Cat Litter 101: How to Train Your Cat to Use the Litter Box (And Only the Litter Box!)

While cats aren’t born knowing how to use a litter box, they learn quickly, often with little to no prompting from their pet parents. Popular thought is that cats instinctively gravitate to a litter box, but this is not necessarily true. Yes, many cats prefer to dig and then bury their little treasures—perhaps masking their scent from other cats.

But not all cats do this. Most are trained by their mothers at a few weeks of age, but some cats do have trouble acclimating to the litter box. Or, they prefer to use your houseplants, bundled bed blankets, or carpet. If for some reason your kitty didn’t get the litter box memo, no worries. Cats are naturally fastidious animals who will want to answer nature’s call in a tidy way. If your feline friend is having trouble, there are few tips that can help you get things back on track as well as few common mistakes you should avoid.

Top Tips for Getting Your Cat to Use the Litter Box

Location! Location! Location!

Your cat’s litter box should not be too close to where she sleeps and should offer a modicum of privacy (we aren’t the only ones who prefer to do our thing alone!). Cats can be unsettled by loud noises, and you don’t want to inadvertently train them that there is connection between them doing their business and a scary noise because you happened to crank up your blender at a critical moment. Litter boxes should be in a calm, quiet place that is easily accessible for your cat. With kittens, or cats that are new to you, you will probably have to show them where to go a few times. But you’ll be surprised how quickly they figure it out.

Box trained or space trained?

You may think you have your cat trained to use your litter box, when really you have just trained Fluffy to use the space where the box is. Unfortunately, you may only learn this when you have moved the box far away—but your pet is still dutifully doing his business where the litter box used to be. You can avoid this by gradually moving the box a few feet every few days until it (and your cat’s waste) is where you want it.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

The Egyptians may have been on to something by deifying their kitties. Your kitty’s litter box needs to be scooped out daily and the litter changed regularly (every week or 10 days). Dispose of the litter safely in a plastic trash bag deposited in your outside trash can. Wash out the box itself with warm water and a mild dish soap before replenishing litter. Avoid bleach or other strong cleaners that can be harmful to your cat. Cats don’t like to go in a “dirty” litter box any more than we humans like a dirty restroom, and you don’t want them finding their own alternatives.

Sharing is overrated

When it comes to litter boxes, every cat prefers to have his own. You need a litter box for each cat you have. Cats are territorial animals who don’t like to share these spaces. Once one cat claims it, the other may find a space of her own. Make sure that space is one you have set up, not one she determines. One litter box can be a burden to manage, never mind two or three. This may seem like unnecessary extra work, but it is worth it. Cleaning more than one litter box is a lot less trouble than trying to redirect Felix from using your closet or bathtub as his potty and fighting the horrible odor this problem presents.

Missing the mark

If your cat has gotten confused and decided to repurpose your house plant, you can redirect her by placing a handful of small, sharp rocks on top of the soil. That should be enough to make it uncomfortable and discourage her from using your favorite ficus tree as a latrine. If your pet doesn’t seem to be settling in, consider trying a different type of litter. (A side note: if your kitty relieves himself outside, and you have a child’s sandbox in your yard, make sure to keep it covered to keep kitty from mistaking it as the most giant, exciting litter box ever. When kids come into feline fecal matter while playing, they can pick up parasites carried by cat feces.)

A word about odor

No one wants a house that smells like a litter box. In case you’re worried you’ve become nose-blind to the notorious litter box odor in your home, there are a few tricks you can try to reduce this unpleasant aroma. In addition to daily scooping and weekly washing, you can add in a little baking soda with the litter to help absorb odor. You may be tempted to throw in a few drops of your favorite essential oil, but don’t. Some oils are toxic to kitty, and besides, most cats actually prefer unscented litter.

Keep your litter box in a well-ventilated spot. This tip may seem counterintuitive; plenty of people tuck the litter box into an out-of-the-way closet or bathroom corner. But doing so limits airflow and worsens the already-pungent odor. Consider a room that has better ventilation. For the same reason, odor is more effectively controlled when you use a topless litter box. It is tempting to buy one with a lid, thinking it reduces spill and odor, but it only intensifies and concentrates odor. Instead, try using an air purifier in the room with the litter.

Next Level

If you have the time and the patience, some folks have had success training their cats to use a regular toilet. (No known reports of Felix doing his own flushing.) It’s not for everyone, but some experts claim that any cat can be taught and have written books on how to do it. If the prospect of a litter-free home is appealing, and you are up for the challenge, it may be something you want to consider. No doubt, you won’t miss the odor, the mess, the hassle, or the bits of littler between your toes. Check out this kitty toilet training kit.

Final Words of Caution

Cat feces can carry a parasite called toxoplasmosis, and humans can be infected if they come in contact with this fecal matter. If you pick up toxoplasmosis for the first time just before or during pregnancy, you can pass it along to your unborn child, which can result in miscarriage or stillbirth. This is rare, but why risk it? Have someone else handle the litter if you can. If you must do it yourself, scoop daily (It takes at least 24 hours for the litter to become infectious) and wear gloves.

If your cat is inexplicably refusing to use a box that she had been using successfully, it can be sign of a urinary tract infection or other health problem. Make an appointment with us to get this checked out.

Whatever challenges may have with your feline family members, Ambassador Animal Hospital is here to help. Call for a consultation or to make an appointment today.

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