We're getting down to business on how cats naturally know how to ... do their business.
kitten scratching in the litter box; how do cats know how to use the litter box?
Credit: Nicky Lloyd / Getty

Your role in litter box "training" a kitten or cat? Providing your floof with appropriately sized litter boxes, placing the boxes in suitable locations, and adding cat-approved kitty litter. Scooping the litter box doesn't even need to be a thing, thanks to top-of-the-line automated litter boxes. Basically, if the set-up is to your cat's liking, they'll take litter box training from there.

That's right, teaching your cat to pee and poo in her litter box doesn't take much teaching at all (unlike our adorable yet accident-prone puppies). How do cats know to use the litter box without training? It all comes down to those kitty instincts.

How Do Cats Automatically Know How to Use a Litter Box?

Whether they grew up with their mom and litter mates or as an orphan with human care, it's in a kitty's DNA to do their business where they can cover it. "In the wild, cats bury their poop to keep their scent away from predator's noses," Stacie Lee Nyhuis, Licensed Veterinary Technician with Behavior Solutions for Pets in Ashburn, VA, explains.

Newborn kittens need to be stimulated to eliminate. But when they reach three to four weeks of age, they'll naturally begin using the litter box (even if it's a little messy at first).

"Having another cat who is using a litter box may be helpful in facilitation," Nyhuis says. But cats are born with the instinct to dig and cover their waste. Theoretically, she says, if you place an appropriate litter box in a room, a cat or kitten will use it.

Stray cats transitioning from outdoor to indoor life also know what to do, but they might insist on using your houseplants rather than the litter box. Help her adjust by putting away the houseplants and providing litter boxes with different types of litter. You might even consider adding natural substrate (dirt or sod) to the kitty litter box, slowly transitioning to commercial kitty litter.

Are There Some Cats Who Won't Learn How to Use a Litter Box?

It's unlikely that a cat doesn't know how to use the litter box. Typically, something is going on that is discouraging your cat from using their litter box (more on that later). But, Nyhuis adds, some cats are downright bad at covering their poo.

"I can attest to this after fostering a large grey tabby," she says. "He was a messy boy!"

It's important to recognize when a cat just has bad aim—covering up everything but their poo—and when there is a change in behavior like no longer covering their waste. "If they want to spend as little time as possible in the box, they may no longer dig and cover it," Nyhuis explains.

If your cat is having trouble with the litter box, don't hesitate to talk with your vet to find a solution (and hopefully prevent stress in both you and your kitty!).

Will My Cat Know Where the Litter Box Is If I Move It?

Finding the litter box isn't a problem for super-smelling cats, if you place the box in an easy-to-access location.

Help your cat to get to the nearest clean bathroom by providing more than one litter box—Nyhuis recommends one litter box per cat plus one. If you live in a multi-story house, place a litter box on each floor and away from foot traffic and noisy home appliances.

"I wouldn't pick your cat up and place them in a litter box, but it wouldn't hurt to lead them into the room via play or food and allow them to find the box on their own," Nyhuis says.

Why Is My Cat Going Outside of the Litter Box?

Bathroom troubles aren't an uncommon behavior when something isn't quite right. According to the ASPCA, "10 percent of all cats will eliminate outside of the litter box at some point in their lives." Sure, a cat peeing or pooping outside of the litter box can feel frustrating, but Nyhuis says it's one way your cat communicates that something is wrong.

If your cat is eliminating outside of the litter box, consider these explanations. Then, schedule a chat with your vet.


Cats are tidy and want a quiet, private place to do their business (don't we all?). Anything from the type of kitty litter, a dirty litter box, or the shape and size of the litter box could have your cat seeking an alternative bathroom location.


"Fear is a common cause of inappropriate elimination," Nyhuis says. Going to the bathroom is a vulnerable state for any animal—your happy house cat included. "If the cat has had a negative experience in or around the litter box, they're going to be apprehensive or uneasy to return to it."


"Urinary changes could be due to a urinary tract infection or a condition that affects urinary output," Nyhuis explains. If your cat has been diagnosed with and is prone to urinary issues, stay one step ahead of their urinary health with pH-changing litter. "Changes in bowel habits could be due to gastrointestinal distress, intestinal parasites, or stress in general," Nyhuis adds.

Unusual bathroom habits are always a good reason to schedule a visit with your vet. "It's better to have things evaluated soon rather than later just to be safe," Nyhuis says.