It’s usually pretty straightforward to teach a kitten how to use a litter box. It does come to them naturally, after all. But sometimes, they may need some extra help to get it right, particularly in the beginning, but this is generally something they learn very easily. Even litter training a stray kitten, though initially a little bit more challenging, is a manageable task. But is it possible to litter train an older cat that you take in?
The answer is yes. Cats like to eliminate in litter boxes, so they will naturally gravitate toward that option, if available. With lots of helpful tips and patience, you can train an older cat to use a litter box. Let’s explore the ins and outs of litter training an older cat.
The First Few Weeks in a New Home
Cats who spend all of their time outside generally do not always need a litter box. Outdoor cats will dig their own little holes in the ground to do their business. It’s only when you bring an outdoor cat indoors (and keep them there) that you need to get a litter box for them. However, even outdoor cats would benefit from having a litter box inside for the occasional times they may choose not to go out, often due to unfavorable weather conditions, an illness, or getting older.
If you have just adopted an older cat that used to have access to the outdoors, it would be ideal to restrict them to the house for the first few weeks or months so they can get used to their new family, life circumstances, and home. Make sure they have plenty of safe places they can hide, and consider pheromone diffusers for added reassurance. Keep visitors and any other pets away, and provide them with plenty of attention so you can bond with them.
Ensure they have at least two litter boxes, particularly if they have not been using them regularly before, so they can quickly learn where they can toilet. Avoid placing the litter box in any busy or noisy areas. After several weeks or a few months, when your cat has learned the ins and outs of their new home and has established a routine, you could consider letting them go outside, depending on your area, but always be aware of certain risks and weigh the pros and cons of letting them go out.
Should They Be Let Out?
If your new elderly cat is ill or taking regular medication, it is best to keep them inside, as they are at risk of missing the doses of their medicines if they go outside, or their health condition can deteriorate when they’re away from home, so they may not be able to return safely.
If you live in a rural and quiet area with very few neighborhood cats and your cat is not ill or on long-term meds, you can consider slowly letting them go out, initially with supervision.
It’s also very important that your cat is microchipped so that if they do get lost, a vet practice or a shelter can locate your details easily and promptly. Cats that go outside, no matter how quiet an area may be, are always at risk of accidents and injuries, whether from road traffic injuries, encounters with other animals, fights with other cats, and getting lost in an area they are not familiar with. This is particularly true for older cats that may have a vision impairment or may suffer with feline cognitive decline and confusion, or cats with arthritis that may be slower and more stiff when moving around.
As you can see, there are not many benefits of letting your older cat out, as the risks for their health and safety are certainly high. You can instead provide your cat with plenty of exercise and mental stimulation and enrichment indoors and reduce the risk of injuries and mishaps associated with an outdoor life.
Talk to a Vet First
When you adopt a new cat, particularly an older one, it’s important to take them to the vet for a health evaluation. Your vet will go through the cat’s available medical history so they can familiarize themselves with any significant health issues from their life. In the case of stray cats, this information may not be available. A vet will perform a general clinical exam and may recommend blood testing or other procedures if they feel your cat could be suffering with any health conditions that more commonly exhibit at older age, such as dental disease, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, arthritis, liver disease, or something else.
If your new cat is not using the litter box at home and you have noticed them urinating or defecating outside of the box, straining to urinate, or having any other digestive issues, then these indicate that there is a serious and sometimes life-threatening health issue to deal with. If they are not passing any urine at all or just small drops, they need to be seen by your vet urgently.
Of course, cats that arrive in a new home will take some time to adjust and feel comfortable, so they may have accidents to begin with, but inappropriate urination or defecation outside of the litter box is more likely to indicate a health issue, which may have gotten worse due to the stress of a new house and family.
Teaching Your Cat to Start Using a Litter Box
By this point, your vet has either given your cat a green light when it comes to their health or has prescribed them appropriate treatment, and the next step is getting your cat used to using the litter box in your home. This can be considered litter training but is more of a refresher course, as most older cats have used one before and know what to do. You will need to have a few supplies handy before you begin.
Large Litter Boxes (and a Scoop!)
You will want to buy at least 2 litter boxes that are large enough for your cat to fit comfortably in. A good rule to follow is to buy a box that’s as big as your cat is long, including their tail.
Some litter boxes come with roofs or electronic gadgets to clean up the feces. In the case of introducing an adult cat to a litter box for the first time, opt for uncovered boxes with no fancy technology. The covered litter boxes can make the cat feel cramped and unsafe, and the noises of electronic parts might scare your cat. You, of course, want to encourage your cat to use the litter box, not scare them away from it!
Start simple, and then you can work your way up to more advanced options, such as a covered litter box, when your cat is more comfortable using them in the first place. Cats like their routine, so any changes should be done gradually.
For senior cats, consider purchasing a litter box with low walls. Cats that are aging will have sore joints and will need the litter box to be easily accessible.
You can buy a couple different brands of litter to try out to see what your cat likes. Go for unscented, clumping litter first (most cats prefer this) before trying other versions, and check what kind of litter your cat used to use in the shelter/previous home if the information is available.
It might be tempting to buy scented litter in order to mask the bad smells, but scents that might smell nice to you might be offensive and irritating to your cat.
How to Litter Train an Older Cat
You’re armed and ready with your litter box supplies, time to start training your cat!
1. Find a Quiet and Secluded Spot, With All Their Stuff
You will want to place the litter boxes in places that your cat wants to go, one that’s by the door leading outside and one that has some privacy and is not noisy or busy with people or other pets.
When you are first starting out, consider keeping the cat in a smaller area where they can easily find the boxes close by. This could be a room where your cat will feel safe and undisturbed until they get used to their new home, new people, and unfamiliar smells. For the first few days, consider limiting their access to the rest of the house until they are more confident and curious to explore. Keep the toys, food, and water in the same general area.
2. Introduce Your Cat to the Litter Boxes
Keep the litter box in the same room but away from their food, toys, and bed. However, it should be somewhere that is very easy to access. Let them explore the room with you around so they feel comfortable, and offer lots of positive praise if they enter the box.
3. Experiment With Different Litter Types & Amount
Since older cats are already set in some ways, you will have to cater to their preference, particularly if you know what they are used to from before. When you are first starting out and you do not know what kind of litter they used, you will want to experiment with different types of litter to see if your cat prefers one over the other. You will know this by noticing which litter box gets used most often. Offer at least two litter boxes in the beginning.
Another thing to experiment with is the amount of litter poured into the box. Some cats will prefer a thin layer, while others want a thick layer. Start off with a little and keep adding more if your cat isn’t taking to the box. This may give them more reasons to come back.
4. Keep It Clean, But Not Right Away
At first, you will have to strike the right balance of keeping it clean, but not too clean. Don’t be so hasty to clean out the cat pee and poop right after it happens. Cats tend to return to the same spot to go to the bathroom, so leave them something to remind them where they should go.
On the other hand, if the box gets too dirty, the cat will not want to use it. Make sure the litter gets changed out at the appropriate times. Any clumped litter should be separated and removed daily, and all of the litter should be completely replaced once per week, with the litter box being cleaned with water and soap during each complete litter change.
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5. Make Sure Food & Water are Far Enough Away
While you will want your cat’s food and water to be close by when first introducing them to their new home, don’t put the litter box and the food right next to each other. Most animals, including cats, have the instinct to eat and eliminate in different areas. Putting the food and litter box too close together will discourage them from using the box.
6. Try Pheromone Spray
Using a special pheromone spray may help your cat feel less scared about using a litter box in a new and unfamiliar home. Feliway diffusers and spray contain pheromones that calm cats down when they are scared or anxious, providing them with reassurance and comfort. Use the spray on your cat’s bed or areas of the home they feel more unsure about, or even around the litter box. A diffuser should be used in the room where your cat will be staying initially until they start exploring the rest of the home, for which new diffusers should be utilized. Provide plenty of scratching posts and perches as well.
- Can I Put Catnip in the Litter Box?
Contrary to popular belief, not all cats love or respond to catnip. First, find out if your cat likes catnip by putting some on a scratching post. If they do like it, it is perfectly fine to add a little bit to their litter box.
7. Clean Up Accidents Quickly
Like we already mentioned, when a cat smells their own pee or poop in a certain spot, they are cued to go in that spot repeatedly. This is great for a litter box, but not great for accidents. Closely monitor your cat while training them, and clean up accidents with a special pet mess cleaner. They contain special enzymes to totally get rid of the whole accident, bacteria, smell, and all.
8. Patience Is Key
Your cat might not get the idea right away. They could have several accidents, but keep at it. Training a cat to use a litter box is not the same as house training a dog, because cats naturally want a spot to dig when they need to go. Thus, the litter box is a “natural” solution for them.
It’s crucial to never punish a cat when they have an accident. Instead, use positive reinforcement by praising them and treating them when they decide to use the litter box.
Your older cat has been going to the bathroom somewhere their whole life before meeting you. This can make it stressful to get them to go in a new spot. First, get your cat checked out by the vet to ensure there are no health reasons for their litter box accidents, which is the most common explanation. After this, focus on managing their stress due to a home move, and arm yourself with patience. Try adding a new variable to the litter box, one at a time, focusing on litter box numbers, locations, and litter material, and eventually you and your cat will find the perfect litter box combination. Of course, be sure to give them lots of praise when they use the litter box!
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Featured Image Credit: Lightspruch, Shutterstock
- The First Few Weeks in a New Home
- Should They Be Let Out?
- Talk to a Vet First
- Teaching Your Cat to Start Using a Litter Box
- How to Litter Train an Older Cat
- 1. Find a Quiet and Secluded Spot, With All Their Stuff
- 2. Introduce Your Cat to the Litter Boxes
- 3. Experiment With Different Litter Types & Amount
- 4. Keep It Clean, But Not Right Away
- 5. Make Sure Food & Water are Far Enough Away
- 6. Try Pheromone Spray
- 7. Clean Up Accidents Quickly
- 8. Patience Is Key