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Litter training your cat

Cats are extraordinarily fussy and tend to relieve themselves outdoors in relatively open and unused areas. Unless they are spraying or marking (deliberately leaving their scent as a territorial marking), cats carefully cover their waste and move on. Cats are extremely clean animals and as owners we need to make sure their toilet is clean and in the right place to avoid problems.

Asking cats to use a litter tray inside the house is in some ways asking them to go against their instincts. So it's hardly surprising that the most common behavioural problem reported by owners concerns their pets not using the tray.

It is important not to give your cat any reason to avoid using the litter box. Keep the box very clean and place it in a quiet area of the house, where your cat prefers to use it. You may even need to add more litter boxes, including one at the target location.

Avoiding problems

  • Most kittens are litter-trained by the time you get them - they learn to use a litter tray by copying their mother. To help train your kitten gently place them in the tray after they eat, when they wake from sleep and if you see them sniff, scratch, or crouch in a corner.
  • Choose a litter box that is easy for your kitten to use. A low-sided plastic tray is ideal initially; you may want to change to a deeper or covered tray later.
  • Supply at least one box for every cat in your household, plus one. Place each one in a quiet, low-traffic area with easy access.
  • Keep the litter tray away from your cat's food and water, in an easily accessible but private area. Avoid damp, dark basements, distant bedrooms, areas with noisy washing machines, or locations with lots of through traffic (people or other pets), for example kitchen corners.
  • If you have more than one cat, make sure the litter trays are in more than one location, as such resources can be ‘guarded’, preventing a timid cat from using the tray.
  • Once your kitten is older, and for adult cats, choose a litter tray that is deep enough to keep cats from scattering litter when they dig, and large enough so they can make a complete turn. Place newspaper under the tray to catch any litter kicked out.
  • You can use an open tray, but for cats who want more privacy choose a hooded litter tray with a carbon filter to minimise unpleasant smells and litter spill. Some cats will not like a covered tray with a narrow entrance as they feel vulnerable if they cannot see around the area when in the tray.
  • Some cats prefer clumping, 'scoopable' litters to other types. Remove the soiled litter with a scoop, leaving the rest of the litter fresh and dry. Remember to clean the tray completely regularly, even if using a clumping litter, as with your cat’s acute sense of smell, to them, a ‘scooped’ tray is not completely clean.
  • Avoid scented litter or liners as these can be very off-putting for cats.
  • Older cats may prefer a softer, sandy type of litter as this is kinder to arthritic feet.
  • If your cat has come to you from another home, find out what litter they used there. Some cats refuse to use a litter type they don't like.
  • Fill the tray to the depth recommended by the manufacturers of the litter and place the litter tray on an easy clean surface or newspaper. If you change from one type of litter to another, recheck the depth recommendation as it varies between the different types. Always make sure your cat has enough litter to exhibit normal digging and burying behaviour. New litter types may smell/feel different so make the transition slowly, mixing the litters together initially.
  • If using a clumping litter, remove soiled litter at least daily. At least once a week (more frequently if not using clumping litter), empty the tray completely and wash it with hot water and detergent. Avoid disinfectants as some are toxic to cats.
  • If you're pregnant, never handle soiled litter because of the risk of toxoplasmosis.
  • Never leave your cat indoors without a litter tray. Cats are very clean so will hold in their urine/faeces which is uncomfortable, stressful and can increase the chance of medical problems.
  • Even if your older cat usually always goes outside to urinate/defecate, you need to have a tray indoors as arthritic cats will be reluctant to go outside and feline geriatrics may not want to venture outdoors in cold weather.
  • House soiling can be a purely behavioural problem, but can also indicate a physical problem such as feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), a painful and potentially fatal problem if the flow of urine is blocked. This condition is linked to stress, so you may need to examine your cat's lifestyle and sources of stress, including litter-tray problems themselves
  • Contact your vet if your cat is urinating or defecating outside the tray, straining to urinate/defecate, spending a long time in the tray, visiting the tray frequently, licking their genital area or has blood in their urine.

If your cat is having problems using the litter tray or urinating/defecating inappropriately, contact your vet as soon as possible.

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