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How to Litter Train a Cat: Young or Old, Tips For Success

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When you bring a new cat or kitten home, there’s plenty of excitement. You work through a handy To-Do checklist, so you don’t forget anything. And, like Santa, you check it twice. You picked up everything you might need. That includes a litter box and a tub or two of kitty litter. And while you don’t want to skip those crucial items, you may not realize they involve a little more work than putting them out in a room. Kittens – and even some older cats – need you to litter train them. At least if you want to avoid accidents and stress down the road. Luckily, the training process is pretty easy – and it involves fewer steps than potty training for dogs!

Kitty Bathroom Habits

Before the magic age of four weeks old, kittens don’t worry about litter boxes. They’re simply too young. Instead, their mothers handle everything for them. (In the case of orphan kittens, caretakers step in with the stimulation and cleaning process) But around four weeks, it’s time to learn litter training. And mommy cats usually take on that teaching process.

Cats DON’T like to draw attention to themselves. And due to their short GI tracts, their waste comes with a STRONG smell. This is why you see cats bury their poop and pee. They’re doing their best to hide the scent from other predators in the area – and other felines. It’s an instinct. And the best material to do that is a sandy substrate. Ideally, one that’s soft on the paws.

If you don’t take the time to litter train your cat on the PROPER place for this, you may find them choosing ANY soft spot for a bathroom (say, your laundry pile).

Litter Train Your Cat

Your new furry friend WANTS to use a proper bathroom. And with the right tools and tricks, you can litter train with the best of them. In no time, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about (or why you panicked at the thought of having to train your tiny kitten on their potty habits). Cats are inherently neat and tidy creatures. So you’ll find even a youngster happily diving into the training process eagerly.

To litter train your kitten, you need the right supplies

Litter Train Your Cat: Supplies

Okay, so supplies to litter train your cat sounds easy, right? Your cat, a litter box, and some litter. But there’s more to it than that. If you don’t choose the right box, set it up in the correct place, or fill it with a litter appropriate for your feline’s age or history, you could find yourself frustrated and struggling. And when people end up with cats that choose an alternative bathroom spot, it’s usually the cat that suffers. Plenty of kitties land in shelters, rehomed for inappropriate behavior. While there ARE situations out of your control, you want to make sure you start on the right foot FIRST.

Litter Box

You’ll find every size, style, and construction of litter box out there. But they’re NOT equal. If you want to litter train your cat with an eye toward success, you need to consider your cat’s age and size. And you need to look at some basics of feline biology, too.

To start, that means adhering to the golden rule of cats and litter boxes: “plus one.” You always need one more box than you have cats. Why? Cats should always manage to find a clean, unoccupied litter box. If you don’t have an extra hanging around, that isn’t possible. And even if you only have ONE cat, you need a spare handy.

It’s tempting to buy the biggest box you can. And that’s understandable. Big litter boxes hold more and (in theory) need cleaning less often. But a massive box will feel overwhelming to a kitten. You only want to go 1.5 times the length of your cat when you choose a size. It DOES mean you’ll need to replace your litter box as your kitten grows, but it’s healthier. (And, honestly, you have to replace litter boxes anyway – something we’ll touch on in a minute)

Then there’s the question of covered versus non-covered litter boxes. Owners like covered boxes. They’re more discrete, block smells (in theory), and prevent litter from going over the sides. But cats? They’re NOT fans. While everyone enjoys some privacy during their bathroom moments, cats don’t want to feel “trapped” inside a covered litter box. It’s uncomfortable for a predator.

“In nature, cats don’t want to get caught by a predator inside an enclosed area.”

~Mieshelle Nagelschneider, “The Cat Whisperer”

Kitty Litter

Similar to litter boxes, you’ll find THOUSANDS of litter options out there. And most of the marketing and advertising go toward owners, not cats. But if you want to successfully litter train your cat, you need to think like a feline. That means considering safety (particularly with kittens) and kitty preferences over yours.

It sounds disgusting, but kittens (like puppies and children) explore the world with their mouths. That means your best choice of kitty litter is a standard, NON-clumping, unscented one. I know no one likes non-clumping litter, but those clumping properties can spell trouble inside of a kitten tummy. And the scents and other chemicals aren’t a good idea, either. Until your fluffy baby hits the age of at least THREE MONTHS, you want to avoid anything special. After that, the fuzzy brains connect the dots on what’s food and what’s…well, not.

As for adult cats, you need to litter train, you’ll want to think about their history. Outdoor felines have probably been sticking to gardens and other sandy textures. They’re not going to use a litter box full of silica, pine pellets, or wheat – no matter how many you set out and offer. You’ll need to stick to clay-based options. And you may need to experiment until you find the litter your feline prefers.

Box Placement

No one likes seeing a litter box out in the open, on display for their guests. But you can’t hide them in the back closet, either. Kittens won’t know to go hunting for their new bathroom, no matter how thoroughly you work to litter train them that way. And remember the avoidance of getting “closed in?” That’s still in play. Your cat doesn’t want to feel like they’re banished to a creepy dungeon whenever they need to go to the bathroom. (Think about it: would YOU use a restroom in a dark, back basement room?)

The kitten’s brain gravitates toward corners. Work with that programming by choosing a corner of the room your kitten stays in. But REMOVE any extra clutter from the room first. (You don’t want to add confusion) Ideally, you want that box to stay within TEN FEET of your little fuzzy ball of energy. That’s the maximum they should travel. Any further, and odds are they’ll find somewhere closer. And since kittens ARE messy (initially), start the litter training process with a puppy pad under the box. It’ll help with clean-up.

For adult cats, you aren’t as limited in terms of distance. But you should still have some consideration. How would you feel navigating a maze to reach a toilet? Or (worse) run a marathon distance to get to one? You should keep a litter box within reasonable access. That means one on every floor of the house. While your feline’s spry NOW, they’re going to get older. And seniors can struggle with stairs. If you have canines in the house raiding the boxes, consider using gates or cat doors to block the dog from access – rather than making your poor kitty travel all over the place.

Rewards

You ARE working on a training process. You may not want to go the clicker training route when you sit down to litter train your cat, but you still want to reinforce good behavior. So make sure you have a handy supply of kitty treats close by. Or you can decide to keep a favorite toy on hand for a quick game any time you see your cat using the litter box. Positive reinforcement goes a long way to ensuring success!

Outdoor cats may need special considerations

Litter Train Your Cat: Kittens

Once you have your supplies gathered, you’re ready to get started. For kittens, make sure your little ball of fluff has hit that magic age of four weeks. Once kittens are weaned (hint: it’s the same age), they’re ready to handle litter training, too. Before that, you can TRY, but the odds are the lessons won’t stick. Shelters and rescues don’t adopt out kittens younger than four weeks. And as long as you went to a reputable breeder, they won’t allow you to bring your new cuddlebug home before they’re weaned, either.

Have your kitten’s room set up before they come home. That way you can litter train as soon as you walk in the door:

  • Place your kitten in the litter box. You’ll see them sniff and examine the litter. They may or may not use it, and that’s okay.
  • After each meal and nap, place them in the box. (These are typical “bathroom” times for kittens) If they go, provide your chosen reward.
  • Watch for “tells” such as sniffing or crouching, especially in corners. Move them to the box.
  • Any witnessed use of the box gets a treat or playtime with the toy.

Litter Train Your Cat: Older Cats

So what happens if you have an older cat? You’re in luck: they already understand how to use a litter box. They just don’t know how to use the one YOU provided. The process works the same as it does with a kitten. And while it’s tempting to give an adult cat free rein of the house, you want to confine them to a room while they adjust to the new sights and smells.

If your new cat lived outside, you might find yourself with a challenge. You CAN litter train these felines, but they’re used to using gardens and sand – not a tidy box. To help them transition to commercial litter, start with a litter box full of garden soil. Go through the same training process you would, providing treats and praise. As they adjust to the box, start replacing the soil with your litter choice. Continue until you have a box full of litter.

For seniors, be careful about the height of the litter box you select. No one likes vacuuming up litter all the time. But high sides are uncomfortable for arthritic joints. (And if you think finding a box with a “low entry” and high sides is genius, I promise your cat will still attempt to use the sides and ignore the entrance – based on personal experience)

Accidents

You’ll probably see accidents. They happen. It’s important that you NEVER punish your kitten. And scolding? It doesn’t work. Cats don’t associate the punishment or yelling with the accident. Instead, they get stressed and confused as to why you’re upset with them. Instead of helping you litter train them, you’ll make the process go off the rails. Use an enzyme-based cleaner to eliminate any lingering odors and start again.

Litter Box Health

Now that you’ve successfully litter trained your cat, you need to remain on top of litter box health. Failing to maintain a clean box can lead to unwanted litter box issues. And while it’s easy to blame the feline in question, it’s usually the owner at fault. Besides, proper litter box cleaning and management will also keep YOUR house smelling clean.

Routine care looks like this – whether you have ONE cat (or kitten) or several:

  • Scoop the boxes EVERY DAY
    • If you need to, top off the level of the litter
  • Empty, clean, and refill the boxes EVERY WEEK
  • Empty, clean, and disinfect the boxes EVERY MONTH
    • You can use a mild antibacterial soap and water or a mixture of water and white vinegar
    • DON’T use bleach or chemicals! They’ll stay on the box’s surface and lead to health problems for your cat
  • Replace your litter boxes EVERY YEAR

Nudging Instincts

Kittens – and all other cats – come with an instinct to dig and bury their wastes. And you can use that wiring in their brains to litter train them. It doesn’t mean you can set up any old box with whatever litter anywhere in the house and expect success, though. You need to think things through and do some homework. But once your little fuzzy friend gets the hang of things? You’re all set.

And as long as you keep up with the care and cleaning of your litter box, you shouldn’t have a problem. Your cat gets a clean bathroom, and you get a clean house. You can’t beat that!

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy worked as a Licensed Veterinary Technician for 10 years, focusing on Emergency/ICU and later Cardiology, as well as volunteering at both the Philadelphia Zoo and Virginia Living Museum for over six years. She's now a freelance writer, but she gravitates toward writing projects with a focus on animals (once an animal-lover, always an animal-lover). She lives in Virginia with her husband, three cats (one "works" as her personal assistant), and a Greyhound who thinks she's a big cat — all of them rescues.

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