Kitten Litter Box Training

Two greyish-brown kittens (Felis silvestris catus) in green plastic litter tray, paw of one kitten resting on edge of tray.
Jane Burton / Getty Images

Believe it or not, kittens are not born knowing about litter box protocol. Teaching proper toilet manners prevents lots of headaches (and cleaning bills).

Felines are great imitators and simply “copy-cat” their mother’s behavior when they watch and follow her to the litter box. Most kittens will already know what a litter box is for and how to use it by the time you adopt them.

But if you hand-raise an orphan, or adopt a kitten younger than 8 to 10 weeks as often happens in shelter and rescue situations, you’ll need to do the job of the mother cat.

Transitioning outdoor cats to an indoor lifestyle also may mean re-training bathroom etiquette from “going” among the flowers to aiming for the litter box. Here are the basics.

Privacy Matters

Felines are naturally clean creatures and dislike eliminating where they sleep or eat. They also appreciate privacy when (ahem) doing their duty. Build allegiance to the litter box by positioning it correctly, in a low-traffic area away from the cat’s bed and food bowls.

Extra Opportunities

Little kittens have tiny bladders and may not have the physical capacity to “hold it” long enough to run clear across the house or down the stairs. Provide a box on each end of the house or one per floor.

Big Box, Small Cat

A regular size commercial box may work well for older kittens. But it could be too large for tiny kitties to climb in and out. A disposable cookie sheet or the lid to a cardboard shoebox works until he’s bigger.

Once he's older, simply place the familiar shoebox lid inside the "big boy" litter box to help him transition.

Kitty Litter Preferences

A variety of cat box fillers is available, from plain clay to pine pellets and recycled wheat or corn crumbles. The ideal material absorbs moisture, contains waste and odor, and most important of all, suits the cat.

A scented product that smells nice to you might actually repel the kitten so choose something neutral. There's even a paper litter (Yesterday's News) made from recycled paper.

Fine textures such as the “clumping” clay litters seem to be the feline favorite, especially for those tiny kitten paws. Some of the wheat-type products do a decent job of clumping and are digestible should a tiny kitten decide to taste the litter—most kittens won’t bother. Fill the box an inch or so deep with the filler.

If you’re transitioning an outdoor kitten to an indoor box, do a bit of research and follow him to find out his preferred substrate. Dusting a bit of plain garden dirt, or a layer of grass or leaves over top of the commercial litter may help give him the idea of what you have in mind.

Teaching to Copy-Cat

Kittens new to your home won’t know where the box is, even if they do know what it’s for. Place the kitten on top of the clean litter, and scratch around with your fingers to prompt imitation. Even if the baby doesn’t need to “go,” a pristine box often tempts them to dig a bit, which may lead to the first deposit.

When he’s creative in the box, reward your cat with verbal praise, a toy, or even a tasty treat reserved only for training.

Don’t pick your new kitty up out of the box. Let him make his own way out of the box and the room, so he’ll better remember how to get back there the next time nature calls.

Scented Reminders

For tiny kittens, leave one recent deposit in the box after he’s been productive. The scent draws the baby back to the proper location sort of like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs and reminds him what to do once there. But remember to keep the box clean or the cat will avoid the dirty toilet and find a better spot—such as under your bed.

Good Timing

Until you’re sure the kitten consistently uses the box, make a point of scheduling potty times. Kittens need to eliminate more frequently than adults. Take the baby for a pit stop after each nap, meal, and play period.

Teaching basic bathroom allegiance from the beginning ensures your kitten gets off on the right paw.

It also saves your carpet and your sanity.