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Litter Box Training for Cats: What You Need to Know

Training cats to use a new litter box is a process. The size and location of the box as well as the quality of the litter all makes a difference.

Melvin Pena  |  Nov 5th 2015


It is an understatement to say that a cat is a persnickety beast. No matter how long you’ve lived among them, you know that cats end up training you just as much as you ever train them. When a domestic cat acts up or acts out, it’s often because they’re not having their every whim attended to perfectly. Litter box training for cats is no different.

Cats grow accustomed to performing the operations of their toilet under specific conditions and circumstances. Maintenance of the litter boxes around your domicile requires training yourself as well as your cats. Instead of getting frustrated when your cats make errant deposits around the home, look upon these accidents as messages of great import. The cats may trying to guide you by illustrating their true preferences. The major factors in litter training cats include:

  • Number of cats
  • Location and accessibility
  • Litter box size
  • Amount and quality of litter
litter box training for cats

When litter box training a cat, pay attention to his preferences. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Within these broad categories there are many subheadings and variations, which we will address in their turn. Training your cat to use her litter box consistently can be a delicate and multifaceted dance; even more so when you occupy a multi-cat household. Whether you’ve adopted a newborn kitten, a shelter cat, or a stray right off the mean streets, let’s learn more about how to help your cats develop litter box habits that satisfy everyone’s needs!

Number of cats

It seems to be a general rule of thumb that there should be one-and-a-half litter boxes available for each cat in the house. We’ve all heard of half-baths, and I’m not 100-percent sure what half of a litter box looks like, so let’s say two per cat to start with, or, more reliably, three litter boxes for every two cats. Be observant: Depending on their personal preferences, some cats may use one specifically for urine and the other for feces.

Trusting to one litter box to serve two or more cats is unreasonable and will have an effect on where they do their business. Especially in a multi-cat household, conflict can arise over who has access, which cat is repelled by certain odors, and general accessibility. Litter box training one cat alone will require at least two receptacles, so that they can show you where they feel most comfortable.

Location and accessibility

Cat owners may like for cat pee and poop to be neither seen nor heard, but dark corners or enclosed litter boxes can actually discourage cats from making use of them at all. For every cat who uses a lidded litter box shoved into a corner, there are hordes who will avoid it at all costs.

Cats appreciate having a clear line of sight, which allows them to anticipate intrusions or threats. Get two litter boxes and put them in out-of-the-way places in the home that are low on human foot-traffic. This way the cat can get acclimated to the box and still have some degree of privacy without feeling hemmed in.

litter box training for cats

Cats need space and maneuverability in a good litter box. Photo by Rikki’s Refuge on Flickr.

Provide your cats easy access to the litter box to facilitate training. The best litter box is not necessarily an automated or high-tech one, but one where the cat feels comfortable. Take your cat’s health and fitness level into account. Most sources recommend a container with 6-inch high walls for a young, healthy cat. Keep in mind that you may have to switch or change litter boxes as your cat ages.

Size matters for litter box training

The dimensions of your cat’s toilet make a difference. A tight, enclosed space is the kind of spot a cat may enjoy nesting in, but may not be ideal for a litter box. Consider that a small, sheltered area not only retains and concentrates odors, but also places strict limits on a cat’s ability to navigate and maneuver her body.

Litter quality

The standard, generic, granulated cat litter you find at the grocery store may be a good place to start, but cats can be as picky about the quality of their litter as they are about its location. When you begin the process of litter box training your cat, you may want to get two different kinds of litter. Between one and two inches of litter is a standard volume. Over the course of acclimating to a litter box, the cat’s usage of each will guide you to understanding her preference. There is an entire universe of litter options for cats to try.

From the typical dry, granulated kitty litter we’re all familiar with to pine and cedar varieties, there are also organic, corn-based litters, kinds that clump with moisture to be more easily scoopable, and dust-free brands, too. As long as you’re willing to put in the effort to clean and maintain the litter’s freshness once a day, there is certain to be a brand of litter that your cat will adapt to. 

litter box training for cats

If you have multiple cats, get two litter boxes per cat, or three for every two cats. Photo by Shutterstock.

Once you’ve discovered the kind of litter they like, stick with it, and transition with care. Just as switching cat food should take place over several days to allow their digestive systems to adapt, so too should you carefully manage any change in litter. A new feel, a new scent, or a new consistency to his litter can be alarming to the cat if it happens overnight.

To litter train your cat, you must also train yourself

The location, cleanliness, and consistency of their litter are all critical factors to keep in mind if you want to avoid finding cat urine coating your bookshelf or a pile of dung in your laundry basket. Do try to clean, or at least freshen, the litter box once a day. A cat need only one appalling experience with her litter box to make an unfortunate deposit elsewhere. Training your cat to use her litter tray consistently is as much about training yourself to do regular maintenance.

In public, humans must make do with the facilities available to them, often under the least sanitary conditions — at dive bars, music venues, and sporting event porta potties, to name but a few — mostly due to necessity and a distinct lack of viable alternatives. Cats have no concept of shame, and the fact that they are restricted to the inside of our homes means that if the litter box is not up to code, they’re happy to take the next available spot, even if that’s your favorite area rug.

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.