Avoid Dreaded Litterbox Issues - 5 Simple Steps

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

litter box training

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most kittens at around 4 weeks of age can begin using a litterbox, and most don’t need much formal “training” to get the hang of it
  • To prevent litterbox problems in cats of any age, there are steps you can take to make using the box as inviting as possible
  • Allow your cat to choose his favorite litter, and find a litterbox that’s the right size for him, and will be easy for you to scoop and sanitize
  • Place the litterbox in a quiet, semi-private location, keep it very clean and never punish a kitten or adult cat for accidents outside the box

Many novice kitten parents have lots of questions about how to give their furry little charges the best start in life, and one of those questions is often, "How do I teach my new kitty to use a litterbox?"

Most kittens at about 4 weeks can use a litterbox as long as the walls of the box are low enough that she can hop in and out on her own. It's usually this simple: after she eats, put her in the box, and let nature take its course. It may take a few tries, but she should catch on quickly and begin seeking out the box on her own.

The good news is kittens don't really need much training to use their box, because the adorable, fluffy little things seem to just naturally understand where to do their tiny business. With that said, there are some things you can do to avoid those dreaded litterbox issues so many cat parents deal with, and ensure your kitten develops polite potty manners now and for the rest of her nine lives.

No. 1 — Let Your Kitten Choose His Litter

Cats, including tiny ones, have individual preferences that extend to the type of litter they favor. Studies on the types of litter cats prefer show they're quite choosy about particle size. The cat's evolutionary substrate, for potty purposes, is sand. When kitties started living indoors, clay litter came along and most cats were okay with it. But clay has its own issues, as do corn- and wheat-based litters.

These days, there's a mind-boggling selection of organic and natural types of litters on the market, but many of them feature big particle sizes, which don't appeal to most cats. Kitties also don't like synthetic scents or odor control additives in their litter.

The litter I use for my own cats is our own Biocharged Kitty Litter made with organic biochar. Biochar has a large surface area and is a recalcitrant, which means the charcoal itself holds onto things such as water and smells. This litter also has excellent clumping properties, which means it lasts longer and there's less total wetness and mess. It's also 100 percent biodegradable and compostable. And it's entirely fragrance-free, because the carbon helps to lock in odors.

You can discover your kitty's litter preference by buying the smallest amount available of several kinds of litter, and several inexpensive plastic litter pans. Place the pans with different litters (about 4 inches deep per pan) side by side and see which gets used most often. Once he's made his decision, consider donating the unchosen litter and (cleaned) litter pans to a local shelter or cat rescue.

No. 2 — Select the Perfect Litterbox

While most cats are less picky about the actual box than the litter it holds, some do balk at covered boxes. The good news is that if you purchase a box with a cover, you can simply keep the lid off if it seems to be a problem for your kitten.

Your best choice in a litterbox is one that is easy for you to keep scrupulously clean, since box cleanliness is a critical component in insuring your kitty uses it (and only it). She should be able to comfortably get in and out of the box, and it should be large enough for her to turn around inside.

A box with high sides may seem like a good idea if kitty is a litter-kicker, and that's fine as long as no matter her age or physical condition, she can easily get in and out of it. If yours is a multi-cat household, remember the rule for the number of litterboxes needed: one for each cat, plus one extra.

Also, since almost all boxes are plastic, you should plan to replace your litterbox at regular intervals, because while plastic boxes are inexpensive, lightweight and easy to clean, there are downsides, including the fact that they get scratched up.
When kitty digs down through the litter to cover her pee or poop, her sharp claws scrape the bottom and sides of the box.

After a while, these nicks and scuffs attract germs and odor that can remain even after you disinfect the box. It's a good idea after cleanings to check your litterbox for scratched or abraded plastic. Budgeting for a new box each year is a good idea.

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No. 3 — Find the Best Location for the Litterbox

Cats evolved as both predator and prey for larger animals, which is why they feel most vulnerable when eating and eliminating. For this reason, you'll want to select a location for the litterbox that is somewhat out of the way, in a non-high traffic area of your home, and away from noisy household machinery and appliances. Choose a warm location in the house rather than the basement or garage. And make sure the box isn't too close to kitty's food or water bowls.

These days, many cat parents who have guest or extra bathrooms that don't get used very often keep their boxes in the bathtub, which helps contain the litter, and makes clean-ups easier. If kitty has no problem getting into and out of both the tub and his box, this might be a good idea for your household as well.

No. 4 — Keep the Litterbox Meticulously Clean

Cats, from the tiniest kittens to the geriatric set, are fastidious creatures. Since your new feline BFF can neither scoop nor scour her own litterbox, she depends on you to keep it up to her cleanliness standards.

It's important to note that many kitties, particularly as they get older, can develop an aversion to a less-than-pristine litterbox. Especially if you use unscented litter, you must be disciplined about scooping the box. This means twice a day scooping of all poop and urine clumps.

After scooping, I also recommend removing any litter stuck to the sides or bottom of the box with a damp paper towel. Dry the area thoroughly with another paper towel before scooping dry litter back over it. Keeping the sides and floor of the box clean and dry may help extend the time between full box clean-outs.

Dispose of all used litter and clean the box as often as necessary, but definitely every two weeks, minimum. It's important to wash the container thoroughly to remove as much odor as possible so that your kitty doesn't become unwilling to use her box due to a lingering smell.

Wash the box with plain hot water. If you use soap, choose a natural, fragrance-free variety. Avoid any cleaning product that is scented or contains potential toxins. As I mentioned earlier, plastic litterboxes should be replaced every year or two. The secret to controlling cat box odor, for the benefit of all family members, including your kitty, is to keep the litterbox in pristine condition.

No. 5 — Never Punish Your Kitten (or Adult Cat) for Missing the Litterbox

If your kitten is a little slow getting the hang of his litterbox, if you catch him about to eliminate elsewhere, gently scoop him up and put him in his box. If you find a mess he left behind, simply clean it up using these tips.

Please don't raise your voice, yell, handle him roughly or rub his face in his accident. You'll just frighten the little guy, and he won't make the connection between his mistake and your behavior. All he'll take away from being yelled at or roughly handled is that he should fear you.

At some point in their lives, many cats develop issues using the litterbox. Try to keep that fact in mind as your kitten matures and throughout his life, with the understanding that it will be up to you to find and resolve the cause.

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