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Successful litter-tray training for cats [Checklist]

A clean and inviting litter box is one of the keys to a healthy and happy cat, while also providing owners with the opportunity to monitor their pet’s health on a daily basis.

Cats are naturally clean animals, and with a bit of patience, privacy and planning, we can set them up for a lifetime of success using a litter box. This is made easier when we consider their natural instincts and behaviours during training.

When to start training

It is natural behaviour for a cat to bury their droppings, based on an evolutionary act that helped keep a cat’s location hidden from both predators and prey while in the wild. Alongside this, kittens will often learn to use a litter box by watching their mother.

A kitten or cat can be trained to use a litter box at any age, and for those who have recently adopted a senior feline, it is never too late to teach an old cat new tricks.

What do you need to start litter box training?

When you adopt a new cat or kitten, it is recommended that you start off using the type of litter they are already used to. If they haven’t used litter boxes before, it will be a matter of purchasing the essentials including an open or closed litter box (or both, depending on your cat’s preference), a scoop and a type of litter that your cat likes the feel of on their paws.

This may take a bit of trial and error but generally, unscented cat litter made of recycled paper pellets or sandy or clay-based litter and an open litter box are good options to start with – your pet should be able to get in and out of the litter box without a struggle. Litter should be placed at least 6cm deep, so your cat can bury and hide their waste.

If making any changes to litter, be sure to introduce the new product gradually over a few days, as it can be stressful for a cat to be suddenly faced with a different litter.

Provide at least one litter box per cat, plus one more

At least two litter boxes are needed for a single cat family, three litter trays for two cats and so on. Place the trays in different locations around the house, in quiet and private areas where the cat is unlikely to be disturbed while toileting. Litter trays should be physically separated rather than having multiple litter trays right next to each other in the same area. One of the reasons for having multiple litter trays is to make sure that every cat can use a litter tray at the same time without any potential conflict (or fear of conflict) with other cats also using the same area.

Avoid having litter boxes near the cat’s bed, food and water bowls and keep them far from noisy appliances like washing machines. Similarly, keep litter trays away from curious dogs and inquisitive young children.

Ensure each level in your home has at least one litter box and be sure to always keep litter boxes in consistent locations to minimise stress to your cat by constantly moving them.

Some cats like a covered litter box (with or without a door) but others prefer to use an open litter box. Ensure the tray is big enough for your cat to comfortably dig, turn around and squat – that means at least 1.5 times the length of your cat (e.g. an average cat measures about 50cm nose to tail, so their litter tray should be at least 75cm long), and that the sides aren’t too high for them to comfortably get in and out. A bigger tray is much better than one that is too small.

Scoop out any soiled litter at least once a day as a dirty tray will be avoided. Thoroughly clean and wash your litter trays and replace them with clean litter as often as needed, but at least once a week.

When to see your vet

If you notice your cat is toileting or urinating outside the litter box, or if there is a change to their urine or faeces, take your cat to your vet for a check-up.

A cat struggling and straining on the litter box can indicate a blockage of outflow from the bladder and urgent vet care is needed as this can be fatal. Similarly, blood in the urine or faeces or issues with constipation or diarrhoea is also cause for a check-up. Cats who suddenly stop using a litter box can often indicate an underlying medical problem that will need to be diagnosed and treated by your vet.

Sometimes cats will change their litter box habits or spray urine at other locations in the house due to stress. If your cat changes their litter box habits or starts to spray urine inside the house, it is important to seek veterinary advice. Your veterinarian can help determine what the underlying cause might be and assist in coming up with a plan to minimise and manage stress as stress negatively impacts your cat’s wellbeing and can result in health problems. Feline pheromones can be helpful (as plug-in diffusers or sprays) to help anxious cats in these situations. In some cases, a veterinary behaviourist can also be consulted for advice.

Be patient

Be patient with your cat or kitten when training them to use the litter box. Never scold or punish them if they don’t use the litter box; instead ensure you have plenty of clean litter boxes, with a suitable litter type for your cat, and always take them to see your vet if you have any concerns.

Encourage your cat or kitten to use the litter box by placing them in the box after meal times and gently scratch the litter to encourage them to show interest in using the tray. Then, give them privacy and praise them when they have used their litter box successfully.

Special needs

Elderly cats or those with arthritis or mobility issues, such as a missing limb, may find it easier to use litter boxes with lower sides and non-slip mats on the floor around them.

Because less mobile cats may not be able to move far to go to the toilet, make sure there are several litter trays near where your cat spends most of their time. If you have a multi-level house or apartment, include at least one litter tray per level.

Download the Successful litter-tray training for cats [Checklist]

Making sure your cat is comfortable

Knowing more about a cat's natural behaviour and how to help cats feel settled at home is something your vet can assist you with. For additional resources, the RSPCA has published a guide for Safe and Happy Cats which is highly recommended for all cat owners.

Even with the most well cared for cat, the unexpected can happen, and pet insurance is a great way to help cover the cost of vet care for eligible illnesses or accidents. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will goes towards supporting the valuable work of the RSPCA.

Dr Catherine Tiplady bio image

Dr Catherine Tiplady

Dr Catherine Tiplady studied veterinary science at the University of Queensland. After graduation, Dr Catherine worked in veterinary practice whilst undertaking postgraduate research in Animal Welfare, gaining additional degrees in Bachelor of Applied Science (Animal Studies) (Hons 1) and a PhD. Dr Catherine has published widely in peer reviewed scientific journals and has also authored a book, ‘Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People’. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Catherine also has her own business performing gentle in-home pet euthanasia and provides veterinary care and desexing services for animal welfare charities. Dr Catherine brings her passion for animal welfare, love of writing and scientific training together to contribute quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance’s Pet Care blog.