Litter training generally comes naturally to an adult or senior cat. Here are some tips to make the process even easier—and some trouble-shooting advice for common litter box problems.

By Leah Lopez Cardenas
August 24, 2020
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Cats are pretty tidy creatures overall, according to Cristin Tamburo Coll, Certified Feline Behavior Consultant at The Cat Counselor in Los Angeles. “Cats are one of the few animals that are both predator and prey in the wild. They cover their waste to cover the smell so they’re not more of a target for a predator.”

Because of those instincts, litter training a cat is fairly easy—definitely easier than potty training a dog, as cats have a natural inclination to use the litter box once they know where to find it.

How to Litter Train a Grown Adult Cat

Similar to when you’re litter training a kitten, choosing an appropriate litter box and litter for your home, placing it in a safe designated location, and showing your cat where it’s placed are some good first steps.

However, there are a variety of elements that impact how well your cat adjusts to using the litter box when you’re first training her.

  • Litter box location: “Putting a litter box in a quiet and safe area of the house will help make sure your cat uses his or her box regularly. Choose an area out of the way of high traffic areas of the home,” says Britt Gagne, Executive Director of Furry Friends Refuge in Des Moines, Iowa. And just like humans, cats don’t want to eat where they remove waste, so consider that when you’re finding a good place to put the litter box. “Often food, water, and litter may be located in the same ‘safe zone’ of the house, out of the way of major traffic zones,” Gagne says. “But there should ideally be at least 3 feet [between] the litter box and food and water. Animals and people prefer that their food and drink not be kept near their bathroom for comfort as well as ensuring a sanitary area to eat and drink.”
  • Clean litter: Cats like tidiness, so if you’re not cleaning the litter box regularly, that will be a major roadblock in your cat’s training. “Make sure that if a lot of dirty litter is removed that new litter is added, so there’s enough to allow the cat to dig and cover things in the box as they naturally have a desire to do. Litter should be cleaned daily and fully dumped and washed every seven to ten days,” Gagne says.
  • Quantity of litter boxes: If you have more than one cat in your household, they may not be fans of sharing. The simple solution is to add another litter box to accommodate your pet. “Generally, the rule of thumb is to have at least one litter box per cat. Having one more than the number of cats in the household is ideal,” Gagne says.

Bringing Your Outdoor Cat Indoors

Outdoor cats instinctively bury waste in various outside elements, including grass, sand, or dirt. This can make litter training a challenge when bringing an outdoor cat inside for the first time, as most types of litter have a different smell and texture than the cat is used to. It can be hard at first to figure out how to get the cat to transition to litter box use.

Recently, I had a client where the cat was going in the backyard in the grass, so we actually got the cat used to using the box by putting a piece of sod in the litter box. We then started sprinkling the litter of choice on top and added more and more litter until we transitioned that other substrate out of the box,” Tamburo Coll says. “Another thing you could try is multiple different boxes with different materials ‘buffet style’ to determine what they’re comfortable using.”

Some outdoor cat owners are concerned about bringing the cat in their home because of potential pathogens. Luckily, though cat feces can be a source of salmonella or toxoplasmosis, proper hand washing, protective gear like gloves, and not accidentally ingesting the waste should be enough to protect cat owners in many situations.

“Not very many diseases are transferable from animals to humans luckily, but best practice is to wash your hands often and avoid accidentally scooping the litter box and then touching the face,” Tamburo Coll says. “Any time you’re bringing a cat in from outdoors, do a vet check for an overall health assessment and vaccines. Usually [outdoor cats] are just a bit dirty. Nothing too major.” 

Changing Litter Training Habits With a Senior Cat

If you’ve adopted a senior cat, or the cat you’ve had for a while is just getting older, litter training can involve some age-specific challenges. A cat typically is considered senior between 10–12 years old, but it varies by cat based on when they start to show signs of aging. Senior cats can start to develop health issues including kidney, liver, hearing, and vision changes, among others. If your cat is experiencing vision changes, Tamburo Coll recommends installing a nightlight to the area where the litter box is located to help them find it more easily.

As they age, cats can also sometimes become senile or experience declining congnitive function, which can make remembering where the litter box is located a bit more difficult. So you may need to periodically remind them where it is if they show signs of confusion. 

Arthritis is also fairly common as cats get older, and so are bone and joint conditions like hip dysplasia. When choosing the best litter box for your senior cat, consider keeping it low-sided and uncovered. “While closed-top litter boxes sometimes might appeal to pet owners more, open-top litter boxes are recommended,” Gagne says. “Particularly if your cat has a history of inappropriate urination, a closed-top box can make your pet feel uncomfortable due to enclosed smells and [feeling] trapped while in a vulnerable position.” 

Cat owners generally are fairly aware of their cat’s normal actions. Overall, if your cat is displaying any changes in behavior or temperament, such as having accidents, seeming more lethargic, moving more slowly, or struggling with getting around, Tamburo Coll says it’s time to take them to the vet for a checkup.

Why Do Cats Fall Asleep In the Litter Box?

Ever notice your cat falling asleep in the litter box? While this quirky behavior is more common in older cats, it can happen to all cats at any age.

A few factors that cause cats to fall asleep in the litter box include:

  • Stress and anxiety: Cats from a shelter or that have moved to a new home may be looking for a familiar scent to calm themselves down. “As gross as it is, [the litter box] smells like them, and they like to be in places that make them feel safe,” Tamburo Coll says.
  • Privacy: Much like humans and the sacred alone time that (usually) comes along with using the bathroom, the litter box can be a private place where cats seek refuge from all the hustle and bustle going on in their house.
  • Bowel issues: Particularly with senior cats, it could be harder for them to physically go to the bathroom. Or, on the other hand, they could have to go frequently and might be afraid to leave the box because as soon as they leave, they may need to go again.

If cats are falling asleep in the litter box, it’s always a good idea to get them checked out by the vet. “If the vet ruled out health issues, the next step is to assess any changes in the environment at home,” Tamburo Coll says. “Try making the area around the box more comfortable for them such as moving a cat tree or cat bed near the box. This gives them an alternative to sleeping in the box.”

Help! My Cat Still Won’t Use the Litter Box

If you’ve tried everything you can think of to get your cat to use the litter box and you’re still not having any luck, Tamburo Coll’s first recommendation is to take the cat to the veterinarian. This is a good idea any time you notice a change in litter box habits or behavior, in addition to your cat’s usual once-a-year checkup.

“Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness for a long time. This ties back to their place as both predator and prey in the food chain,” she says. “If nothing is wrong medically according to your vet, then reach out to a veterinary training behaviorist or a certified feline behavior consultant in your area.”