Reviewed and updated for accuracy on April 20, 2020, by Dr. Jaime Lovejoy, DVM
Most adult cats will naturally seek out a sandy, granular place to eliminate, but kittens might need a little help figuring out their litter box habits.
There are quite a few ways that you, as a pet parent, can help set your kitten up for success.
Here are some tips on choosing litter boxes, setting them up, getting the right litter, and how to help your kitten master the litter box.
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While deciding on a litter box may seem like a trivial task, it actually does make a big difference to your kitten.
Get the Right Size Litter Box
Most people buy litter boxes that are too small for their cats, says Dr. Sally J. Foote, DVM and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) certified feline behavior consultant.
Full-size boxes may be too big and intimidating for a small kitten. Dr. Foote recommends a litter box that is 13 by 9 inches for kittens.
The litter box will also need to grow with your kitten. A good rule of thumb is: Your cat’s litter box should be approximately 1.5 times their length. You will need to size up as your kitten gets bigger.
Uncovered vs. Covered Litter Boxes
Many cats prefer to use an uncovered box.
“In nature, cats don’t want to get caught by a predator inside an enclosed area,” says IAABC certified cat behavior consultant Mieshelle Nagelschneider. Many of her clients believe that their cats prefer the privacy of a cover, but she says that “cats don’t want to feel trapped” when they use their litter box.
Whether or not your cat prefers a restroom with or without a roof comes down to your kitty’s personal preference, says Dr. Foote, who has found that some cats prefer an open space to eliminate, while others prefer an enclosed space.
Dr. Foote suggests giving your cat a choice in the beginning to see what they prefer.
Litter box placement and availability can be a critical factor in encouraging your kitten to use the box.
Provide More Than One Litter Box
At minimum, there should be one more litter box in your house than the number of cats.
If you have two cats, there should be three boxes. If you have five cats, there should be at least six boxes.
Don’t Hide the Litter Boxes
It’s tempting to put litter boxes in closets and corners because we don't want them to be visible, but this should be avoided. Remember that cats don't like to feel cornered or trapped during toilet time.
They’ll also need some sort of light to see and find their boxes, so if there’s no ambient light in the place where you keep the litter box, try using a nightlight, Nagelschneider says.
Set up your kitten’s litter box in an area that has few things to distract them from getting down to business.
For kittens having trouble focusing, you may have to remove the option of having other “interesting” places to urinate.
You might try keeping your kitten in a small room without any rugs or carpeting and only a small amount of bedding to try and keep them focused until they master using the litter box.
Place Litter Boxes on Every Floor
The boxes should be spread out, with at least one on every floor of your home.
If the boxes are all in the same corner, they are effectively one big box, which can lead to trouble if your kitties don't want to share.
Make it easy for your cat to get to the litter boxes. “Don’t make them have to go down the stairs, through the playroom, through the kitty door, and into the utility room,” Nagelschneider says. “Cat’s don’t want to go any farther than we do to reach the bathroom.”
It’s particularly important to remember that your kitten will eventually become an adult cat, so putting a litter box up on a shelf or down many flights of stairs will make it much harder to get to when they are older and arthritic.
Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel.
When it comes to clumping or non-clumping litters, cats have their own preferences. Of course, pet parents might prefer clumping for the ease of scooping.
When it comes to clay vs. other materials, some cats won’t use a box that has corn- or wheat-based litter because it smells like food, Nagelschneider says.
Try out a few types to make sure you get the litter that your kitten prefers.
Once you have your supplies picked out and litter box areas set up, here’s how you can help your kitten hone their litter box skills.
Introduce Your Kitten to the Litter Box
Your kitten is ready to try out a litter box if they are at least 4 weeks old. If you adopt an older kitten, you can start as soon as they come home with you.
Step 1: Show your kitten the locations of each litter box and let your kitten sniff them.
Step 2: Gently place your kitten in the litter boxes. They may instinctively start pawing at the litter or even using the litter box.
Step 3: You can run your fingers through the clean litter to demonstrate the pawing action.
Step 4: If your kitten hasn’t used the boxes in the initial introduction, try placing your kitten in one of the boxes each time they eat, drink, or wake up from a nap, until they begin using the box on their own.
Reinforce Good Litter Box Habits
When your kitten uses the litter box appropriately, reward them with their favorite treat to create a positive association with the activity.
For this to work, the treat must be given immediately after they have left the box so they associate the activity with the reward.
If your kitten makes a mistake, do NOT punish them or yell at them. Calmly clean up the mess with an enzymatic cleaner and do not react in any other way.
Keep the Litter Box Clean
Try to scoop your kitten’s litter box after every elimination. You don't want your kitten developing an aversion to the box during training. After scooping, add some clean litter to maintain a litter depth of 2-3 inches to give your kitty plenty of room to dig.
Once your kitten is older and uses the litter box consistently, you can scoop daily instead of each time your kitten uses the box.
Periodically, you will empty out all of the litter in each box, clean the boxes, and fill them with clean litter. Most non-scoop litters will have their own recommendations on the label for how frequently they should be changed. Clumping litters only need to be changed out completely every week or couple of weeks, depending on how many cats you have using the boxes.
If your kitten is having a hard time with litter training, try these steps:
1. Carefully evaluate your litter box setup. Every kitten has slightly different preferences. Make sure that the litter boxes:
Are easily accessible
Are located in quiet spots
Are not hidden in a corner
Are not being guarded by other cats
2. Consider changing the litter box or litter type. You may want to get a new box (covered vs. uncovered or one with low sides) and place it nearby to see if your kitten has preferences. Or keep the same box and only change the litter type to see if it is the box or the litter that is the issue.
3. Scoop more often and replace all litter more often.
4. Consider using pheromone diffusers near the litter box to relieve stress and make your kitten more comfortable with their surroundings. These diffusers, when placed in the room with the litter box, make kittens feel that they have marked their territory.
5. Bring your kitten to your veterinarian to check for parasites, urinary tract infections, or other medical issues that may promote inappropriate elimination. These are rare with kittens, but they should not be overlooked.
Your veterinarian can always help you troubleshoot your kitten’s litter box issues as well.
Above all, remember to be patient! Training takes time, but your kitten will master these habits with your love, support, and attention.