Will Cat Litter Attract a Lost Cat?

If your cat is missing, you probably heard that you should put out their cat litter box or spread dirty litter around your yard to help them find their way home.  You may have even heard that your cat can smell their dirty litter a mile away.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a cat can smell their litter box from that far away.  More realistically, they might be able to smell it up to a few hundred feet away (depending on wind and weather conditions) and often a lot less.  You may have found examples of people swearing that dirty cat litter really works.  However, in many cases, lost cats return home on their own for other reasons, and the presence of cat litter is likely just a coincidence.  In some cases cat litter is more likely to reduce the chance of finding your lost cat.

Risks of Putting Out Dirty Cat Litter

If you have an outdoor-access cat that disappeared from a familiar location, then it makes no sense to put out dirty cat litter.  If they are close enough to smell the litter, they are probably close enough that they already know their way home.  On the other hand, IF you have an escaped indoor-only cat or a displaced outdoor-access cat (i.e. lost from an unfamiliar location or a new home), there is some chance that the scent of their urine and feces MIGHT help them find their way home.  However, before you go and put out the cat litter, you should be aware of the potential risks involved.

Risk of Attracting Other Cats

The most likely risk of putting out cat litter is inadvertently attracting other cats.  If you  have an escaped indoor-only cat, then your yard may be within the territory of one or more outdoor-access or stray cats.  If you put out your cat’s litter, other cats may see this as a threat to their territory.  They may be attracted to the litter box and possibly use it or spray objects around the box.  If your cat smells the scent-marks of the resident cats, they may feel too threatened to return home.  Worst case, you might attract an aggressive territorial cat into your yard, which might chase your cat away.

Risk of Attracting Predators

Many wild predators like foxes and bobcats use their feces to mark their territory.  To do this, they place their scat on prominent locations such as on top of rocks or logs.  Domestic cats on the other hand tend to bury their feces.  This may be an instinctive behavior to protect them from detection by other larger predators like coyotes and bobcats.  By putting your cat’s dirty litter outside, you risk attracting area predators around your home.  Depending on where you live, the risk of attracting predators may be relatively low, but do you want to take that risk?

Should You Ever Put Out Cat Litter?

I generally do not recommend putting out dirty cat litter due to the potential risks of attracting other cats or predators.  However, I cannot conclude at this time whether or not it is a potential attractant for a lost cat.  If you feel compelled to put out your cat’s litter (just in case), please at least follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t spread the litter around your yard.  Keep it in a litter box or bowl.
  • Don’t put the litter box near the point of escape for a lost indoor-only cat.  This is the location that your cat is most likely to return to on their own.  Don’t risk attracting other cats that might scare your cat away.
  • Only put out the litter box in an enclosed area such as a garage, shed or basement where it is less likely to attract predators.
  • Don’t ever put out litter for an outdoor-access cat missing from their home.  It just doesn’t make sense.
  • Use some sort of surveillance or wildlife camera to ensure that you are not attracting other cats or predators.
  • Most importantly – don’t just put out cat litter and hope your cat will return home!  If you aren’t proactive in your search, the chances of finding your cat are very low.

In ten years of searching for missing cats, I have only heard of one case where a lost indoor-only cat appeared attracted to their dirty cat litter.  This cat was lost away from home in a city park.  The owners sprinkled dirty cat litter along the area (thick reeds) where the cat had disappeared.  The first time that they saw her, she had come out of the reeds and was peeing near the dirty cat litter.  However, I have had several other cases where the presence of cat litter (or the lost cat’s belongings) appeared to attract neighborhood cats.

If you have had an experience where cat litter helped find a lost cat OR caused problems in your search (such as attracting neighborhood cats or predators), please share your story in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Will Cat Litter Attract a Lost Cat?”

  1. Thank you for publishing this. There is way too much misinformation around this subject, and people need to have more examples of why the kitty litter idea is rarely a good one.

  2. My daughter came to stay and put her cat litter box on the balcony. My indoor spayed cat was on the ground-level porch. A large feral male came and chased her into woods. No sightings of her in a month. I think the litter box attracted the territorial cat.

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  5. A few times this summer I set out an emptied litter pan, just to air and get the sun. Twice I saw a stray cat sitting by it, as if hoping his owners would come get him, it was was very heartbreaking.

  6. I lost my cat, but kept seeing him in the alley behind my house. He was five months old when I got him and feral. When he got lost he was 10 months. He was gone about a week, so I finally got cat litter from my other cat and placed it around my house, the next morning Walmart made a delivery and left the gate in the front yard open when I opened the screen there he was was sitting on my front porch looking in, he hissed at me until he recognized me, it was all cuddles from there. I thought he would come home via the backyard which has easy access to the catio and backyard. However he got home I was glad he did. He is neutered and up to date on all shots.

    1. I’m glad to hear that your cat is home safe. Based on my research, most escaped cats return home on their own between days 4 – 7 after they get outside. This seems to happen regardless of what is placed outside the house, whether it is food, cat litter, bedding or nothing at all. This makes it hard to tell if any of these items actually help the cat find their way home.

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  8. Our cat went missing a few days after we brought her home. She used to be an outside cat and we were afraid we lost her, especially living so close to a busy road. After a few days of constant searching, someone advised the litter box trick. We sprinkled it around the house and within minutes our cats returned home! Later in life I worked at an animal shelter and advised missing cat owners to do the same and had multiple people tell me it worked also, so I truly believe in this trick!

  9. I’ve had several experiences where I recommended putting the cat’s litterbox outside & the cat quickly came home. In one case a cat that had been missing for several days came home within 10 minutes of the box being outside.This seems to be the most effective for “indoor only” cats who become disoriented & terrified outside. I’d love to see some actual official scientific research on this. Often the people who say putting the litterbox out is bad recommend putting food out which also could attract predators. And the smell of the actual cat & it’s fresh waste while it is lost will also attract predators as well.

    1. I agree that I would also love to see some real research on this contentious topic. One possible method would be to see if there is a significant difference in the rate of return for indoor only cats when litter is placed out versus no litter. Another interesting study might be to place dirty cat litter out in the woods and see if it really does attract predators. I tried this a few times myself and found that opossums (which are not predators of cats) were interested in the litterbox.

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