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Litter Box 101: Preventing and solving litter box problems

Housetraining cats and kittens

Most cats and kittens require little training to use their litter box, as they have an innate desire to dig and bury their waste. The challenge for owners is to ensure the behavior continues! Once a cat or kitten has developed undesirable toilet habits, the problem can be very difficult to resolve. Here are some suggestions that will help keep your cat or kitten using his litter box.

Pick a good location for the litter box.

  • Place the litterbox in a semi-private area, away from lots of traffic.
  • Keep kittens in a small room with a litterbox for a few days until they have used it consistently. 
  • Avoid placing the box next to your cat's food or water, or near loud noises (washing machines, etc.) that may be startling or scary.
  • Also, avoid corners and tight areas like closets where kitty might feel trapped.

Select your litter carefully. Use plain, unscented “clumping” litter for best results. Once you have found a litter that seems to please your cat, don’t switch!

Keep the litterbox clean! Solid wastes and clumps should be scooped out daily. The entire box should be emptied, washed with warm water and refilled at least once a month. Just as we don’t like to use dirty toilets, neither do cats!

A baby kitten or senior cat should have a box with low sides to hop over easily. When your cat grows larger, you may need to get a larger, deeper box but start small. 

Avoid using covered litterboxes, as many cats are reluctant to use them.

Have one box per cat, plus one. For example, a household of three cats should contain four litterboxes. Many cats will refuse to toilet in a box already containing waste. 

Give your cat plenty of attention, play time, care and reassurance in times of stress to help with adjustment. Cat stress can be caused by big changes, including moving, grief, or new pets, and even smaller changes, like rearranged furniture, a litterbox moved a few feet, new household cleaners, etc.

Inappropriate elimination in cats is a very common — and frustrating — scenario, and can be caused by many different factors. If your cat or kitten is currently having litterbox issues, here are a few more suggestions for resuming preferred litterbox habits.
  1. Check with your veterinarian to clear your cat of any medical issues. Be sure to fully explain the litterbox issue and request a urinalysis, stool check and — especially if the cat is a senior — a blood draw.
  2. Place numerous litterboxes around the house with different substrates: newspaper, clumping litter, non-clumping litter, sand, sawdust, carpet remnants and no litter at all. If you find that your cat prefers an unacceptable surface (such as carpet), try to slowly convert the cat back to a litter by adding a little litter each week. Continue adding more litter until you can remove the carpet remnants from the box.
  3. Try different depths of litter. If you routinely find excess (clean) litter on the floor beside the box, you’re probably using too much. Aim for around two inches.
  4. Clean soiled areas with an enzyme-based cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle. Regular cleaners will not break down the urine/stool traces, so the cat may continue to use those spots. If the carpet or padding is saturated, it may need to be replaced.
  5. Increase litterbox cleaning. Clean the litterboxes at least twice daily and wash the box once a week (soap and warm water only; do not use a strong-smelling disinfectant).
  6. If the problem is confined to one area (such as a bedroom), close the door to keep the cat out.
  7. Try feeding the cat where he is urinating/defecating, as many cats will not do both in the same place!
  8. Use aluminum foil, upside-down carpet runners (with the plastic spikes on the bottom), double-sided tape, etc. to encourage the cat to avoid areas where she has eliminated before.
  9. Try Feliway or a Sentry calming collar for cats and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  10. Do NOT punish! Physical or verbal punishment will not help, and will likely make the problem worse. Contrary to popular belief, litterbox problems have nothing to do with spite and are often caused by stress.
  11. If needed, confine your cat (especially if newly adopted) to a small, cat-proofed room with bedding, food, water, toys and at least one litterbox. Keep him there until you can be sure he is using his litterbox, then gradually allow him access to other areas of the house. 

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