Nature vs. nurture
In general, cats are super clean animals. They don't like piles of or pee-soaked bedding any more than you do. In fact, a cat will likely not even step inside a dirty litter box, and biology being what it is, they'll eventually have to cut loose someplace else.
Most cats love using a litter box, but they don't automatically head to one when the urge to go strikes. Kittens learn to use the litter box at a young age from watching their mothers.
That's a big help for cat lovers who take in a kitten. But what if your kitten lost her mother, came to you as a stray or is an older cat with no litter box experience? How do you train a cat to use a litter box?
Litter box training a kitten
Most young kittens do not need to be trained. But if you have one that does need some support, here is the best approach:
Before you start training a new kitten, make sure you choose the right size litter box. Sometimes, you need a small box in the early months and a large one after the cat has grown up a bit. Also, make sure the box fits your cat's bathroom preference — covered and private or uncovered and proud.
Fill the box with a quality clumping litter, put it in a safe-but-accessible spot, and make sure it stays clean and fresh by scooping and replenishing the litter daily and washing the box weekly.
Then, play with your cat near the box. Make sure he's not afraid of it but instead associates it with attention, toys, and pleasure. You may need to use your own finger to scrape some of the litter and show the kitty how it's done. Just be sure to use your own finger and not his paw as that can distress an animal.
My kitten's not using the litter box!
In that case, first make doubly sure the box is clean and in a safe place away from loud noises, people, or other pets. Also, move food and water away from the box.
Check for signs of blood, vomit, or diarrhea. These could indicate a medical problem, and your cat needs to see a vet right away. If these tips don't work, consult your vet or feline behaviorist.
How long does it take to litterbox train a kitten?
A few days should be plenty long enough to train a kitten. Remember, you rarely have to house train a kitten like you do a puppy.
Litter box training an older cat
What if you've taken in an older cat who hasn't had much experience with the litter box? Is the process the same?
Basically, yes! You want to make elimination in the litter box easy, accessible, and enjoyable. And you want to make the rest of the house unattractive for doing business in.
As with any cat training exercise, give your pet lots of praise, some non-food treats, and plenty of encouragement to repeat the desired behavior. Clicker training may work wonders, but you'll want to avoid using any negative reinforcement such as a spray bottle.
If your older cat does have an accident, make sure to clean the area as thoroughly as possible so she won't go back to it. And remember that older cats are more susceptible to infections, weakened muscles, and dementia — all of which can lead to inappropriate elimination. Check with your vet if you have any concerns about your cat's health.
How to housetrain a stray cat
If you are providing a home to a formerly stray cat, you may find that the animal has to be litter box trained like a kitten. With these cats, you want to keep the box squeaky clean; after all, these animals had no trouble finding a never-marked spot to use in the wild. Also, having your cat spayed or neutered can go a long way toward preventing urine spraying, which is a feline sexual behavior.
In general, cats are clean, tidy animals who will head straight for the bathroom to do business. But some kitties need extra attention, especially those who've never been shown how to do the job properly. With a clean and right-size box, fresh litter, a quiet space, and some patience, you should soon have a kitty who knows the ins-and-outs of a litter box.
Early detection and good care after diagnosis are a cat parent’s best defense for ensuring their cat’s longevity and quality of life.