The Scoop on Litter Boxes

Retailers who are familiar with the different attributes of litter products are in the best position to advise customers purchasing these products for their small pets.


When most people think “litter box,” they think of cats. However, many pet specialty retailers see things a little differently, as cats are hardly the only animals to benefit from a litter box. 

It is pretty common knowledge that rabbits and ferrets will use a litter box, but many people do not know that other small animal species can also be trained to use a litter box. Because gerbils are desert animals and produce much less urine than other pets, a litter box is not needed or practical for them, but hamsters and mice will often use a litter box if it is placed in the corner of their cage that they have already chosen as their bathroom. In fact, tiny litter boxes made just for these animals have been available for quite a while. 

Guinea pigs can also be trained to use a litter box, and many rats can be persuaded to use one as well. The secret is to strategically place a flat litter box just outside the rats’ sleeping quarters. This is because the first thing a rat needs to do when it gets out of bed is urinate, but they don’t want to have to travel very far. The best success comes when the litter box is on a shelf right next to their hammock, or right outside their igloo, so they don’t have to take more than two steps away from their bed. While rats may not deposit all their feces in the litter box, it is the urine that creates most of the odor. 

When it comes to selling litter, retailers need to know how a customer is going to use the litter in order to recommend the best options. Will they be using the product inside a litter box or covering the entire floor of a cage? Different products tend to work best in different contexts. For example, pet owners usually prefer softer products for bedding, while hard pellets are well suited for use in a litter box. Wood shavings or a soft paper product tend to stick to a litter box when wet, making it more difficult to clean out, while a product like paper pellets is often easier to dispose of. In addition, the heavier paper pellets are more likely to stay inside the litter box if a pet digs in the box, or pushes the litter around.

This makes paper pellets especially well suited for use in a litter box. Although paper itself does not tend to control odor, some products include an added odor-control ingredient. Pellets of ground up hay, straw, bark, wood, hemp or hulls can also perform well in the litter box because they tend to be very absorbent and excellent at controlling odor, with the odor-control ingredient inherent to the material. However, most of these pellets will crumble apart when wet, making them messier than paper pellets. Corncob granules and ground walnut shells can also work well in a litter box.

In order to best advise customers on their purchases, retail staff first need to know the species of animal a pet owner is buying for. Because rabbits and guinea pigs produce copious amounts of urine, the most important quality in their litter is absorbency. Their litter boxes will need to be changed daily. The smaller rodents produce much less urine, so in that case, other properties can take priority over the absorbency when choosing a litter. Other considerations to be mindful of when selling litter include texture, appearance, mess, odor control, health concerns and price. 

Odor control is a highly desirable property for bedding used in the whole cage, to maximize the time in between cage cleanings. But odor control may not be as high of a priority for a product used in a litter box, since it is much easier and cheaper to change a litter box every day or so. However, the odor-control quotient needed can depend on the pet and the pungency of its waste. For rabbits and rodents, the strongest smelling excretions tend to be the urine, while the droppings tend to be relatively dry and odorless. This is especially true for mice, which have strong-smelling urine. For ferrets, it’s the opposite, since their feces are much more odiferous than their urine.

Retailers can help customers make the most appropriate purchases for their pets by becoming familiar with the properties of each product in stock and making suggestions based on customers’ most pressing concerns. Staff members can talk to shoppers who are shopping for litter boxes to find out what animal will be using the box. When buyers bring a small animal litter or bedding product to the checkout counter, after asking about their pets, follow up questions may include: Is this your regular product? It is working well for you? Are there any problems with it? Is there anything you would like it to do that it doesn’t? The answers can help guide suggestions for other products that might work as well or better for the customers and the pets.

Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.


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