How to Litter Train Your Cat

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Many young cats learn to use litter boxes from their mother, and as the instinct to bury their feces is quite strong, many cats will naturally gravitate towards the litter box to do their business. However, some cats may need a little help learning where to go.

General Litter Box Tips

  • How many litter boxes do I need? You should have at least one litter box per cat (often, you may wish to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have, as some cats like to have a choice of places to go). If you have a multi-level home, you should also ensure you have one on each level, to provide easy access for your cat.

  • Where should I place the litter box? You should place the litter box in a quiet, secluded area that doesn’t receive too much household traffic, so that your cat feels comfortable and safe using it. Cats like their privacy; a quiet corner is often a good choice. Make sure it’s easy to access and has multiple entry and exit points (i.e. at the ‘dead-end’ of a corridor may not be a good choice, as your cat may feel they have no ‘escape route’). You should also avoid placing it right next to your cat’s food bowl, as cats typically don’t like to go where they eat.

  • Can I move my cat’s litter box? It’s important not to suddenly move the litter box, to avoid confusing your cat or discouraging them from using the box. If you need to change its location, do so gradually over a number of days, moving it a small distance at a time.

  • What type of litter box is best? Ensure that the sides of the litter box aren’t too high, so that your cat can easily get in and out. For very small kittens or older, arthritic cats, you may consider adding a ramp for easy access. Some cats dislike enclosed litter boxes, as they can feel trapped and don’t feel safe using the box when they can’t see out, so an open litter tray may work better.

  • What type of litter should I use? There are lots of different types of litter to choose from, including litter made from clay (some of which are ‘clumping’ types, which forms into solid clumps after your cat has urinated on it, allowing for easy removal), fine wood shavings, recycled paper, silica, or even corn or wheat. While clumping clay is used most often, it really comes down to your cat’s personal preference; some cats simply prefer certain types of litter over another. You may need to try a few types to find your cat’s favorite. Note that if you have a multi-cat family, you may need to use different types of litter for each cat. Some litters are scented to help cover the smell of your cat’s urine and feces, but cats often prefer unscented litters. When bringing your cat home for the first time, you should continue to use the litter they are familiar with, and gradually change it over time if you wish. You should never change your cat’s litter type abruptly, as it may put them off going.

  • How much litter should I put in the litter box? It’s important not to over- or underfill the litter box. Cats like to have enough litter to cover up their feces, but too much can spill out of the box. A good rule of thumb is around two inches of litter, ensuring there is enough space at the top of the tray that it won’t overflow when your cat steps across it.

  • How often do I need to clean the litter box? Cats are extremely clean creatures and may not use their litter box if it’s dirty, so it’s important to clean it regularly. You should clean it at least every day; ideally, remove any fecal matter after each bowel movement, and scoop out the urine-soaked litter each day. Once a week, you should empty the whole box, clean it with hot water and mild soap, and ensure it’s thoroughly dry before refilling with litter.

  • How should I dispose of used litter? Dispose of litter in a securely closed bag, then put it in the trash. Never dispose of litter in the garden or on a compost pile, as it can carry diseases.

How to Encourage Litter Box Use

  • Let your cat discover the litter box. When you bring your cat home for the first time, show them where the litter box(es) are located and give them time to sniff the box thoroughly.

  • Allow your cat to do their business in private. Never disturb your cat while they’re eliminating, and ensure you’re a good distance away from them so they feel comfortable.

  • Use positive reinforcement techniques. Once your cat has finished, reward them for doing their business in the correct place. Give them a high-value treat to reinforce this good behavior, such as a small piece of unseasoned, cooked meat or fish.

  • Place them in the litter box at regular intervals. After feeding or after they’ve woken up from a nap, they may need to go. Pick them up gently and place them in the box to remind them where to do their business.

  • Keep a watchful eye. If you notice your cat sniffing around or showing any other signs that they need to go, pick them up and place them in the litter box.

When your cat does their business in the correct place, reward them with a high-value treat to reinforce the good behavior.

How to Discourage Your Cat From Going Elsewhere

  • Don’t punish or scold your cat for going in the wrong place. They won’t associate the punishment with their action, and will merely be confused and possibly scared. Punishment has been proven to be ineffective and can lead to anxiety or aggression later in your cat’s life.

  • Confine their space. If your cat keeps going in the wrong place, you could consider confining their space with baby gates or other items like a playpen. Having their litter box nearby will help them to find it when they need it, and being in a confined space will also help you keep an eye on them, so you can place them in the litter box if they show signs of needing to go.

  • Leave a small amount of soiled litter in the box. This may not work for all cats, as many prefer an exceptionally clean litter box, however, for some cats, the scent of their previous eliminations may help to remind them where to go next time.

  • Use special cleaning products to remove odors. If your cat has gone in the wrong place, make sure to clean the area thoroughly, using a specially formulated cleaning product to remove odors. This is important, as regular cleaning products may not completely remove the scent, and it may encourage your cat to do their business there again.

  • Cover soil around houseplants. Sometimes, a cat may associate the soil around a houseplant with litter, and start doing their business there. If this is the case for your cat, try to move the houseplant to an area they cannot access, or cover up the soil with a piece of aluminum foil so they cannot reach it.

Medical and Psychological Reasons For Not Using the Litter Box

  • Medical concerns. If your cat was previously litter box trained and suddenly begins urinating or defecating outside of the box, there may be a medical problem, such as a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, diabetes or arthritis. In this situation, you should have a vet examine your cat to check nothing is wrong.

  • Stress. Cats dealing with stress or anxiety may regress in their litter training. A new arrival to the home (a new baby, roommate or house guest), changes in routine, moving house or even new furniture can all make your cat anxious. It’s important to make your cat feel secure, provide them with lots of love and affection, and keep working on the tips mentioned above to help them return to their usual litter box habits.

  • Urine marking around the home. Cats may mark their territory by urinating on specific items or places around the home. This is more common in un-neutered or unspayed cats, and may occur if the cat feels threatened or upset about something. They may be reacting to a perceived threat (a new household member or pet, or another cat viewed through a window), or trying to target unfamiliar items (such as a new bag or pair of shoes with an unfamiliar smell). If you’re struggling with urine marking, speak to your vet for advice. Spaying/neutering can help to reduce urine marking, and they can also help to deal with the underlying cause of the urine marking. If your pet is stressed or anxious, your vet can provide advice on how to manage this, and may suggest pheromone diffusers such as Feliway, or anti-anxiety medication if suitable.

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