6 Foolproof Steps to Litter Train Your Cat

If you do nothing else, teach your cat to poop in their litter box (not your shoe).

by Jodi Helmer
October 6, 2021
Cat sitting in a teal litter box
New Africa / Adobe Stock

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You’ve seen those TikTok-famous cats who hop up on the toilet to do their business — some of the feline overachievers even flush! Your cat may be smart enough to master toilet training, but the thought of waiting for them to vacate the bathroom before you can use it? Hard pass. So maybe you opt for the litter box. Alas, their social-media star dreams may be dashed, but it will surely make for smoother mornings if there’s not another creature clamoring for the bathroom. 

Why Litter Box Training is Helpful 

It’s not cool for your cat to turn the potted plants or your favorite slippers into their toilet, so setting up a litter box and making sure your cat knows where to do their business should be the first step in cat ownership. Fortunately, most cats know the drill. “There’s not a lot of training required,” says Dr. Jessica Bell, DVM and professor at Washington State University School of Veterinary Medicine. “Cats know what to do.”

Litter box training is about more than having an accident-free home than anything else; it can actually be the key to keeping your cat out of the shelter. Seriously, though: Repeatedly stepping in a puddle of pee or cleaning up rogue turds because a cat isn’t using their litter box is one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. 

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Step-by-Step: Train Your Cat to Use a Litter Box

1. Start with the Box

This may be obvious, but deciding which litter box to pick from the myriad options at the pet store can be complicated. Big box? Little box? Covered box? Robot litter box? It depends, according to Dr. Bell. For kittens, she suggests starting with a smaller, shallow box that’s easier for kittens to climb into, then begin increasing the size as they grow. “Adult cats don’t like small, cramped litter boxes,” she says. “The bigger the cat, the bigger the box.” Some cats like covered boxes, others prefer open boxes. You may have to try a few different options to see which one calls to your cat when they experience the call of nature.

2. Fill it with Litter

Yep, another obvious step in litter box training 101 but, similar to choosing a litter box, the options for litter are varied, too. Thankfully, the results are in: Scientists have actually researched litter preferences and found that cats prefer clay litter to silica (sand) or wood pellets. Steer clear of clumping and scented litters as both might make your cat avoid the litter box. “Cats have really sensitive noses and don’t like perfumed litter,” Dr. Bell says. As for clumping, it’s a texture thing. “The clumping litter turns urine into hard balls and cats have to move these little rocks around to go to the bathroom.” Just make sure the litter is deep enough that your cat can bury their waste. It’ll improve the ambiance for everyone.

3. Make Introductions

Once the box and litter are chosen, introduce your cat to their private potty. Place adult cats in the box and offer few words of encouragement. You might need to hold your kitten’s paws and help them scratch around a little to get the idea; the rest should come naturally. “Most cats easily adapt to a good, clean litter box,” says Dr. Bell. 

4. Choose a Serene Spot

You like your privacy when you pee and your cat does, too. Choose a quiet spot like the laundry room or bathroom for the litter box. This gives your cat a chance to relax without distractions like dogs running down the hall or roommates watching TikToks at full volume. Privacy is good but don’t banish your cat to the basement to access the litter box. Bell notes that cats don’t want to expend too much energy trekking to the bathroom. The more hassle required to reach the box, the higher the likelihood your cat will find a “better” spot to go.

5. Keep it Clean

Your cat does their part by doing their business in a box; it’s your job to keep it clean. Dr. Bell warns that cats will avoid dirty litter boxes and find other places to go to the bathroom. If you’d rather your kitty didn’t make unexpected deposits behind the couch because you failed to scoop their litter box, scoop it at least once a day and empty, scrub, and refill the entire litter box once a week.

6. Troubleshoot Problems

Shit happens, right? When it starts happening outside the litter box, it may take some detective work to figure out what’s wrong: Experimenting with the size of the litter box and the type of litter might be all it takes to get your cat back into the box, according to Dr. Bell. If that doesn’t work, make an appointment with your vet to rule out medical issues. Conditions like cat UTIs (urinary tract infections) or bladder stones can make your cat associate pain with their litter box, sending them to other spots to relieve themselves. Dr. Bell says clearing up the medical issue should stop the accidents.

Finally, no matter how badly you want to yell, “Noooo!” and snatch up your cat when you catch them going to the bathroom on your new rug, scolding them is not the answer. “You want to offer positive reinforcement,” Dr. Bell says. “If you scare them [when they have an accident], it’s not going to help them with litter box training — stress can cause even more litter box problems.”

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Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.