If you’re bringing home a kitten, or a new adult cat that’s lived outside, and you’ve never had a cat before how will you get them to use a litter box? You may be thinking that training your new friend to do their business in a box is going to be a lot of work…like housebreaking a new puppy. Well, you’ll be glad to know it won’t be that hard at all.
Using a litter box is instinctive for a cat. Cats in the wild cover their waste to hide their scent from predators and competitors. So cats look for soft dirt or sand to do their business because they have something to cover it with.
You should know that in a group, a dominant cat may not cover its waste to show they’re in charge. So if you have more than one cat, and one of them doesn’t cover their waste, this may be why.
In a household, a cat will consider themselves subordinate to the humans and will most of the time want to cover their waste.
From the time a kitten is 3 to 4 weeks old, the natural tendency to cover their poop will have started to kick in. By the time you bring them home, you’ll just need to show them where their litter box is, and take them to it when you think they need to go.
If you’re wondering when that might be, it’s pretty simple–when they wake up in the morning, after they eat, after they’ve played, and after they’ve woken up from a nap. Put them in the litter box and scratch at the litter a few times with their front paws. Then give them some time—and privacy—to get down to business.
Keep at it until your cat is consistently going over to the box on their own.
There will be accidents but don’t ever scold your cat for going outside the box. They won’t understand why you’re upset. Just pick them up and put them right in the box.
And don’t yell at them once they go into the litter box because they’ll think going in the box is a bad thing. Just clean up the mess with an enzyme cleaner that eliminates pet odors so they don’t go back to the same spot to do their business.
It’s helpful to leave a little poop and pee in the box until your kitten gets the hang of what they’re supposed to be doing in the box. In a day or two, they’ll be using the box consistently so be sure to scoop the box at least once a day. Wash the box and change the litter at least weekly.
Making the potty experience optimal for your cat
Like bringing home any pet, you need to prepare. You’ll need to give thought to what type of litter box you’ll buy, what type of litter and where you’ll put the litter box.
You want to have one litter box for each cat you have plus one. So if you have one cat, you’ll need two litter boxes…two cats, three litter boxes. Cats are fastidious and don’t always like to go where another cat has gone.
Place them in different spots in the house. Some cats like to poop in one box and pee in the other. If you live in a multi-story home you’ll need a box on each floor.
You’ll want to put the litter box in a quiet place where your cat can do its business in peace. That wouldn’t be the laundry room where dryer buzzers are going off. Or the middle of the kitchen where the kids and dogs are passing through regularly.
The spot should be away from the cat’s food bowl and should give the cat easy access. Don’t hide it in an out-of-the-way place that’s hard to get to.
If you have more than one cat or a dog, be sure the cat has an escape route out of the box should your other pet try to corner them.
If you need to move the box once your cat has gotten used to it, move it to the new spot very gradually—a little bit at a time.
Litter box…open or covered?
When you buy the litter box you’ll have to choose between an open box and one with a hood. A covered box makes a cat feel secure and can be good for a cat that likes to really throw the litter when they are covering their waste. But a covered box doesn’t let the odor escape so you’ll have to clean the box daily.
Buy the largest box you can find because your kitten will grow into a cat, and your full-grown cat will need room to do their business.
Also be sure that at least one of the sides is low enough for a kitten or an old cat to get in and out of.
Choices, choices…so many choices of litter
There is clumping clay litter, non-clumping clay litter, silica gel crystals, recycled paper litter, pine litter, corn litter, wheat litter, walnut shell litter, and grass litter. There’s even diagnostic litter that can detect changes in urine pH, urine glucose levels and blood in the urine.
Hmmmm…how to choose. Well, most cats prefer fine textured litter that clumps when it gets wet, which makes it easy for you to scoop. But some kittens will eat the clumps, so choose a non-clumping litter until they’re about 4 to 6 months old.
Avoid scented litters because studies show that cats really don’t like scented litter. If you have to get one with an odor neutralizer, go for activated charcoal instead of baking powder. Cats seem less averse to charcoal.
You may want to choose a natural litter that’s better for the environment than the bentonite that’s used in clumping clay litters. Bentonite is not biodegradable and can be dusty. A litter made from pine or recycled paper is biodegradable. They’re also less dusty. If you have a cat with asthma or one that’s highly allergic, less dust will be the better option.
You can try a few different litters to see which your cat likes. Put them in different boxes and see if your cat has a preference.
If you are rescuing an older cat that has lived outside, you may need to use dirt or sand in your litter box at first. Gradually introduce the litter, one cup added to the dirt at a time.
If you need to change to a different litter once your cat is accustomed to using their box, you’ll want to use the same method to make the switch. Introduce one cup of the new litter into the old litter for a few days. Then add another cup and another cup until you’ve completely changed to the new litter.
You’ll always want to cover the bottom of the litter box with about two inches of litter. The directions on the litter may recommend more, but it’s better to use less and change it more frequently.
When you empty the litter each week and clean the box, be sure not to use harsh or scented chemicals. Also, be sure to bag the litter and throw it out in the garbage. Don’t flush it–it will settle in the pipes like gravel. And don’t use it as fertilizer–it will attract flies and other cats.
What if your cat is doing their business outside the box?
This could be a behavioral issue or a health problem.
If your cat has diarrhea, is straining to go or spending a long time trying to go, get them to the vet. This could be a serious problem like a blockage.
If they urinate and cry right in front of you, they’re trying to tell you there’s a problem. Get them to the vet.
If there’s another cat or a dog in the house that is bullying them when they are in the box, or cornering them when they try to leave the box, they will avoid the litter box.
If you aren’t cleaning the litter box often enough, your cat will find a better smelling location to do their business.
It’s also possible they don’t like the litter or don’t like the box.
The box may be too far away from where they spend most of their time, and not accessible enough.
Has something in their routine or environment changed?
They may think their litter box is a punishment if they’ve been yelled at for going outside the box and then immediately placed in the box.
If you’ve ruled out a health problem and know it’s behavioral, try changing one thing at a time or you may make the problem worse.
What has your experience been getting your cat to use the litter box? Share your comments above.