Yes, you can... but should you?
A few years ago, a post went around featuring a product that claimed you could use it to teach your cat how to use a toilet. This was before I got into cat behavior so at the time, my first thought was that it would be really cool to be able to do that. Wow, no need for a litter box! I wonder if you can teach the cat to flush, too...
This product is still out there and every once in a while a picture of a cat using a toilet will make the rounds. The product still exists so folks who are interested can still purchase it if they want. Before you rush out to order the cat toilet training kit, is it even possible to train your cat to use the toiler? And perhaps more importantly, should you do it? Let's look at each of these questions!
First off, will this product even work? I can definitely see the appeal in wanting to try this. Cleaning the litter box is often one of the least favorite parts of being a cat parent and many people don't clean their litter boxes as often as they should. Litter boxes are often tucked away as they can be quite stinky if not maintained. Heck, I scoop Z's box at least twice per day and I'll still be able to smell the box after he poops!
The basic premise of the typical toilet training product involves using a dish that sits in the toilet. It's typically filled with litter and then you gradually remove it once your cat starts using it. Combine this with some positive reinforcement and training? It's totally reasonable that you'd be able to get your cat to use it.
That said, as with regular litter boxes, there is a huge variation in what each individual cat will use. Some cats may be okay using a litter box that is less than ideal. Others won't tolerate anything that's even two inches in the wrong direction and the litter is a quarter inch too deep. Similarly, some cats just won't ever use a toilet even with training (or it may be a struggle to train them!) and others will catch on pretty quickly.
So the answer to the first question is yes, you can potentially train your cat to use the toilet though not every cat will be receptive. That said, it's not the only consideration.
Many cat parents use litter boxes for their cats, but don't necessarily know why we use litter boxes. Why do cats use litter boxes instead of going outside to pee/poop like dogs do?
To cats, choosing a location to go to the bathroom is a complex decision. Cats need to be careful where they go to the bathroom as the scent of their urine or feces may signal to a predator that they're nearby. They also use scent, from urine in particular, to mark territory so other cats know that they're there or to attract a mate when they're looking for a bit of kitty lovin'. These two competing desires, at different times, influence why and where a cat will go.
Because of the desire to keep their scent hidden from predators, cats prefer going somewhere they can bury their urine/feces afterward. Yes, they don't always succeed (looking at you, fellow cat parents whose cats just paw at the edge of the box rather than actually burying their poop!) but they still have the instinct to do so. That's a large part of the reason why litter boxes are so successful for cats: They create a space for the cat that satisfies the urge to bury their urine/feces afterward. If they're cleaned as well as they should be, the area remains mostly clean, too!
The above is a bit simplified and there are other factors (such as location) that influence how likely a cat is to use a litter box. However, the most relevant points are that the scent of the litter box allows a cat to feel secure in their territory and cats naturally want to bury their waste.
Does using a toilet allow them to do either? The scent may be there for a bit, but generally once you flush it's gone. Even though you are flushing it eventually, the cat isn't going to understand that this will be coming. They don't have anywhere to actually bury their waste and this can be frustrating and unnatural for the cat.
Some cats may put up with the frustration for a while, but if something changes in their environment that increases their stress they may not be as forgiving with using a location that is less than ideal. You may end up having sudden issues with them using a location that is not the toilet and they may or may not resume using the toilet again even with some coaxing and retraining.
Taking everything into account, I can't recommend trying to toilet train your cat. It goes against the natural instincts of the cats, may create frustration for them, and may not work once situations change. A good old litter box is genuinely the best way to go! And if you're struggling with litter box problems for your cat, get in touch with Class Act Cats and we'll help figure things out. If you just want to talk about litter boxes and make sure you're getting things set up correctly for your cat (and the humans involved!), a Zoomies session is a great way to prevent problem behaviors. Regardless, there are ways to make a sometimes unpleasant part of cat parenting less unpleasant!
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.