Cat Litter Box Training Guide

published on 17 June 2022

When people adopt a puppy, one of the first things they do is train the puppy to go to the bathroom outside... understandably so! Since most cats use a box indoors, I thought I'd provide a guide to prospective cat owners on what they need to do to train their cat to use the box. Here's a step by step guide:

  1.  Set up your adequately sized litter box in an appropriate location.
  2.  Add a litter that is appealing to your cat.
  3.  Your cat will begin using the box naturally and you don't need to do anything else.

Wow, that was easy! And short.

All cheekiness aside, you'll notice that there really isn't any training needed. In fact, one of my favorite sources for information on addressing behavior concerns in cats, Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat by Gary Landsberg, Wayne Hunthausen, and Lowell Ackerman, has one whole paragraph devoted to litter box training. It can basically be summed up as, "Not needed. Set up your box correctly. Have a vet examine the cat if they're not using the box."

"I know where to poop without your help, silly humans."

Why don't cats need to be box trained? They typically come pre-trained! Another favorite source of cat information, The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour by Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson, has a nice overview of how cats learn when and where to poop: For the first few weeks of life, kittens rely on their mothers to stimulate them to go to the bathroom. As they mature, their mother teaches them how to find where to go to the bathroom and their instinct takes over.

Cats will naturally seek out a place to go to the bathroom that meets their requirements when they're ready to go again. Each cat has their preferences, but they generally like boxes that are safe, quiet, and big enough to turn around in. Uncovered boxes are a mix bag, but you're generally better off without a cover.

For litter, a small granule sized litter that the cat can easily bury their waste in is best. There are various preferences for types litter based on early experiences, genetics, and even things like if the cat is declawed. However, an unscented litter is often the best choice.

You'll also want to clean out the box regularly. Scooping daily (yes, daily) will keep the box clean and not smelling like, well, a litter box. Replace the litter weekly and do a more thorough clean using a gentle detergent (not bleach!) once per month. Your cat and nose will thank you!

(Don't) Show Them the Box

Sounds like cats should be able to find the box just fine, right? There's an idea that goes around that you need to "show" your cat the box. The idea is that you take the cat around and either let them see where the boxes are or even place the cat in the box.

I have some good news because you can safely skip that step! In fact, you should skip  doing this. Let me explain.

"I can find the box on my own, thanks."

Cats will naturally seek out places that are appealing to them to go to the bathroom. When they get the urge to go, they'll seek somewhere out and find their way to the box. When you bring a cat home, the best step you can take is keep them in a single room for a few days as a transition with all their basic needs including (wait for it) a litter box. Unless the room is huge or the box is inaccessible, they'll find the box.

(There are other steps to bringing a cat home, but that's a whole post in itself so we're focusing on the litter box)

After that, you can gradually introduce the cat to other parts of the house. It's once again best to do that slowly so the cat really shouldn't ever be far from a box. By the time they need to go, they'll have had time to figure out where any additional boxes are.

I hope this is obvious, but if your cat has normal bowel and bladder functioning they'll be okay "holding it" for a bit until they get to the box. If they're not going in the box, there's likely a medical issue going on, something is wrong with your box set up, or there's a behavioral problem that "showing them" the box won't help with.

Speaking of which, showing your cat the box can create problems with box usage. If you have a new cat and they are anxious about being in a new environment, showing them the box may create a negative association with the box. If a strange human picks them up and places them in the box, the cat may make an association with the box and the fear and not end up using it. Heck, even if you know the cat, being in a new environment can be extremely stressful for the cat and the added stress of being picked up and placed in the box may be too stressful for them to handle.

You might create the problem you are trying to avoid!

Yes, that may not make sense to us humans, but cats think differently than we do. It doesn't matter if it makes sense to us... It's the cats' perception that matters!

And again, it's completely unnecessary. You aren't gaining anything by showing your cat the box. They'll probably just end up confused.

Is Training Ever Necessary?

So... is it ever necessary to train a cat to use the box?

Because cats are complicated, the answer is "rarely, but sometimes."

In situations where a cat may not have been properly trained by their mother or in a few other situations, remedial training may be necessary. These aren't common situations, however. If your cat isn't using the box, the first thing you should do is get medical causes ruled out by your veterinarian.

If no medical cause is identified, the next step is getting an assessment by a behavior consultant. In many cases, there is an issue with the environment or you may use the wrong litter. The behavior consultation will be able to help you figure out what exactly is going on with your cat and give you personalized recommendations.

And for the love of all things furry, don't try putting your cat into the box.

About the author: Joey Lusvardi is a feline behavior consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.

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