic cat to make them have to travel up or downstairs to use their box.

BATHROOM TIME SHOULD BE QUIET TIME

Choose a quiet location for them to do their “business”. Cats startle with loud noises easily, so placing the box near the washer, dryer, furnace or A/C may not be the best location for them.

Also, keep litter boxes away from high-traffic areas, especially out of kids’ play areas. I watch my ferals. They always go off away from all of the action to do their “business”.

You don’t want an audience while you’re going to the bathroom, right?

Well, neither do our cats.

Also, the “Number of Boxes Rule + 1” rule requires proper placement!

If you have ALL of the litter boxes sitting next to each other, and I see this ALL OF THE TIME, it totally defeats the purpose of this rule! If you have a bully or stalker cat, and most people with multi-cat households do, they can STILL intimidate the more timid cats in your household if you’re putting all of the boxes together in one spot. Please don’t make bathroom time a stressful time for your more timid cats. This can and WILL lead to health problems down the line, I promise you that!

This rule only works if you place the boxes in different areas throughout the house. And if you have more than one level to your house? You should have litter boxes on every level!

WHAT ABOUT TOILET TRAINING MY CAT LIKE MR. JINX IN “MEET THE PARENTS?
Jinx from "Meet the Parents" using the human toilet.
Jinx from “Meet the Parents” (Image may be subject to copyright)

That’s a big, fat NO.

Cats urinating and defecating are an instinctive way for them to mark their territory. Again, I have the benefit of observing my feral cats bathrooming outside on a daily basis.

Please, don’t take that method of marking their territory away from them! They will find other ways to mark their territory if you do!

Plus, I never want to compete with my cat over the toilet!!

MY THOUGHTS ON THE TIDY CATS BREEZE SYSTEM

I’ll pass.

I considered the Tidy Cats Breeze Litter System back when Penny was still here. It sounded so alluring…no tracking litter, no pee balls, only change the pee pads once per week.

But then I got to thinking…if I’m only changing the pee pads once per week, how can I really properly monitor my cats’ urinary tract health?

I’d have to change those pads daily. And they’re expensive. I wouldn’t ever want to ration those pee pads because they’re too expensive.

I’m sure the pellets are not unscented.

The litter boxes are too small.

However, I do see how they can be beneficial in special circumstances.

My friend’s cat has urinary tract health issues. She uses the Breeze system. She found out that her kitty still had blood in her urine when she changed the pee pad one day after kitty finished taking her course of antibiotics. That prompted my friend to have the vet culture the urine to figure out which antibiotic kitty should have been taking.

But this would be about the only use I can see for this type of litter box setup.

And, again, I have the benefit of watching cats outside in the “wild” daily. Litter that mimics sand is best. After reading some reviews on Amazon, I did notice that some cats just won’t take to those pellets.

THIS IS ABOUT THE CAT’S HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

I’m pretty sure Better Homes & Gardens will not be stopping in anytime soon to take pics of my house and decor.

But if they do, I’ll have to vacuum up the scattered kitty litter and dust really quickly.

Yes, I know it’s a pain. And life is short.

But I decided I wanted cats. It wouldn’t be fair to give a cat a home and then make their bathroom time as unpleasant as many people make it for their kitties.

If you’re committed to having a pet cat(s), then shouldn’t you be committed to health and happiness?

Creamsicle red tabby, Mischief, relaxing on his cat hammock.
Mischief lounging on his hammock.

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All treatments, foods and supplements mentioned in this blog are based on my own research, experience and done with my vet’s knowledge and consent. Consult with your vet as necessary.