Litter-Box Basics

It's not hard to teach your kitten to answer nature's call in the right place.


+ enlarge image Cats like to be tidy.

Cats are naturally neat and intelligent, so it's generally not hard to teach them how to use a litter box. Some kittens will have learned this skill from their mother, but if yours hasn't, don't worry -- all it takes is a little practice on your pet's part and a little patience on yours.

If you are housebreaking an adult cat, the guidelines are the same, though it may be more challenging and take longer to change her ways.

Think Outside the Box

Start by picking a location for the litter box that your cat will approve of. Here are some tips for finding the best place:

  • Cats like to do their bathroom business in a place that provides privacy. Select a spot that's out of the flow of household traffic.
  • Noise can disrupt a kitten trying to concentrate. Look for a place that's quiet, away from chatty humans and loud appliances.
  • Locate the litter box a reasonable distance from your kitten's food and water dishes. (The opposite end of a room is OK; right next to the dishes is not.)
  • Once you find the ideal spot, stick with it. Moving the litter box from place to place might confuse your kitten and cause a setback in your training efforts.

Pick the Perfect Pan

Litter boxes come in many shapes, sizes, and materials. When selecting one for your kitten, look for one that is:

  • Easy to clean. Plastic is the most practical material, as it can be wiped down. A simple design will also make cleanups quick and painless. A covered box may help prevent messes if your kitten has poor aim or sends litter flying in all directions.
  • Sized for your kitten. The box overall should provide ample room for your cat to find just the right place to do its business and to cover the resulting wet spots and droppings with litter -- but the sides should be low enough for a small kitten, or an older cat, to easily climb in and out.

Litter Matters

Cat litter comes in various textures and scents. For a kitten's first litter, it's best to choose a basic, unscented kind; some kittens dislike scented litters and may refuse to use them. The litter can be either a traditional clay type or one of the newer clumping types, made to be scooped out as it's used instead of changed completely on a periodic basis.

Fill the box with about three inches of regular clay litter, or one to two inches of clumping litter. Keep the box filled to this level so your cat always has enough litter to dig and paw.

Training Techniques

Most cats who are provided with a clean, well-filled litter box will gravitate to it rather than use other surfaces in the home (with the possible exception of the soil in plant pots). You can help your kitten get the hang of using the box by doing the following:

  • Be aware of the times your kitten is likely to need to use the box. These include after waking up, after eating, and whenever you see your cat sniffing around or squatting. At these times, gently scoop up your pet and carry her to the litter box to demonstrate the proper place to go.
  • After your kitten uses the box, pet her and shower her with praise.
  • Help your kitten associate pleasant experiences with using the box. Don't scold or say "no" to your cat, or give any necessary medications, when near the box.

Handling Those Oops! Moments

Accidents are an almost inevitable part of the learning process. If your kitten makes a mess outside of the litter box, never scold or punish your pet for it. Instead, try to clear up your cat's confusion this way:

Pick up the mess with a paper towel, and place the paper towel in the litter box to indicate where it belongs. Holding your kitten, gently "scratch" her front paws in the litter. This will convey the idea of pawing the litter to bury droppings.

Once your kitten learns her litter-box lessons, she is unlikely to soil other parts of the house. If a housetrained cat starts avoiding her box, one of the following is usually to blame:

  • Did you change litter type, scent, or brand? If you must introduce a new litter, start by mixing a little of the new filler in with the old and gradually increasing the proportion of the new kind.
  • Is the litter box being scooped or cleaned often enough? Scoop out solid waste every day. If using clumping litter, scoop out the wet clumps daily as well. If using conventional litter, replace it completely once a week.
  • Is there too much noise and activity around the litter box? Make sure the area near the box hasn't suddenly become busier.
  • Is it a territorial issue? If a new cat joins the household, provide him with his own litter box. Unless they get used to using a box together at an early age, or join your household at the same time, many cats balk at being asked to share this very private place with another animal.

All of these conditions are easy to address. But if none of them seem to apply, consult your vet. Avoidance of the litter box can sometimes signal a physical problem, such as a bladder infection or something more serious, such as FUS (feline urological syndrome). Your vet will examine your pet and rule out any possible medical concerns.


How to Litter-Train Your Cat
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