By the time a domestic kitten is old enough to leave his mother, he should already have learned how to use a litter box by watching his mother and littermates bury their wastes in the proper way. Therefore, in most cases, all you have to do with a new kitten is place him in the litter after his first feeding, and he will automatically know what to do.
Yet not all kittens remain with their mothers long enough to be litter trained. If this is the case with your kitten, you will have to become the kitten’s “mother” and train him to use the box yourself. Remember, you must make sure that your kitten is completely secure in using his litter box—and uses it every time—before you begin toilet training.
Fortunately, litter training is a snap for most kittens, because cats are such inherently clean animals. To begin litter training, you will need three items: a litter box, tools to clean and maintain the box, and, of course, an ample supply of litter.
Boxes, Boxes, Boxes
Whether you’re touring your local pet store or scrolling through web pages, you will find more species of litter box than you ever thought possible, from sleek stainless steel and rustic oak to elaborate contraptions disguised as house plants, with a round hole through which the cat enters and exits.
But don’t be fooled. No matter what you may hear, you don’t need anything fancy to litter train a cat. The most common litter box is a simple plastic tub fourteen inches wide by twenty inches long and a few inches deep. Whatever type of box you choose, make sure that it’s stable enough to remain in place when the cat puts his full weight on the edge. If the box ever tips over while the cat is using it, he may never use it again.
Before you decide where to put the box, remember that cats are quite particular about where they do their business. Despite their reputation as creatures of habit, you can’t just put the box anywhere.
• Don’t place it in the laundry room. You run the risk of your cat sniffing or eating detergents or other potentially toxic chemicals.
• Don’t put the box in the garage. It’s too chilly and drafty and it exposes the cat to hazards such as antifreeze (a sweet-tasting but deadly poison that collects under parked cars).
• Don’t place the litter box anywhere near the kitchen. Cats prefer to do their business as far away from their food as possible. In fact, most cats will positively refuse to relieve themselves near where they eat.
In general, you should choose a clean, quiet, well-ventilated spot that is warm in winter, cool in summer, and always available but away from heavy traffic. Most cats will avoid a box that is constantly underfoot. Also, the area around the box should be easy to clean since many cats like to spread the litter around as they dig. For this reason, many people keep their litter box in the bathtub, hidden behind the shower curtain, where the litter won’t migrate too far.
An even better place for the litter box is tucked away in a corner next to the toilet. This setup is ideal for both the cat (it’s always available and is away from where he eats and sleeps) and you (it’s easy to clean and perfect if you eventually want to toilet train the cat). If you have a spare bathroom that is not used by every member of the household, that’s even better. Just be sure to keep the bathroom door open. Remove all dangerous or breakable objects from the room, and remember to roll any loose toilet paper into a tight roll so that none of it is left dangling. Otherwise, the cat will soon have the entire roll on the floor. It’s also smart to leave a few catnip toys about, at least for a few days, to make sure the cat keeps coming back. This way, the bathroom will soon become your cat’s favorite spot.
Once you’ve decided where to put the box, you should think about what to put in it.
Since litter training will only be an intermediate step to the ultimate goal of a toilet-trained cat, you should avoid using heavily scented, chemically treated litter. Why? Cats, being creatures of habit, often become attached to the smell of their litter and will miss it once it is removed. In addition, the active ingredients in certain brands of litter may be unsafe. Since cats are at risk of ingesting the litter’s active ingredients (including silica, artificial fragrances, antimicrobial agents, dyes, and so on) when they lick their paws after digging in the box, you may be risking health problems by using a chemically treated litter (see chapter 3). In general, the fewer chemicals, the better.
If you live near a beach or sandy area, don’t be tempted to use sand; it may be free, but eventually the cat will track it all over the house. Shredded newspaper is a better cheap option, but be aware that you may have to change it more often since newspaper does not clump and smells more strongly than litter.
Perhaps the best option is a nontoxic, chemical-free litter such as World’s Best or Precious Cat. According to Dr. Dale Olm, formerly at the New York ASPCA, “kittens prefer a softer, sandier texture to a granular clay texture. It doesn’t smell as much, it’s easier for a kitten to dig, and it’s much easier to clean, since wastes tend to stay in discrete clumps that are easy to remove, thus leaving the surrounding litter clean and odor free.”
To keep the box as clean as possible, all you really need is a giant metal spoon or plastic litter scoop, kept somewhere near the litter box so that it’s always available. Whenever you pass the bathroom, you can check the litter box, quickly grabbing your spoon, collecting the offending matter in a single scoop, and disposing of it (preferably in a biodegradable bag).
Basic Litter Box Training
If your kitten is extremely young, remember that he is still a baby. And as with all babies, you must supervise him until he is old enough to do things on his own. Kittens mature quickly, so the supervision phase rarely lasts longer than two or three weeks.
The basics of litter training are simple but should be followed to the letter to avoid starting your kitten off on the wrong foot. As soon as you bring the kitten home, let him take a good sniff around his new home and scent-mark a few areas by rubbing his face and body against whatever is at hand. Then try to feed him sometime within the first hour or two.
Once he’s finished eating, wait a moment for the food to settle, then lift him gently, placing your palm under his belly, and take him to the bathroom, where the box has been prepared next to the toilet. (Holding the kitten in this way with your warm hand will stimulate the urogenital reflex, the same way his mother did by licking the kitten’s belly.)
Close the bathroom door and place the kitten gently into the box and keep him there until he has done his business. Be as quiet as possible so that the kitten will not be frightened or nervous. Don’t say anything; just watch.
If he’s already been box trained by his mother, he’ll know exactly what to do. After all, he’s just eaten and his tiny one-inch-long digestive tract can’t hold out forever. You can tell if your kitten is about to urinate or defecate because he will begin to circle around and around with a worried expression, then suddenly crouch, with his tail slightly raised, his eyes closed, and his mouth spread in a devilish little grin.
If he jumps out of the box, gently pick him up, holding him with your palm under his belly for a few seconds, and put him back in the box. Remember, don’t say anything. The kitten should learn to eliminate on his own without associating his action with the sound of your voice.
After a few minutes, if the kitten still doesn’t get the message, slowly reach into the box and let him sniff your hand to reestablish contact. Gently take the cat’s right paw using your index finger and thumb and make a scratching motion, moving a few granules of litter. Then release the paw and wait. No matter how much he meows, no matter how pathetic he looks, you must keep him in the box until he performs properly.
If all else fails, you might recall that in the wild mother cats induce their kittens to eliminate by turning them over and licking their stomachs. You can achieve the same effect with your index finger moistened with a little warm water.
Above all, don’t push or coerce the kitten or make any sounds or gestures—he simply won’t understand. If it’s any consolation, this is the hardest part of training a kitten. But once the kitten learns to use the box, he will have cleared a major hurdle.
After the first encounter with the box, let the kitten explore at will. Chances are good that he will return to the box once or twice while making his rounds—which will help orient him before he eats again.
The second time he eats, watch him carefully. If he goes to the box himself, after seemingly aimless wandering, you can rejoice. If instead he starts sniffing around in one spot, turns round and round, then squats with his tail up, gently pick him up, take him to the bathroom, and keep him there until he does his business. Chances are, you won’t have to repeat the front-paw scratching. Once he knows where he is, the kitten will do his thing right away.
Litter Training Schedule
How do you know when it’s time to place the kitten in the box? Usually, a kitten who can’t find his box will start to meow or cry when he needs to go, then start to circle as though looking for his tail. Generally you should assume that a kitten will have to use his box after every meal, after he sleeps, after a bout of strenuous play, and after he chews on something for a long period of time (the act of chewing stimulates the kitten’s digestion). Remember that cats, being carnivores with a short intestine and an efficient pair of kidneys, can’t hold their wastes very long. Therefore, at the very least, you should place a new kitten in the litter box first thing in the morning, after every meal, and the last thing at night—as well as keeping an eye on him until he starts using the box himself.
Once this pattern is established, your kitten will continue to use his box for the next several months—or at least until he is old enough to start toilet training.
For an older cat moving indoors for the first time, litter training is the same as for a kitten. But remember, whether the cat is young or old, easy to handle or difficult, you should always be patient and handle a cat gently and with kindness.
Cleaning the Litter Box
Since the litter box is an integral part of your cat’s life and environment, it must receive a lot of attention. Many an owner has successfully untrained a litter-trained cat by forgetting to clean and change the litter on a regular schedule. Indeed, many cats won’t go anywhere near a dirty box. At its most extreme, a dirty box can serve as host to a dazzling variety of organisms, including parasites and worm larvae that pass through a cat’s feces, hatch, then reinfect your cat—not to mention your children, other pets, and even you. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep the box clean at all times. It may not be the most pleasant of chores but, like taking out the trash, it must be done—at least until your cat has been toilet trained.
The secret to maintaining a clean box is to not use too much cat litter. First sprinkle a little baking soda in the bottom of the box, then fill it with no more than two inches of litter—just enough to permit your cat to scratch and cover his wastes. Ideally you want the urine to form a clump at the bottom of the box, not spread around and cause the entire box to smell.
To keep odor to a minimum, however, you must be vigilant. Whenever you pass the bathroom, take a quick look at the box. If you see a covered mound, scoop it into a bag and throw it away. If you see a little wet spot that looks like the tip of a tiny iceberg, lift the box, gently shake all the dry litter to one end, expose the wet clump, scoop it into a bag, and dispose of it. Shake the box to redistribute the litter and rinse the scoop with hot water. If you’re careful, the remaining litter will be clean and uncontaminated.
At a minimum, you should check the box when you wake up and when you go to bed. If you’re going to be gone for more than a few hours, be sure to check the litter box just before you leave and check it again after you return.
When emptying the box at the end of the week, rinse it out and dry it thoroughly before putting in the new litter. Cleaning will be a breeze, because you’ve already scooped up every wet clump as soon as it appeared. At the most there will be a speck of dried feces here or there, nothing more. If you use a disinfectant, make sure it is a mild one with little odor. Strong odors will immediately turn off the cat.
Most important: Litter trays should be washed separately from any other household items. Pregnant women should never handle a litter box because of the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis (which can cause birth defects) from the parasites often found in cat feces.
If you consider this too much work, remember, it takes only ten seconds to check a litter box. Checking the pan several times a day means that you will need to change and wash the whole pan only once a week. Besides, within a month or two, you will be on the way to toilet training, which will eliminate the box entirely. Every scoop now will save a thousand scoops later.
The Five Don’ts of Litter Training
Don’t listen to cat experts who tell you to keep the litter box “a little dirty” during the kitten’s orientation period so that the scent will attract the kitten. This is not only wrong, it’s an excellent way of encouraging your cat to turn away from the box and do his business elsewhere.
Don’t make the mistake of putting too much litter in the box or using a box that is too large. In general, a box filled with ten pounds of litter will be smellier than a box filled with one pound or two. Why? Because the cat’s urine will not reach the bottom and form a clump. With no clump to scoop out, the smell of urine will continue to permeate the whole ten pounds. Despite what you may read on the package, when the litter box begins to smell, try using less rather than more.
Don’t line your litter box with plastic liners that you may find in pet stores. Plastic liners inevitably form little wrinkles that allow wet litter to hide (and stink to high heaven) no matter how well you shake the box during cleaning. Also, many cats like to claw (and even chew) soft plastic bags. Beware!
Don’t use chlorophyll-scented cat litter, no matter how much you enjoy the smell yourself. Veterinarians will tell you that most cats hate the smell of chlorophyll or pine. And even if your cat does like the scent, it may be harder to toilet train him later, since he may have equated scented cat litter with doing his business.
Don’t use any strong cleansers, disinfectants, or spray deodorants. Not only are they unnecessary, most cats hate the smell of strong chemicals and will even stop using the box while the smell is present.
Remember: The first time your kitten sets foot in his new home, you must show him where to find the litter box and make sure it is available at all times. Once he recognizes it, the kitten will definitely use the litter box you provide—at least until he is old enough to begin toilet training.
Follow the Leader
When Ronald and Rose Morin decided to toilet train their three cats, Gemma, Teddy, and Sebastian, they were surprised how quickly the cats made the change after Sebastian, the dominant male, did it.
Since their first month together, Gemma and Teddy had always been shy compared to their brother. “Sebastian was always the first to get into everything,” says Rose.
When the time came to toilet train her pets, she says, “I decided to concentrate on training Sebastian and hoped that the others would follow along.” Each cat was about a year old, and all had been using the same litter box next to the toilet since birth. “Since Sebastian jumped up onto the toilet all the time,” she says, “we didn’t have to raise the litter box slowly, the way most people do.” Instead, she wedged a plastic basin into the center of the toilet seat, sprinkled it with litter, and let nature take its course.
“Jumping up onto the toilet seat was no problem for Gemma and Teddy once Sebastian showed them it was OK,” she reports. But slipping was something of a problem, partly because the cats’ long fur sometimes tucked under their paws. “To give them a better grip,” Rose says, “Ronald tied pieces of carpet onto the toilet seat with soft ribbons.”
The most delicate moment came when she removed the carpet and put away the litter box. “I was terrified that they wouldn’t understand,” she recalls. “But, just as before, Gemma and Teddy let Sebastian jump up first and watched him do his thing right there on the rim.” Once he was finished, the other two, in turn, jumped up and did likewise.
Has toilet training changed their cats’ dispositions? “Not at all. And cleaning up after them couldn’t be easier.”
No matter how hard you try, most kittens will have an occasional accident. After all, they are babies. Should your cat do his thing in an inappropriate spot—that is, anywhere but the litter box—you should be sure to remove all evidence of the offense immediately. Soiled areas should be cleaned as thoroughly as possible and sprayed with a commercial odor neutralizer, such as Nature’s Miracle (available online and in most pet stores), or white vinegar followed by plain seltzer. As an added precaution, try covering the spot with a large, bulky object, such as a chair or a leafy potted plant. If he persists in using the spot, place his food bowl directly over his last offense and keep it there until the kitten returns to using the litter box, making certain that you always keep his litter box available and scrupulously clean.
No matter what happens, you should never physically punish a cat for not using his litter box. Not only is it cruel, it’s also counterproductive. Strike a cat once and he will never trust you again. Scream at him and he may never listen again. As a rule, successful housebreaking is accomplished by prevention, not punishment.
Once you have succeeded in litter training your cat, you might be so thrilled that you wonder whether it’s worth the trouble to toilet train as well. After all, the cat is using the box every time, isn’t he? And cleaning up every day or two isn’t that much of a problem. Right? So, you ask, why fix something when it isn’t broken?