The good news: It’s not hard to teach your kitten to use a litter box. We'll give you the scoop (pun intended).

By Karen Weir-Jimerson and Leah Lopez Cardenas
August 24, 2020
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Kittens and cats are generally very fastidious animals. That’s good news when it comes to getting your kitten to use a litter box. Kittens take to a litter box relatively easily, because of their natural instinct to dig and bury.

“Cats will naturally eliminate in loose material that is available to them—like dirt, soil, or kitty litter,” says Maria Delgado, PhD, CAAB, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. They clean up after themselves, too. “It’s instinctual for cats to bury their waste with this type of material,” she says.

Choosing a Litter Box

There are many different litter box designs, but it’s important to research the best type for your individual kitten or cat. For young kittens, a litter box with low sides may be the best choice early in their life to make sure they can climb in and out of it without too much trouble. Once your kitten grows older, you may want to purchase a litter box with higher sides, which is ideal for cats who fling litter out of the box after they go. Covered litter boxes offer a cavelike entrance that allows your cat to enter and do her business in private. However, be careful to monitor your cat’s preferences, as many cats can be easily frightened or stressed if they can’t see what’s going on outside the litter box as they go. This may make them less likely to continue using it.

Selecting Litter for Your Kitten

Litter, the crumbly material that goes into a litter box and is thrown away after use, also comes in several options. Basic litter is a claylike gravel that absorbs cat urine. This litter gives a cat a loose medium to pee and poo in. Cats, being very clean animals, will bury their business by scratching around it, pulling litter overtop. 

Another option, clumping litter, offers smaller granules that absorb liquids, making a neat little nugget that can be lifted from the tray with a slotted spoon-like tool and tossed away. This type of litter allows you to clean out messes while leaving the clean litter in the box. Litters may come unscented or scented. 

Which is best? Your cat can tell you. “Some cats may also have texture preferences, and research has shown that most cats prefer a soft, sandy, scoopable litter,” Delgado says. “Cats may avoid a litter box if it’s not clean, so scoop at least once a day.”

Litter Box Placement

Litter box location is important, too. “The box should be in a safe and quiet place, but it also needs to be accessible—so don't hide it away in the garage or basement,” Delgado says. “If you have a busy household or multiple cats, the box should be placed somewhere that allows the cat to see if anyone is approaching,” she says.

How to Litter Train a Kitten

Delgado recommends keeping kittens confined to a smaller space when they’re young to help them learn to use the litter box. “As you increase their access to territory, make sure there’s always a litter box nearby until they’re a bit older,” she says. “Make sure your kitten has easy access to a few low-sided litter boxes. I often see problems when people give a kitten the run of the entire house, but there's only one litter box and it's far away.”

Playful kittens can sometimes not pay attention to their need to go until it’s too late, says Cristin Tamburo Coll, Certified Feline Behavior Consultant at The Cat Counselor in Los Angeles. “Kittens play really hard. So sometimes, they have so much fun, they forget to go to the litter box and have an accident. It’s important you don’t punish them for accidents. When you see them using the litter box, reinforce behavior with positive reinforcement like treats or praise,” she says.

“Have multiple boxes in your house when they’re young to avoid some of those emergencies when they’re playing. They’re likely to use it if there is a litter box always close by,” Tamburo Coll says.

Other factors that can impact a kitten’s success with litter box usage include their age and type of litter. Tamburo Coll stresses that sometimes it’s not safe to use clumping clay litter when a kitten is 7 weeks to 3 months old. “Just like human toddlers, kittens like to put things in their mouth. Be careful what type of litter you use. Pellet or newsprint is best for this age,” she says.

Pet owners who are thinking through how to litter train a stray kitten can encounter a different set of challenges. Litter box location is a really important factor when litter training any kitten, but is especially important when you’re bringing in a lost, stray kitten from outside. “They feel safer in corners, especially if they’re coming from outdoors to indoors,” Tamburo Coll says. 

If you’re taking in a stray kitten, Tamburo Coll also suggests layering outdoor substances over the litter you want to use to make the cat feel more familiar with the material. She also suggests products like Dr. Elsey's Kitten Attract to entice your new kitten to use the box.

How Long Does It Take to Litter Train a Kitten?

Want to know how to litter train a kitten fast? Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. However, kittens are innately tidy animals and most breeds start to use the litter box fairly quickly within a few weeks of life. However, Tamburo Coll says kittens under 3 weeks old need to be stimulated by their mother and won’t go to the bathroom on their own, so don’t start litter training until they’re older than 3 weeks.

I’m Still Having Problems Litter Training My Kitten, Now What?

There are several reasons why a cat may choose not to use a litter box.

Cleanliness: If the litter box needs to be cleaned, your cat may choose to boycott it. “Litter should be cleaned daily and fully dumped and washed every seven to 10 days,” says to Britt Gagne, Executive Director of Furry Friends Refuge in Des Moines, Iowa.

Litter preference: Kitty litter comes in various types, including clay clumping, non-clumping, silica crystal, corn, wood, wheat, and others. Then there’s scented vs. unscented. Have you changed the type of litter? Some cats may indicate their litter preference by refusing a new type. According to Tamburo Coll, you can try a slow transition by putting some of the new litter underneath the original type, and gradually using more and more of the new.

Box preference: Are the sides too high? Have you added a top? Have you changed the litter box system? Cats, who are not generally fans of change, may indicate their displeasure at a new box setup. “They may not like the size or style of the box (for example, if it’s too small, or covered), or the location,” Delgado says.

Multiple cats: Do you have several cats in your home? Some cats don’t like sharing a litter box. Try placing multiple litter boxes throughout the house to allow each cat to have her own private