If you’ve ever come home to a smelly surprise on your rug you’ve probably asked yourself how to litter train a cat. Cats can have accidents whether they’re a kitten or senior cat.
But what should you do spraying or pooping on the floor has become a recurring issue?
Health issues, stress, dirty litter—these are all possible causes of litter box problems. In our post, we’ll show you how to get a cat to use a litter box, plus the possible reasons behind their unsavory behavior.
How to get a cat to use a litter box
- Show your cat the litter box.
- When displaying signs of a need to go, gently pick your cat up and place him in the litter box.
- Be encouraging and positive. Praise your kitty.
- Have two or more litter boxes for your cat. If you have more than one cat, you should have more than one litter pan.
- If you have a kitten, bring her to the litter box after naps and meals.
Supplies needed for litter box training
Getting your fur baby off on the right paw when it comes to litter box training is important. Find an appropriate location—preferably one that’s permanent—and get yourself the following supplies.
- A cat litter box
- Litter and litter scooper
- A litter waste disposal system
Your choice of litter boxes is broad—there are several types to pick from, such as covered, uncovered, top-entry boxes, tall-sided, or self-cleaning automatic cat litter boxes, to name just a few.
Start by considering the size. When cats do their business outdoors, they prefer to dig, scratch, and turn around to get comfortable. Find a litter box that gives your feline amply space and opportunity to do this.
A spacious box ensures that your cat won’t step in their cat scat next time nature calls.
It should also have appropriately sized edges. Choosing a litter pan with high sides—making it difficult to get into—is a recipe for your cat pooping outside the litter box.
Another factor to consider is whether you want the box covered or uncovered. Both have their pros and cons, but this may just come down to owner preference as studies reveal that not all cats have a preference (1).
Covered litter boxes are excellent in many ways. They provide privacy (if your cat is shy) and contain messes and odors. With that said, they’re not always the best. Because of the trapped odors, your cat may feel less inclined to use it. Although not as strong as dogs, cats have a much stronger sense of smell than us people (2).
Another con to covered litter boxes is that it’s harder for us humans to tell when the litter is dirty. In turn, we’re likely to clean it less often, which makes it unpleasant for your cat when they need to use it.
Litter types and litter scoopers
Kitty litter is one of the greatest mysteries for any cat parent. There are a lot of options, and even worse, manufacturers are continually trying to come up with something new.
Here’s a quick look at the most common types of cat litter:
- Non-clumping clay – Made from various types of clay, except for bentonite, it absorbs urine without forming clumps, making it more likely to leave pieces of moist litter behind, which can lead to odors quickly. Still, it’s often affordable, and many cats show a preference for it.
- Clumping clay – Is made from bentonite—a highly absorbent clay, forming solid clumps when your cat urinates. It’s easy to scoop up and cleans easily without promoting odors. It can, however, be dusty and quite heavy—it’s also non-biodegradable.
- Silica gel crystal litter – This consists of tiny crystals made from silica gel beads, similar to what you find in a new purse. This material is highly absorbent, but it’s on the pricey end, and it’s toxic if your cat accidentally consumes it (3).
- Pine litter – A recycled litter that usually comes from lumbar scraps, which manufacturers heat-treat to remove oils, allergens, and toxins. It comes as granules, pellets, and roughly crushed pine. It emits a pine scent, which works well at hiding other odors.
- Recycled paper litter – Comes as pellets or granules. It’s dust-free and biodegradable—both forms are highly absorbent, but the pellets don’t form clumps like the granule kind does.
Choose a cat litter that’s widely available for you, so you don’t have to make drastic changes down the road. Consider one that’s unscented as cats tend to prefer those. They are also a healthier alternative!
You should also get yourself a scooper and if possible, a litter waste disposal system. Choose a scooper that will get most of the clumps out. Luckily, they’re affordable and easy to find. Consider a stainless steel scooper as they are less likely to absorb odor and more durable in the long run.
A litter waste disposal system is essentially a dedicated waste bin that comes with liners and typically some sort of odor trapping filter. These systems make it convenient to empty your litter box daily and will encourage you to stay on top of keeping a clean litter box for your cat.
Cat litter box training
How to litter train a cat is, fortunately, an easy task. In fact, it’s easier than potty training a toddler.
Cats have a natural urge to bury their waste, so it’s just a matter of showing your cat to the box. Still, there are some important differences between litter training a kitten and a senior cat. Here are some rundowns and tips for each.
How to litter train a kitten
Litter training kittens is easy as many learn early on from their mama cat, so they’re already familiar with the process. But, if your new fur baby needs help, here are some quick tips:
- Before your new kitty arrives, make sure the litter box is ready. Find a spot where it’s accessible for them and not an annoyance for you. Avoid changing its location later on as this can confuse them.
- When your kitten arrives, bring them over to the litter box—don’t assume they’ll find it by themselves. Let them sniff and examine their new toilet. Give them time to explore and walk on the litter.
- Following meals and naps, bring them over to the litter box. If you spot any indication that they need to go, pick them up and place them in the box. Clues to look out for include crouching or sniffing particular areas.
- Whenever they succeed in using their designated spot, reward them. This could be either with a treat, toy, or cuddle.
How to train an older cat
With older cats and those who have been exclusively outdoors, you need a bit more patience. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, and your feline should quickly catch on. Here are some helpful tips on how to train a cat to use the litter box:
- Choose your litter box carefully. You want your pet to feel comfortable—perhaps pick one with lower sides and lots of space. This way, they can easily get in and out, and they’ll have room to turn around, dig, and squat.
- Have multiple litter boxes for them to use. Place one near the door and the other in a secluded spot, like behind a plant. This way, they’ll see one before going outside (the usual litter box), and slowly get used to going indoors.
- Be mindful of the litter. If your older cat is used to going outdoors in the dirt, you can help their transition by mixing soil with the litter. Then gradually combine less until they’re fully accustomed to the store-bought stuff.
- Instead of scooping the poop right away, leave it. Your cat will catch the smell and know that this is where waste goes.
- Be positive—your fur baby will eventually get there, but it’s essential that you don’t scold or punish.
Reasons your cat isn’t using the litter box
Sometimes it happens that our cats just won’t use the litter box, and instead, opt for the rug—cue the mess. Before you pin it down to a rebellious feline, it’s important that you rule out any underlying health issues.
Fortunately, most conditions that can cause a relapse in litter box use are easy and inexpensive to treat.
Underlying health conditions
Nutritional issues in cats often result in either constipation or diarrhea. If your cat is constipated, they’re likely to sit in their litter box straining to get something out.
Diarrhea, however, can lead to accidents outside the litter box, simply because they can’t hold it.
Diarrhea is commonly seen in cats, and there are various reasons (4). If it’s a nutritional issue, it’s probably due to food allergies or food intolerance. Your vet may recommend a change in diet and that you avoid giving your cat dairy products, like milk or yogurt.
Often, cats will experience a quick bout of diarrhea that only lasts a day— but other times, they may have it for days to months.
Short bouts of loose stools (24 to 48 hours) shouldn’t be a cause of concern unless it’s a kitten or an elderly cat. When diarrhea lasts longer, there’s always a chance of dehydration, which is quite serious and can be life-threatening for cats. (5).
Contact your vet immediately if your kitty is experiencing loose stool beyond 48 hours, or if you notice bloody or black stool.
Urinary tract health
An issue in your cat’s urinary tract can cause a cat peeing outside the litter box. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can easily occur in cats. UTIs are more common in older cats (6), or cats who are experiencing stressors in the home. For more information read “Treat a Cat’s UTI at Home” and “Best Urinary Cat Food.”
Common causes may include:
- Bladder stones or crystals
- Kidney diseases
- Bladder tumor (uncommon)
Feline idiopathic cystitis
Another condition that could prompt your cat to urinate outside the litter box is feline idiopathic cystitis (7). This disease can have neurological implications that can affect a cat’s bladder, giving your kitty an increased urgency to urinate, which can lead to occasional accidents.
Cats with this disease may try to urinate frequently and appear as if they’re straining themselves, but without results. You may notice them licking themselves, and their urine might even have traces of blood.
When to see a vet
Contact your vet right away if your cat: keeps going to the litter box, keeps going pee on the floor, or develops other symptoms such as fever, vomiting, sluggishness, or loss of appetite. If you notice black or bloody stools, or signs of feline interstitial cystitis visit your veterinarian immediately.
Stressors in the home
Sometimes it isn’t a condition bothering your cat, rather something at home making them feel uneasy. Here are a few possible causes:
A new kitty
If you’ve recently adopted your kitten, it may take some time for it to adapt to its new home. Some cats are comfortable the moment they step through the door—others require anywhere between days to a few weeks or even months to fully feel comfortable.
If you already have a cat in the home, your new addition might not want to share the litter box. To correct this, try introducing another toilet for them.
How to get your cat to use the litter box in a new house
Moving to a new home can put extra stress on your cat. You’re bringing them out of their familiar territory into a new home with different smells and objects.
Although some cats adapt quickly and without issue, others can have a hard time, which usually leads to accidents.
Conflicts with other cats at home
Cats can be fiesty. Although they’re categorized as ‘social,’ they can lash out at each other, especially against newer family members.
It’s not unusual that in multi-cat households, one or more cats dominate who has access to the litter box. Even if they aren’t fighting, it can be stressful for submissive cats leading to potential litter box problems.
To help your cats, ensure that there are plenty of clean litter boxes. You need at least one per cat, plus one extra. You could always place the additional box in a secluded spot, giving your cat some privacy.
Your cat doesn’t like the litter texture
Cats generally develop a liking for a specific texture from a young age. Again, many kittens adapt effortlessly to a change, but others are more steadfast in their preference.
There isn’t much to do other than try to offer a different brand and keep changing it until your cat is happy. On average, cats tend to prefer unscented clumping litter in a medium to a fine texture.
Your cat doesn’t like scented litter
All cats have an acute sense of smell and downright hate certain smells. Some are particularly sensitive to scented litter.
If your cat turns their nose up at your litter choice, try using an unscented hypoallergenic cat litter like natural clay litter.
Your cat suddenly stops using the litter box
If your cat won’t use the litter box, the issue might be the box itself. Perhaps it’s covered, or maybe the sides are too high for your cat to get into the box. This is generally the case with special-needs cats, including senior cats, or has a condition like arthritis. Young kittens can also find it challenging to get into a high box.
If you have an adult cat, maybe they just need a larger area. If you suspect this is an issue, try changing the litter box.
Solutions to litter box problems
Once you’ve established that your cat isn’t suffering from any underlying health conditions, it’s essential to get them back in the litter box. Here are a few tips:
Keep a clean litter box
Keeping a clean box should be your first step in avoiding accidents. Cats are very clean animals, and they don’t like walking on dirty litter.
Add an extra litter box
Introduce an additional litter tray if you have a second cat—you may even want to consider a third option. Place them in different locations of the home to avoid having one cat preventing the others from entering.
Try a different texture litter
If you feel that your cat has an issue with the litter you’re using, try changing the brand or texture of the litter you use. If your litter was smooth, try something harder like clumping clay, or vice versa.
Change your litter box location
Not all cats are confident enough to poop in front of others—many actually prefer a more private area to do their toilet duties. If your cat often goes behind furniture or plants, it’s a clear indication that you should move the litter box.
Clean accidents with specialty cat-friendly cleaners
When your cat poops outside the box, you should clean the area thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner. This will erase the scent so that they don’t think the spot is their toilet again.
Make sure that the cleaner you use is cat-friendly and don’t forget to spot test it on the surface to make sure it doesn’t lead to discoloration of your new rug. You have a variety of options, both at your store and online.
Things not to do
We know that this can be frustrating, and you’re certainly not alone—litter box aversion is a common issue (8).
Still, here are 4 things you should never do:
- Don’t scold or punish your cat, or worse, drag them to the box.
- Never confine them to a small room with the litter box for days or weeks without trying to resolve the issue.
- Never rub your cat’s nose with feces or urine.
- Avoid using an ammonia-based cleaner to remove accidents. Because there’s ammonia in urine, your cat may feel attracted to the spot and urinate again.
Cleaning and maintaining your cat’s litter box
Cleaning and maintaining your cats’ litter box should be a daily and weekly ritual. Every day, you should remove clumps using your scooper. If needed, sprinkle a little extra litter on top.
At least once a week, you should give it a deep clean. Remove the old litter and scrub the box with mild dish soap and warm water. Rinse it under running water and let it air dry before filling it with fresh litter.
Distribute approximately 3 to 4 inches of new litter, giving your cat enough to dig in. Always wear rubber gloves, and you may want to consider using a face mask to keep microscopic bugs at bay.
If you’re pregnant, put your partner on cleaning duty. This is essential to reduce your risk of contracting toxoplasmosis (9), which is a disease caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite and is found in cat feces(10).
Key takeaways on litter box training
Litter box aversion can have many reasons. Sometimes it’s due to stress in the home, influence from other cats, or they simply don’t like their litter.
You should, however, always check for underlying health issues first to ensure your cat isn’t sick. Try to keep the box clean, and if possible, provide your kitties with an extra box in another spot.
We hope that you found our guide toilet training your cat was helpful—we’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment below.