According to a 2009-2010 survey, there are more than 93 million owned cats in the United States, with a third of all American households having at least one feline. Inappropriate elimination (going potty where they shouldn’t) is the #1 behavioral problem in cats, but fortunately it can be prevented by establishing good litter box behavior. If you’re getting a new kitten, this training can and should begin as soon as you take it home.
Most kittens have learned by watching the mother cat to seek out a litter box, dig, use it to eliminate, and cover the stool. Let your vet know if your kitten does not exhibit these normal behaviors.
Start a new kitten in a room you can close, with a bed (low box with towel or blanket), a litter box with sides low enough for it to climb into, and bowls for food and water. A bathroom works well, but pick up any throw rugs and remove plants until you are sure it uses the litter box every time. If you are using a bedroom or carpeted area, pick up all clutter, clothing and shoes so it is easy to catch any accidents.
Let the kitten explore one room first. After it has used the litter box, eaten some food, and is eagerly waiting at the door for an opportunity to get out, allow it to investigate an additional area. A confident kitten may be ready for the whole house in just a day or two. A shy kitten that hides under the bed may take two weeks before wanting to leave the kitty-proof room. Whenever you are unable to watch the kitten, restrict him to the kitten-proof room. Use the room at least two weeks, until you are sure he is using the litter box regularly. Leave the original introductory litter box setup.
When out of the kitten-proof room, keep him in eyesight at all times. If he stops playing and starts scratching on the floor, carry him to the litter box. Praise for digging or scratching. Monitor behavior around houseplants, in laundry piles, under beds and in closets. If a kitten shows interest in houseplant soil, cover plant soil with pine cones or decorative stones, or with aluminum foil.
We recommend plain clay litter or “scoopable” sand type litter, or continue whatever the kitten first started with in its previous home or at the shelter. Avoid scented litter. Fill box with two inches of clean litter. Make any changes gradually, either by mixing old and new, or putting a new box with the new litter next to one the kitten already likes and uses.
How often to clean?
Kittens have very, very stinky poop. Scoop out all poops as soon as you discover them, and scoop out the entire litter box at least once per day. With clumping litter, if the clump is removed promptly, it will stay together as a neat dry ball, but old balls tend to crumble. Change litter if it smells, or contains crumbled clumps. Change clay litter and clean pan completely every three to seven days. It is best to use only soap and hot water to clean; if possible, allow 30 minutes to dry in the sun outdoors to air out and deodorize. Avoid disinfectant sprays which may be toxic or may smell unpleasant to the cat. Don’t use Lysol or ammonia. Normally disinfectant is not necessary, but if needed the germ killer we recommend is bleach. Mix 9 parts water to 1 part bleach in the litter pan, let stand 15 minutes and rinse well.
Covered and motorized litter boxes:
Cats usually prefer uncovered litter boxes, which should be placed in positions where the family will scoop and clean every day, but a covered box can help control the mess by keeping the litter in the box, and may make a shy cat feel more secure. The downsides to covered boxes are that it is easy to forget to scoop and stir litter daily, and the cover can increase the smell in and out of the litter box.
Always start a new cat with an open box. To make the transition to a covered box, place a large cardboard box with an entry door upside down over the regular litter box. If the kitten uses this box you can replace the cardboard box with progressively smaller boxes until the size approximates the commercial covered box before making the switch.
If you want to switch to a motorized litter box, use the same strategy as when changing litter types by keeping the old box available alongside the new one, so the cat can become accustomed to the noises the motorized box makes.
Litter box size matters:
Many commercial boxes are too small for a large cat to squat in comfortably so bigger is better, if you have the space. The cat should be able to get into the litter box easily and have free access to the location. Be aware that a young kitten may not be able to jump over the 4 to 6 inch rim. When the kitten is agile enough to jump into a higher box, replace the low box with something the adult cat can easily turn around in. A cat needs to be able to comfortably turn around.
If your cat is regularly making a mess by spraying urine or flinging litter outside of the box but doesn’t like a covered box, you may want to consider a deeper litter box. They are commercially available, or you can check the pictures in this post for some guidance in making your own.
Ideally there will be a litter box on every floor, but if you only have one box, it should be on the house level where the cat spends most of its time. A kitten must also be comfortable using stairs before placing placing its litter box in the basement or on the second floor.
Change is stressful—cats are creatures of habit:
Avoid sudden changes. If the kitten likes one location and one type of litter, stick with it. If you want to change litter location or type, place the new litter in the new location, but leave the old box available until he/she is using the new stuff. To just change brands, place two boxes side by side or mix old litter with new to make a gradual transition.
Cats need to be comfortable in their bathroom:
Unpleasant experiences can make the cat avoid the litter box—don’t scold or give medication near the litter box. A dryer or furnace may make sudden noises when they start up. A baby gate can be used to keep a dog away from litter area.
Multiple cat households:
Marking or avoiding the litter box becomes a more complex problem when two or more cats live together. It is recommended that you have one litter box per cat, plus one, so if you have two cats, you should have three boxes. Ask your vet for more specific recommendations about the number and location of litter boxes and ways to reduce stress in multiple cat households.