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Cats and litter box training

Updated on May 12, 2010
Courtesy of
Courtesy of

Cats are fastidious creatures. Born with an innate sense of cleanliness, cats feel a need to cover their waste. This is great news for cat owners, for it makes litter box training simple. Typically, a kitten will receive instruction from it's mother (or queen) on how to scratch and cover their excrement or urine. It is now up to the owner to make sure the box is the best option for elimination.

For the owner who will have their cat indoors (which, incidentally, is safest for the cat and the song birds that live outdoors) litter box training is one of the first items on the list to achieve. There are general rules of thumb to consider when training your cat to use a box.

1. Location

Cats, like humans, prefer a quiet place to do their duty. It is best to place the litter box in an area which receives little traffic such as a spare bedroom, a bathroom or an open closet. Some people would like to place the litter box in a laundry room, however the sounds of the washer starting a spin cycle could scare kitty out of there and into your room to eliminate! Since cats like privacy, a nice quiet corner is usually the best option.  Avoid placing the box near your cat's food and/or water dish. Cats just won't go where they eat (would you want to?). Place the box in a different area to ensure success.

2. Number of boxes

There is a general rule of thumb when offering your cat a place to poop, and that is one box per cat, plus one. This is for several reasons: some cats such as those in multi-cat households may not want to use a box that another uses. Cat urine marks a place where one cat has been, and if the subordinate cat goes to that box, he or she may be intimidated and not want to use it. The dynamics in a multi-cat household also proves that one cat is the Alpha, and one is not. The top cat may block the litter box making it more difficult for the subordinate cat to go. Conversely, the weaker mate may be scared from the box by the top cat as she or he is attempting to use it. Also, some cats prefer to defecate in one box and urinate in another. Providing the animal with more than one place to go will reduce the chances of "accidents" happening on your clothes pile.

3. Substrate

Although cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still have the instinct to scratch (thank goodness) and cover their mess. Some cats prefer a litter box filler that is more sand like, others prefer clay, pellets or shavings. Offering your cat different fillers will give them a chance to find what they like; ultimately this is best for you because if your cat likes the box filler, it is more likely to use it regularly. It is up to the individual cat based upon what feels best to the cat's feet. Try different substrates, and watch as your cat digs happily in the litter.


It goes without saying: a clean box is a more attractive option to your feline friend. Keep the box fresh by cleaning it daily. Try not to use cleansers that leave a scent. Cats will avoid a box cleaned with bleach or ammonia or any other harshly scented detergent. Flushing the box with water and keeping the litter fresh is your best option to helping your cat use it frequently.

5. Size

Finally, the size of the box becomes an important issue. Some cats will back into a corner when urinating. All cats, like most creatures, adopt a certain posture when defecating; their heads are elevated as they squat. Making sure that the box is large enough for them to move around in is imperative as is making sure hooded boxes are tall enough for your feline. If your cat can't move around freely in the litter box, chances are she or he might be going elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of CatFancy Gifts
Photo courtesy of CatFancy Gifts

In Case of Accidents...

If your cat happens to eliminate anywhere besides the ideal spot (litter box) it is important to follow some advice to avoiding such mishaps in the future.

First, thoroughly clean the area with an enzyme cleaner that destroys odor. Cats will return to an ideal place to go, especially if the scent of urine is there. There are many types of odor neutralizers on the market. Use one before any kind of cleaner so that the scent is removed and not set into the carpet.

Secondly, try placing your cat's food dish in the inappropriate spot. You cat will identify that as a place to eat and not urinate or defecate. You can also try placing your cat's favorite toy in the area after cleaning. Discourage kitty from using anything but the box, but never punish your cat by pushing his nose into the mess or hitting your cat. That will only confuse him and make him associate you with a negative behavior. When a cat owner acts as such, kitty may get more upset and continue the "bad Behavior" elsewhere. Like your shoes.

If the problems continue, make an appointment with your veterinarian. There may be a medical cause to your cat's inappropriate elimination.



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