Scooping Cat Litter Boxes is Good For My Mental Health

No one loves this chore.

Right now, we have four litter box stations – one for the kitten room, one for the upstairs feral girls, one in the attic as a spare, and one in the basement for the regular house cats. They almost never use the attic pan so for all intents and purposes, we have three stations for a total of 7 boxes.

Our trash pick-up is Monday morning, so typically on a Sunday evening – we look at each other and decide who goes upstairs to grab the dirty litter and who goes downstairs. We were using Fresh Step litter which was fine enough, but we still ended up trying to defy the laws of physics to pry the clumps of litter from the box. Then we have to double bag it all and drag to the curb. It can be a lot of work, even if we are having a banner week of scooping regularly and storing the bagged waste for trash night.

When the kittens came, we had to use a clay free non-clumping litter so we opted to try wood pellets that come from the local hardware store in 40 lbs bags for about $7.00. They do a good job absorbing the urine smell. Scooping the box involved a third step because we have to sift the remaining pellets from the sawdust created by urine after first removing the poop. Then we dispose of the poop, either in the toilet or in a bag that goes into the trash. I put the sawdust into a brown paper bag and compost it out back. When we finally get compost from this, we’ll simply use it as fill for the outer parts of the yard rather than for gardening.

So we are saving money, even after paying for a composter, and being green as well as reducing the stress of trash night because now we might have two of three small bags of poop that can right into the kitchen trash bag. THe pellets come in 40 lb bags that I can lift. They are made a vertical production process meaning the wood used to make the pellets is excess from the company’s lumber production. The bag itself can be recycle with other plastic bags.  Wood Pellet Cat Litter

There are other benefits. We created a small compost heap in the backyard so all of our feral visitors will use that spot to urinate or defecate, not our deck or porch. And its absorbed right into the litter. There can be a little dust when separating the litter from the sawdust, but nowhere near what we have had with litter. I barely sneeze at all while scooping or changing litter. We also learned that cat litter dust can accumulate in the pipes and create clogs (we learned the hard way) even if you are careful not to put litter in the pipe. Doesn’t happen with wood pellets.

So when my therapist suggested I identify a 30 minute daily task to carry out with focus and intention, this seemed perfect. The goal is for me to not allow myself to use ‘distraction’ as an escape from my natural train of thought. If I have a show streaming while I’m working on the computer and doing a third thing with my phone, my thoughts are scattered. This creates a chance for to dissociate.

Dissociation is a coping mechanism where there’s a disconnect between our thoughts and memory, as well as in some cases, with identity. You may have experienced this while driving somewhere and realizing that while you *know* you got from Point A to Point B, you don’t actually remember doing so. It is a fairly common occuence in its mildest forms.

Sometimes trauma survivors use dissociation to manage intense feelings around an abusive or neglectful experience. This includes me. As I do the the work of recovery with my therapist, lots of really difficult things are being stirred up – memories that I have had all along, but now better understand the context. And the context sucks. It hurts and overwhelms and yet it persists because it needs to be resolved, not further pushed away or suppressed.

So I find myself losing time a bit more often. I’ll return home from driving Laura to work, pour myself a cup of coffee, and then suddenly, it is 2 PM. I’ve been doing things, usually online things combined with simple household stuff, but I don’t remember doing them. I just see the outcomes. I will also notice that while watching tv, especially streaming, I’ll realize I missed several minutes or longer stretches of the show.

This was particularly weird while watching the Star Trek Discovery episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” The episode involves a time loop. I had to turn it off until I could give it my full attention.

It certainly isn’t the worst symptom I’ve experienced, but I recognized that its recurring frequency wasn’t a good sign. My therapist agreed; she believes I’m dissociating to cope with the freshly revisited traumatic memories. Coping was what got me through a lot, but it is time to move from coping mechanism to dealing with it.

I should add here that my life has changed a lot. I used to be very big reader, I tore through books and magazines. Now, I find myself struggling to read. I realize this is because reading is not engrossing enough to turn off the distracting thoughts.

So my therapist asked me to identify a 30 minute daily activity or task that I would do and only do. No phone, no tv, no music, even. I tried out watching tv, writing, etc but they led me right back down the dissociation path.

One day, I was cleaning the cat box litter in the kittens room and realized that while I didn’t necessarily enjoy it, I found it soothing. They originally had two small boxes so I had to intentionally clean out the waste, sift the pellets from the sawdust, clean the boxes, refresh the litter, and dispose of the waste and the sawdust. None of this is hard. It just takes time. But it is unpleasant enough that I don’t lollygag.

Perfect. I used my phone’s timer to determine that it took me about 40 minutes each day to clean all three litter box clusters. Even more perfect.

There’s something very satisfying about this task. It is certainly necessary so I feel a sense of accomplishment when I’m done. I’m using paper bags and composting the sawdust so I feel good about doing something with a minimal carbon footprint. There’s no perfume or dust so have no ill side-effects afterwards.

Kitten Litter Box
Sun Volt and Galileo have few boundaries …

And I get to visit with the cats. I deliberating do not turn on music or anything so I talk with the occupant cats in each space. The kittens like to help me and race to see who can undo my nice clean boxes as soon as possible. When I sweep up the area, the cling to the broom and get dragged into the dustpan. They crawl into my lap, the look over my shoulder, and generally make a total nuisance of themselves. It is awesome.

Kitten Litter Box
Artemis would prefer that I not photography every damn minute.

The semi-feral girls are not so hands-on. They more lurk on their cat tree or behind the dresser, peering out to be ready in case a simple cat box cleaning turns into an attempt to kill them. If I plan to interact with them, I do that first. Once I’m done and out of the room, I look at the nanny cam and see that they both tentatively step out from their hiding spots to give the box a few sniffs and inspections. Every single change is a big deal to them. I do talk with them even though they aren’t as responsive as the kittens. Still, I’m sure they appreciate a clean box. And the lack of death.

The basement boxes rarely have any cats nearby. Sometimes, one of the household residents will come to check out my work, but mostly they wait for me to finish so they can be the first to pee in the freshened litter. If I’m really lucky, someone will dart down the stairs while I’m coming up with a bag of dust to dispose of. Fun times.

Best of all, I remember everything. I remember what each cat did, I remember dropping the scoop at a the wrong moment, I remember trying to pour the sawdust into the brown paper bag and the heft of that full bag as I take it to the compost bin.

I’m beginning to wonder if my sense of “why bother” around housework isn’t just the apathy of depression or the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, maybe some of it is because losing track of time makes it feels endless and useless? I enjoy when the house is cleaned. I appreciate the sense of satisfaction of completing a task on my own, large or small. I understand things have to be done. I have been keeping house for a long time. I used to have routines and rituals. I can see where distractions crept in and began derailing me.

So this seems to be working. Perhaps that is how recovery works, we find solutions that work for us when the time is right – I’m at a place where I want to get better and I want to roll up my sleeves for the dirty work of processing the experiences I’ve already lived through. While I’m grateful for every coping mechanism that’s kept me going – and grateful those did not include alcohol, drugs, or pregnancy – it is time to do better for myself.

It seems like a no-brainer to think of our kittens as good for my mental health, but these bonus experiences are worth considering.

Next up – folding and putting the laundry away?

A shoutout to our neighborhood hardware store, T&M Hardware in Bellevue. The store is awesome. The staff are incredibly courteous about loading our bags and even suggested we team up with some other local cat folks to share a pallet of bags (40 bags) to save even more money.  We’ve started buying all of our hardware stuff from them this summer to support a local business that seems to be relatively queer friendly.

If you enjoy reading about our cat adventures and/or my mental health journey, please consider investing in this blog. Right now, we are accepting suggestions to name the newest feral to join our cluster in exchange for a donation of any amount to our feral fund.



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