Litter box use feels like a modern convenience brought on by a desire for cats to live comfortably and cleanly in human homes. While that’s largely true, it’s also something that deeply conforms with learned feline behavior.
“Cats are descendants of desert animals, and they are instinctively attracted to eliminate in sand,” says Katenna Jones, a certified cat behavior consultant. Additionally, kittens learn a lot from watching and following their siblings, as well as their mother and her scent, Jones says. This makes litter training not much of a task for a large number of cat owners. Most kittens should be fully trained and eager to use the box well before they come home with you.
That said, there are always exceptions, including some orphans who might need help learning because they didn’t get that valuable time with Mom. And some kittens and cats may eliminate outside the box for reasons unrelated to training, which pet parents should be prepared to address. Keep reading for valuable litter tips, including how to litter train a kitten.
When to Litter Box Train a Kitten
According to LeeAnna Buis, a certified feline training and behavior consultant for Feline Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon, kittens can start using a tiny litter box around 3 weeks old. “Prior to this, kittens are stimulated to eliminate by their mother licking the area or their human caregiver gently rubbing the area with a tissue,” Buis says.
It’s important to note that manually stimulating kittens isn’t recommended beyond 8 weeks of age, but Buis says kittens will transition fully to the box as they are ready, over a period of a few weeks following their initial introduction to it.
What You’ll Need
The most important things you’ll need for kitten litter box training are:
- A litter box
- A damp paper towel
Just be aware, if this is your first time going through this process, you may be surprised to find out how many litter/litter box choices are available to you.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each important must-have on our list:
When it comes to litter, Buis says cats instinctively prefer something very fine. “In the wild, they tend toward fine-grain sand or dirt where they have the option to completely cover their pee and poop,” she says, adding that this will help control their scent from wafting around, which prevents both the attraction of predators and the scaring off of prey.
For kittens, however, pellet (or another non-clumping litter) is a good starting point because clumping clay litter may prove dangerous for a very curious kitten who wants a taste of basically anything.
With litter boxes, again, there are many types to consider: open, covered, high-sided, extra wide, and more. There’s plenty of time to figure out what works best for your growing and adult cats, but for very young kittens, Jones says selecting something with low sides for ease of access should be your priority.
Damp paper towel
While litter training for your kitten is ongoing, you’ll need a clean, damp paper towel on hand to use for stimulation (if age appropriate).
It will also be important to reward your kitten for litter success, so whatever high-quality treat they love the most will be your best friend during this process.
How to Litter Train a Kitten
While both Jones and Buis agree that kitten litter training by a human is typically not necessary, there are some basic steps to follow in the unusual case where training is required. Let’s go over how to litter train a kitten, should the need arise.
1. Set up your litter boxes smartly
You already know what kind of litter and boxes to consider getting, but it’s as important to know how to arrange the boxes so that your kitten is set up for success.
One rule you’ll want to follow is called the “plus one rule,” which states that the number of litter boxes you should have around your house is equal to the number of cats you have in the house, plus one. So if your feline baby is an only child, two litter boxes should suffice. If they have a sibling, increase it to three, and so on.
Additionally, placing litter boxes in areas where your kitten feels comfortable using them is another crucial step toward litter independence. “Litter box setup is a huge reason cats choose to eliminate elsewhere,” Buis says. “Look at things like how easily they can get into and out of the box, whether another pet is bothering them while they’re in the box, whether the box is in an area where they feel safe and secure, and whether there is a loud appliance or speaker near the box.”
2. Manually stimulate the kitten
A kitten’s mother will do this for her baby with her tongue in most cases, but when she’s not present for whatever reason, you can help facilitate elimination and eventually litter box use with your hands and a damp paper towel.
Simply hold the kitten with one hand and gently rub the areas where urine and feces will come out. You can do this over a litter box to catch whatever the towel misses and to create an association between this space and the act of eliminating.
Once the kitten is done, Jones says you can place the soiled paper towel in the litter box as a scent attractant.
3. Show them how it’s done … sort of
Look, we’re not talking about you getting down in there with your kitten, but during training, they may need a gentle reminder as to where they should be going. In this case, it can be helpful to bring your kitten over to the box periodically and perhaps paw gently at the litter itself as a demonstration. Again, litter use is generally learned quite easily because it’s instinctual. A kitten will get the hints without too much prodding, but don’t be afraid to offer them.
4. Reward, reward, reward
Did your kitten go to the bathroom in the litter box? Great! Now reinforce it with a treat reward. As with most behaviors, this is one of the most crucial steps when it comes to making the lesson stick.
5. Observe and adjust as needed
There’s no mark of a kitten being officially and fully litter trained; it will most likely be a sliding scale of using it “properly” and “improperly” for a few weeks until they really get the hang of it, Buis says, and it’s different for every kitten.
But while yours is getting used to this crazy new thing, it’s helpful for you to make notes about what’s working. Are there two different boxes, and does your kitten gravitate heavily toward one? Are the litter boxes placed on different floors? They might not like something about the second, neglected box, or they may prefer doing their business in one room but not the other, which means you should consider relocating it or swapping it out for something they might like more. Just make sure you don’t try moving the preferred litter box until consistent success has been achieved.
And remember, most instances of trained cats not using the litter box are a way of communicating with us, so be sure to pay attention to their cues.
Litter Training a Kitten: Other Valuable Tips
Besides dissatisfaction with a litter box, the litter inside it, or its location, other reasons why a trained kitten or cat may not be using it, Jones says, “could be a health issue such as [a] urinary tract infection or constipation. Stressed cats also may not use the box, for example, if they are being harassed by another pet in the house.”
Buis recommends getting a vet check to rule out medical issues, adding that play and other forms of enrichment may help reduce stress.