How to litter box train your new kitten
Litter box training of a kitten can hardly be called “training.” A puppy owner, by contrast, most certainly house trains their new pet: over a period or weeks or months, a new puppy owner will take hundreds of trips outdoors, attempt to coincide those trips with the pup’s elimination cycles, treat and praise repeatedly when things go well, and clean up mess after mess in the house, when, inevitably, they don’t.
But what must be taught to a puppy comes naturally to a kitten. Provide the right kind of box in the right place at the right time and your kitten will do what instinct tells her to do.
Timing is everything in litter box training
Just because your kitten comes preloaded with “litter box software” doesn’t mean he is able to use the litter box on his first day outside of the womb.
Very young kittens must be stimulated to eliminate, usually by their mothers. A mother cat will lick her babies’ bottoms to stimulate them to urinate or defecate and will consume the waste.
Assuming your new kitten is old enough to have been separated from mom (preferably at 12-13 weeks of age) you won’t have to worry about when to introduce the litter box. But if you find yourself with a very young kitten in your care, understand that he must be developmentally ready to use the litter box, which begins at around three weeks of age. Until then, a newborn kitten will require manual stimulation by his human parent to eliminate.
Every cat is an individual, however, and three weeks is not a hard-and-fast rule. You’ll need to continue to stimulate until he is consistently using the litter box you provide.
Introducing the litter box
Even though your kitten was born with the instinct to eliminate on an absorbent surface, especially one that offers the ability to dig and cover, doesn’t mean she is looking for a litter box per se to do her business.
Chances are if your kitten was with her mother for as long as she needed to be she’ll already know a thing or two about litter boxes thanks to mom.
If, however, you’re raising an orphan who had no one to show her the ropes, she and the new litter box might need an introduction. You can gently place the kitten into the litter box when she wakes from a nap or after a meal (when she is most likely to need to eliminate) – don’t force, and don’t make it unpleasant. She’ll get the idea soon enough. As soon you see her start to dig, your work is done. Her natural instincts will take over from there.
The perfect litter box for your kitten
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A tiny little being needs a box with a tiny edge. Put away the fancy litter boxes and the deep litter boxes and the covered litter boxes until she is older. Start with the shallowest box you can find. You may have to improvise with an old shipping carton with the sides trimmed way down. (Note that if you start with a cardboard box, you’ll have to replace it very frequently.) Your young kitten needs to be able to step in and step out of the box easily. You don’t want her to feel discouraged and avoid the litter box because she feels like she can’t freely enter and exit.
The perfect litter for a new kitten
Babies everywhere put things in their mouths. Kittens are no different. They are curious, and like human babies, often use their sense of taste to explore. Consequently, they may "explore" the litter in their box by eating some of it.
Many of the litter products we use with our adult cats contain a clumping agent, called sodium bentonite. This chemical expands 15-18 times its original size when it gets wet which helps form scoopable litter clumps.
Unfortunately, clumping litter has the potential to clump in a kitten’s digestive tract, too, and cause a life-threatening blockage. Clumping litter should be avoided until the kitten is at least 3-4 months old, when his desire to put everything into his mouth begins to diminish and when his delicate digestive system develops enough to be able to manage some incidental ingestion, as when a bit of litter stuck in the fur gets eaten during grooming.
Texture is another concern. While there many cutting-edge products on the market today, from “environmentally friendly” pellets made from recycled wood or paper, to fancy silica gels, the best litter for a new kitten is fine-grained and soft for delicate paws. The litter box has to be a pleasant place for your kitten to eliminate or he won’t use it. The best litter is not only one that doesn’t clump, but also one that feels good on your baby’s tiny paws.
And finally, scent: you might prefer a litter that helps mask the scent of what’s in the box, but your cat probably won’t. Cats don’t enjoy fragrances, and you don’t want the scent in the litter you’re trying to encourage your new kitten to use to put him off. Choose an unscented litter for your new kitten.
The perfect place for the litter box
The perfect place for the litter box is where your new kitten is. If you have a very young kitten you will probably want to keep him confined to a single room in the house to start with – something you have carefully kitten-proofed for his safety. Put the box in a corner of the room because kittens seem to prefer to eliminate in an area that is not directly in the middle of their living/playing/sleeping space. Make sure there is nothing in the way of the box that might hinder his access, or distract him, or that might hide the box from view.
As your kitten gets a little older and you begin to allow him to explore other areas of the house, be sure to provide multiple litter boxes so he is never far from a toilet when he needs one. You want your new kitten to be very successful as this important new habit gets ingrained. Do not allow bad habits to develop because you were stingy with the litter boxes for this short period in your cat’s life.
Think, too, about what is behind your new baby’s instinct regarding elimination. A cat’s desire is to cover his waste. A litter box is the ideal toilet from a cat’s point of view and so long as one is available, that’s what he’ll use. But if he can’t find a box right away, there are other places he’d be happy to his business in, in a pinch. Don’t leave clothes on the floor, or other messes or clutter that might look like a good place to pee or poop to your kitten.
And finally, the perfect place for the litter box may be exactly where it is! Once your new kitten is using the litter box successfully, don’t move it.
The perfect number of litter boxes
One cat, one litter box, right? Wrong! The correct number of litter boxes is one box per cat plus one more. If you have eight cats, you need nine litter boxes. Cats can be territorial and there is no good reason to allow a cat to train itself out of using the litter box because of disagreements about property ownership with another household cat.
Keep the litter box spotless
Your new kitten is a fastidious cat at heart and nothing will discourage her from using the litter box more quickly than a mess. Scoop, scoop, scoop. Clean as she goes – several times a day if possible, but no less than once per day. Make it easy for her to do what you want her to do for the rest of her life. For more information about how to keep a litter box spotless, read this blog post, "How to keep litter box odor under control."
If she misses the box (remember: she’s just a baby and she’s just learning) use an enzyme-based cleaner on those surfaces. The enzymes will actually break down the protein in urine and feces to completely eliminate the odor. If the scent of pee or poop remains on a surface the kitten will smell it (even if you can’t) and recognize it and think, “Oh yes! This is the spot that I use for a bathroom.”
You can try a product like Nature's Miracle, which contains enzymes that actually break down the proteins in the mess so that it no longer smells, to you and to your cat, like a toilet.
For more details about cleaning up kitten messes, read this post, "How to get cat pee out of carpet."
Make it pleasant to use the litter box
Never, never punish your kitten for eliminating in the “wrong” place. Punishment of any kind, even just a harsh word, is confusing to him and harmful to your relationship with your new family member. And most importantly, it’s ineffective as a training tool. If your cat is not eliminating properly by your standards, look to see what you might be doing that is encouraging behavior you don’t want. Are you leaving confusing messes around the house that “feel” like a good place to toilet for him? Is there something else going on in your kitten's life that might make him less likely to use the box (guests in the house, or construction, or simply moving the box to a new location)?
If you find your kitten eliminating in the same spot on the floor, move the box to that spot. Help him be successful! Try different litter products, just in case he doesn’t like the way the one you’ve purchased smells or feels.
But most importantly, invest time, love, and patience in this wonderful new being you’ve brought into your life. Your new kitten will eventually use the litter box exactly as you hoped he would, and you will have an incredible feline friend for the rest of his life.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.