By Amy Marder, V.M.D., Pamela Reid, ASPCA, Dr. Stephanie Janeczko, D.V.M., Medical Director for Animal Care & Control of New York City, Elizabeth Teal and Micky Niego, Companion Animal Services, ASPCA
Bringing home a new cat or kitten is such a fun time—the playing, the purring, the litter box training…wait. OK, so litter box training is not exactly fun, but it’s important and usually pretty easy. If there is one word you need to know about introducing a cat to your home, it’s this: SLOWLY!
Before Bringing Home A New Cat
Before you bring home your new cat, you will need to do a few easy things in advance:
- Purchase one or two full-size litter boxes. The general rule of thumb for how many litter boxes you’ll need is one litter box per cat, plus one extra. So, if you have one cat, buy two litter boxes. Two cats? Buy three litter boxes, and so on.
- Fill it with litter: about three to four inches deep for clumping litter, and two to three inches for non-clumping litter. Cats like to dig and bury, so this depth allows them to do so. Consider the type of litter you are using as well. The surface should be smooth, without prickly particles, and the fragrance shouldn’t be overwhelming. Some kittens will try to eat clumping litter. Not only is this an unappetizing choice for a snack, but it can also clump up in their tummy and cause some serious issues. Choose a non-clumping litter until your kitten is about 4-6 months old.
- Place the litter box somewhere private, quiet, and easy for your cat to access. It’s best to keep a box on each level of your home if possible. If using clumping litter, plan to scoop at least once each day, and make it easy by keeping a few bags handy for waste disposal. For non-clumping, scoop solid waste at least once a day and be sure to empty the box completely at least once per week.
How to Litter Train a Kitten
Once you have your new cat, you will need to potty train them to use the litter box.
- For the first couple of days, keep your cat confined to a room without carpet, such as a bathroom, with their litter box. Place their food and water in this room as well, but keep it on the opposite side of the room from the litter box. Once they are comfortable with using the litter box, you can allow them to explore the rest of the house. Do not move the litter box until your cat is fully comfortable in the house. Later, if you do move their litter box from that room, make sure you show them where it is. You may have to reintroduce your cat to the box.
- Keep the litter box clean. For clumping litter, scoop the box out at least once a day, refill as needed to maintain the proper depth, and do a full replacement at least every three weeks (more often if you have multiple cats). For non-clumping, scoop solid waste daily and toss out all of the litter to replace at least once a week (again, more often if you have multiple cats). Regularly clean out the box with fragrance-free soap and water as well.
- Never punish your cat for not using the litter box. Accidents happen, and they are frustrating. But punishing your cat after the fact or rubbing their nose in it will just cause confusion and fear. If you catch your cat mid-accident, quickly and calmly pick them up and place them in the litter box. If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box, bring them to the veterinarian as there may be an underlying medical issue.
Cats are naturally drawn to litter-like areas to relieve themselves, so they typically catch on to litter box training quickly. However, many cats experience relapses and have accidents at some point. If this happens, stay calm, and remember that the problem is normal and it can be fixed. In the meantime, give your new kitty lots of love and enjoy this time with them.
Issues With Litter Box Training
Some owners might be wondering “Why won’t my cat use the litter box?” At least 10 percent of household cats soil outside of the litter box at some time during their life. Urination and defecation outside the litter box is the most common feline behavior problem. Many cats are given up because of house-soiling problems. Most of the time this is unnecessary. Fortunately, the prognosis for cats with this problem is excellent. Between 70 percent and 75 percent of litter box problems are cured by simple treatments.
If your cat begins to urinate or defecate outside the box, see your veterinarian first. It is critical to first evaluate and rule out a medical cause for the problem. The veterinarian will be able to rule out any medical causes. If the problem is considered to be a behavioral one, ask for a referral to a cat behavior specialist. Some cats stop using the box altogether, some only use the box for urination, others only for defecation, and some cats will still use the box at times but will also go outside of the box.
Some litter box problems stem from the cat developing a preference for a certain substrate or surface for elimination. Maybe the cat wishes to go au natural and uses the soil from your potted plant. Maybe you added a soft throw rug in your bathroom that feels much better to the cat. The best way to deal with a substrate preference is to make the desired substrate unavailable (cover the soil in your plant pots with plastic, remove the throw rug, keep an inch or two of water in your tub, etc.) and give your cat a choice of different litter types. Line up a series of boxes and offer a selection of clay, clumping, coarse, fine, etc. In a standard choice test, most cats preferred clumping over a variety of other litters so make sure you include at least one clumping choice. They also favored fine-grained and soft litter.
A substrate aversion means that the cat particularly dislikes the litter you’ve provided. Cats prone to developing a litter aversion tend to show early warning signs, such as failing to “cover” their urine and feces, failing to scratch at the litter prior to elimination, scratching outside of the box rather than inside, perching with their feet on the edge of the box, racing out of the box, or shaking their feet as though disgusted by the feel of the litter. If your cat displays any of these behaviors, you should offer a choice of different litters before you have a problem, so your cat can tell you what they prefer.
Cats also have pretty strong likes and dislikes about boxes. The majority of cats prefer a large box that is easy to enter, with a low to moderate level of litter. They usually don’t like a covered box; I mean who would want to be stuck in a tiny room saturated with the smells of urine and feces? Cats really like a clean box. If you have a fussy cat you’d be wise to scoop at least once a day. Avoid washing the box with detergents because the smell may repel the cat. Warm water is just fine. Replace the litter entirely once a week. A cat’s sense of smell is very strong so, no matter how clean you keep the box, avoid placing it near their food, water, favorite sleeping spots, or room deodorizers. In fact, a good way to discourage a cat from soiling in specific areas is to place food bowls, toys, and beds in the soiled areas.
Where the litter box is located can have a major impact on a cat’s desire to use it. Cats prefer a box that is located in a quiet but not “cornered” location. Cats like to be able to see if someone is approaching and they like to have more than one route for running out of the box to escape, so closets and unused shower stalls are typically not good choices. If your cat is elderly, they may become reluctant to climb up and down a flight of stairs to use a litter box so keep a box, with low sides, on every floor. If you suspect your cat is soiling because they prefer a different spot, try placing a box there. If they use it, keep it there if you can; if you can’t, leave it for a few weeks and then gradually, inches at a time, move it to a more acceptable place nearby.
Cats can also learn to fear the area where the box is located. If the cat has been constipated, they may come to associate the pain of defecation with the environment around the box. Similarly, a cat suffering from diarrhea may get feces on its feet or tail and associate that unpleasantness with the place. Scolding your cat near the box can cause the cat to avoid the area. I’ve even heard of one cat that stopped using their box, which was placed next to the toilet because the teenage boy in the family was “splashing” in the litter box! Be considerate if you have a timid cat – they’re not going to want to eliminate it in a box situated in a busy room or hallway, next to the washer/dryer, or in a noisy basement workshop.
Sometimes an elimination problem can develop as a result of conflict between cats in the home. Fussy cats may refuse to use a box that another cat has used. You should always have more litter boxes than cats to increase the likelihood there is a clean box somewhere. A good guide is that the number of boxes should equal the number of cats in the home plus one (i.e. 2 cats = 3 boxes). If one cat is harassing and intimidating another, the victim may be too afraid to go near the box. Sometimes an aggressive cat will lie in wait and attack the victim while they are in the box. Lying in wait can even happen when one cat, often the younger, is trying to entice the other cat to play, but the victim may perceive the ambush as a terrifying experience and subsequently avoid the box. If you have multiple cats and you aren’t sure which cat is soiling, speak with your veterinarian about administering fluorescein, a harmless dye, to one of the cats. The dye does not stain carpeting but causes the urine to fluoresce blue for 24 hours under ultraviolet light. Alternatively, cats can be confined, one at a time, to determine which one is soiling.
Regardless of why your cat is not using the box, make sure you clean soiled areas thoroughly with an enzymatic cleanser designed to neutralize the odor. DO NOT clean with an ammonia-based cleanser. Urine contains ammonia and cleaning with ammonia could attract the cat back to the same spot to urinate again.
Other Things To Consider With Litter Box Training
Spayed or Neutered?
Another factor is whether your cat is spayed or neutered. If not, cats are much more likely to mark their territory and having males neutered and females spayed will help. Sexually mature cats use urine and feces to mark territory and advertise for a mate. If your cat is over 6, months of age, it should be spayed or neutered; male cats are neutered, females are spayed. This is a relatively simple surgical procedure performed on an anesthetized cat by a veterinarian. Call your vet or your local SPCA to get more information. An intact cat that does not use the litter box is very difficult to train; the behavior is hormonally influenced.
Is the urine puddle up against the wall or along the side of the sofa? If so, the cat is not urinating out of their box, they are spraying. When a cat squats, they are emptying their bladder to get rid of bodily waste; a cat does not squat when they spray. They are standing with their tail straight up when they send a stream of urine sideways; it hits the wall and runs down onto the floor. It is not clear whether spraying claims territory or warns trespassers to stay away, but it is clear that it has nothing to do with ‘having to go to the bathroom’. It commonly accompanies stress. Although -both males and females spray, males tend to do so more frequently, and unneutered males almost always do it. The good news is if the cat has just started to spray and is an unneutered male, very often neutering will put a stop to the behavior. Unfortunately, if the cat has been allowed to spray for some time, as is the case with many rescued tom cats, neutering may not solve the problem. Once the behavior becomes habitual, the cat may continue to spray. It may be necessary to work with a professional behavior counselor in order to modify the behavior.
They Use the Box… Sometimes!
Now we come to the cat who is ‘box trained but has “accidents”. Has the cat ever used the box reliably for any length of time? Do they have accidents once a week, once a month, or once a year? A cat who has frequent accidents is not box trained. This cat is demonstrating that they don’t know that there is only one place to eliminate. . . the box!
Use close supervision or confinement (see following pages) to train the cat to use the box and ONLY THE BOX. All previously soiled areas must be cleaned and treated with an appropriate odor-neutralizing product. Whenever possible, visually change the areas most frequently soiled. Add a chair, an end table, a garbage can, or an umbrella stand! If it doesn’t smell or look like the ‘old bathroom’, they will be less likely to return. If you see the cat sniffing or scratching around a forbidden area, gently but firmly direct them towards the litter box. If your cat has infrequent or predictable (‘they always do it when I come back from vacation’) accidents, this may be stress-related behavior. Read on.
Is It Spite? No, It’s Stress
Environmental stress takes its toll on house cats. Studies indicate that there is a high correlation between ongoing stress/stressful events and house soiling. Cats are as individual as people. Some are bold, outgoing, and adventurous; they’re resilient and forgiving. Others lack confidence; they’re timid. They slink from room to room and run from strangers. Most cats thrive on the predictability of a daily routine. Personal crisis, a new family member (spouse/baby), or redecorating are significant events from the feline point of view. A dinner party (a bunch of noisy strangers all over the place), going away for the weekend (isolation/change in routine and/or caregiver), or having the plumber come in to fix the sink (trespasser) may cause the cat to feel threatened and become anxious. Anxious cats may spray or urinate/defecate outside the box.
Take the time to learn who your cat is and how you can meet their needs and minimize their stress. Whenever possible, insulate the sensitive cat from stressful events. Create a sanctuary for the cat now; bed them down there during the big party or when you’re using power tools. Prepare the cat well in advance of a change in routine. Have the cat sitter come and feed the cat several times before you leave on vacation.
Dealing with stressful situations can be more difficult than the retraining exercises. Both objectives should be worked on simultaneously. The cat may continue to avoid the box and/or urinate on personal objects like bedding, clothing, and your favorite chair in the presence of unresolved ongoing/escalating stress. This is not to say you must eliminate the stressful element but you must alter the cat’s perception of that element through socialization or desensitization. Consider working with a professional behavior counselor to modify your cat’s behavior.
Retraining… Can They Be Helped?
As mentioned earlier, the first step towards a solution is to rule out any health problems (worms, cystitis, intestinal disease) by having the cat thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. Once it has been determined that the cat is in good health training can begin.
The combination of confinement and supervised freedom is the method of choice. The cat starts the program in confinement. Most cats do well in small rooms. The bathroom is recommended as it typically has non-absorbent tile flooring and offers privacy. Since the bathroom is an essential one for humans, the cat is not isolated for extended periods of time. In addition to those necessary trips to the bathroom, you should make time for 3 to 4 twenty-minute sessions with the cat either playing, grooming, talking, or feeding. Put a bed for the cat in the room along with some toys. Remember to place dishes and bedding in the corner of the room farthest from the litter box.
Some cats may require a space smaller than a room (with no opportunity to choose the wrong spot) in order to learn to use the box. For these cats, a cattery cage or vari-kennel is useful. It must be big enough to accommodate the cat bed at one end, and the litter box at the other. If the cat urinates on the cat bed, it must be removed. Feed the cat two meals a day, leaving the food down for approximately 20 minutes. Keep a diary; note when the cat uses the litter box.
When the cat has been using the box and ONLY THE BOX for 2 weeks, you can begin to allow them access to other rooms in the house a room at a time. Observe from a distance; make sure that they have not fallen prey to old habits! The best time to let them roam is right after they used the box, returning them to confinement before their next scheduled ‘pit stop.’ Do not leave the cat out when you are not home. Only when you observe the cat reliably returning to the litter box on their own, can you begin to cut back on the supervision. Do not leave food out all day; nibbling all day increases the chance of a misplaced bowel movement! The cat cannot attempt to urinate/defecate outside of the box without being observed and directed toward the box. It is best to proceed slowly and build a strong foundation than to rush through the procedure because it is inconvenient or time-consuming. In order for effective learning to take place, the cat must be watched carefully and encouraged to use the box; consistency is everything.
The complexities of cat behavior become quite evident when dealing with a cat who does not reliably use its box. The solutions often require patience, and always require consistency. Be sensitive to your cat’s needs. Your investment of quality time and attention will be well rewarded.
Litter box problems can be stressful for the whole family—most of all for your cat. Try to be patient and don’t give up. Your cat will eventually get back to the box, and you can both get on with your lives.