Introducing your new cat to the litter box

Introducing your new cat to the litter box

Most of us know cats are finicky eaters, but they can also be pretty picky when it comes to the other end of the digestive process — making use of a litter box. Fortunately, the following suggestions should keep your cat from “thinking outside the box.”

Location, location, location

Most people are inclined to place the litter box in an out-of-the-way spot to minimize odor and prevent cat litter from being t
racked throughout the house. But if the litter box ends up in the basement — next to an appliance or on a cold cement floor — your cat may be less than pleased for a number of reasons.

A kitten or an older cat may not be able to get down a long flight of stairs in time to get to the litter box. If the litter box is located in an area that she seldom frequents, she may not even remember where it is, especially during the first few weeks she’s welcomed into your home. If a furnace, washing machine, or dryer suddenly comes on and startles your cat while she’s using the litter box, that may be the last time she risks such a frightening experience. And if your cat likes to scratch the surface surrounding her litter box (which some cats do), she may find a cold cement floor unappealing.

So you may have to compromise. The litter box should be kept in a spot that affords your cat some privacy yet is also conveniently located. If you place the litter box in a closet or a bathroom, be sure the door is wedged open from both sides to prevent her from being trapped inside or locked out.

Depending on the location, you might consider cutting a hole in a closet door and adding a pet door.

Pick of the litter

Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel. The scoopable (clumping) litters usually have finer grains than the typical clay litter and are very popular. But high quality, dust-free, clay litters are relatively small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable to your cat.

If you suspect your cat has spent part of his life outdoors and is likely to eliminate in your houseplants, try mixing some potting soil with your regular litter; pellet-type litters or those made from citrus peels are not recommended. Once you find a litter your cat likes, stick with it. Buying the least expensive litter or the brand that’s on sale any given week could result in your cat not using the litter box.

Many cats are put off by the odor of scented or deodorant litters. For the same reason, it’s not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litter box. A thin layer of baking soda placed on the bottom of the box will help absorb odors without repelling your cat, and odors shouldn’t really be a problem if you keep the litter box clean. If you find the litter box odor offensive, your cat probably finds it even more offensive and won’t want to eliminate there.

What’s the magic number?

You should have at least as many litter boxes as you have cats. That way, none of them will ever be prevented from eliminating in the litter box because it’s already occupied. You might also consider placing litter boxes in several locations around the house, so that no one cat can prevent the other cats from getting access. We also recommend that you place at least one litter box on each level of your house.

It’s not possible to designate a personal litter box for each cat in your household, as cats may use any litter box that’s available, and that means a cat may occasionally refuse to use a litter box after another cat has used it. In this case, all of the litter boxes will need to be kept extremely clean and additional boxes may be needed.

An undercover operation? Potential problems of covered litter boxes

  • Some people prefer to provide their cats with a covered litter box, but doing so may introduce some problems.
  • You may forget to clean the litter box as frequently as you should because the dirty litter is “out of sight, out of mind.”
  • A covered litter box traps odors inside, so it will need to be cleaned more often than an open one. A dirty, covered litter box is to your cat what a port-a-potty is to you!
  • A covered litter box may not allow a large cat sufficient room to turn around, scratch, dig, or position herself in the way she wants.
  • A covered litter box may make it easier for another cat to lay in wait and ambush the user as she exits the box; on the other hand, a covered litter box may feel more private, and timid cats may prefer it.
  • To discover which type of litter box your cat prefers, you may want to experiment by offering both types at first.

Keeping it clean

To meet the needs of the most discriminating cat, feces should be scooped out of the litter box daily. How often you actually change (replace) the litter depends on the number of cats you have, the number of litter boxes, and the type of litter you use. Twice a week is a general guideline for clay litter, but depending on the circumstances, you may need to replace it every other day or only once a week. If you clean the litter box daily, scoopable litter may only need to be changed every two to three weeks. If you notice an odor or if much of the litter is wet or clumped, it’s time for a change. Don’t use strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products when washing the litter box, as doing so may cause your cat to avoid the box. Some cleaning products are toxic to cats. Washing with soap and water should be sufficient.

Liner notes

Some cats don’t mind having a plastic liner in the litter box, while others do. Again, you may want to experiment to see if you r cat is bothered by a liner in the box. If you do use a liner, make sure it’s anchored in place, so it can’t easily catch your cat’s claws or be pulled out of place.

Depth of litter

Some people think that the more litter they put in the box, the less often they will have to clean it, but that’s a mistake. Most cats won’t use litter that’s more than about two inches deep. In fact, some long-haired cats actually prefer less litter and a smooth, slick surface, such as the bottom of the litter box. The fact is the litter box needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, and adding extra litter is not a way around that chore.

“Litter-training” cats

There’s really no such thing as “litter-training” a cat in the same way one would house-train a dog. A cat doesn’t need to be taught what to do with a litter box because instinct will generally take over. The only thing you need to do is provide an acceptable, accessible litter box, using the suggestions above. It’s not necessary to take your cat to the litter box and move her paws back and forth in the litter; in fact, we don’t recommend it, as such an unpleasant experience is likely to initiate a negative association with the litter box.

If problems develop

If your cat begins to eliminate in areas other than the litter box, your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions can cause a change in a cat’s litter box habits. If your veterinarian determines that your cat is healthy, the cause may be a simple behavior problem that can be resolved by using behavior modification techniques. Punishment is not the answer, nor is banishing your cat outdoors. For long-standing or complex situations, contact an animal-behavior specialist who has experience working with cats.

Litter Training Kittens and Cats

Using the litter box is second nature to most cats. Training kittens to use a litter box is usually as easy as showing them where it is and dropping them in.

When you’re introducing your new cat to your home, the litter box should be one of your first stops. Let her sniff it a bit, and then place her inside it. She may dig around a bit, or she may hop out. If she hops out, place her inside it again in an hour or two.

Continue to introduce her to the litter box when she first wakes up in the morning and after meals. When she uses the box, praise her lavishly to reinforce the behavior.

Often, cats will shun the litter box if it’s not in an acceptable spot. Position it in a quiet, low-traffic location that your cat can access at all times. Do not place it near her food and water. Laundry rooms are not optimal locations because of the noise produced by the appliances.

If you have a mechanical litter box, like a self-cleaning box or a Litter Robot, make sure there’s a low-tech box available for your new cat. She can graduate to the high tech versions when she’s ready.

If you have several cats in your household, make sure the new cat has private access to her very own litter box for the first few weeks after you bring her home. She’ll be more comfortable if she’s not wading through other cats’ waste when nature calls, and she won’t be perceived as invading your other cats’ territory. As she becomes integrated into your feline family, everyone will become more comfortable sharing boxes.

Litter Box Tips

Cats are finicky about their boxes, so the following tips should help you provide the most appealing waste facilities for your cats.

Clean Daily, Change Weekly – Cats detest dirty litter boxes. Just as most people don’t like to use filthy, overflowing porta potties, cats don’t like wading through waste to find a tiny patch of clean litter. Clear the box of waste daily, and change out the litter completely weekly.

One Box Per Cat Plus One – You simply can’t have too many litter boxes. The rule of thumb is one per cat, plus one. If you have three cats, you need at least four litter boxes. If your home is large or on more than one level, add a couple more.

Don’t Use Litters That Contain Deodorants – Scented litter is geared toward the cat owner, not the cat. Some cats will refuse to use a box containing heavily scented litter. To avoid problems, use a fragrance-free or unscented blend.

Try Different Litter Types – Even among cats in the same household, some may prefer one type of litter to another. The four main litter types are clay-based clumping, clay-based non-clumping, crystal, and natural/biodegradable. If you experience problems getting a cat to use the litter box, experiment with different types of litter.

Is The Litter Box Big Enough? – Fluffy needs room to do her business, and she might avoid a box that she finds too small. If you have a large-breed cat like a Maine Coon, try a jumbo-sized litter box. Your cat is also less likely to have an “over-the-side” accident with a larger box.

Hooded Or Open? – Some cats love hooded boxes and enjoy the privacy. Hooded boxes trap odors, which helps keep your house from smelling like a crazy cat lady’s house, but it’s a turn-off for a cat. Wash both the box and the hood thoroughly every week, and change the filter regularly.

Wash Your Litter Pan Thoroughly Every Week Or Two – Over time, a plastic litter box will absorb cat urine (even if you use liners). Wash it thoroughly with soapy water every week or two, and replace periodically. Be sure to rinse thoroughly after washing so that it doesn’t retain a strong detergent smell.

Formerly Feral Or Stray? Try Dropping Leafy Matter Into The Box – If your cat was feral or a stray, she’s accustomed to digging in the great outdoors. Sometimes, bringing the outdoors inside will make her feel more at home, and encourage her to use the litter box. The material will need to be removed and replaced daily. Over time, gradually scale back the amount of material you put in the box until she’s using 100% litter.

Getting used to a litter box isn’t difficult for most cats. If you’re attuned to feline behavior and your own cat’s litter box preferences, you’re unlikely to encounter any unpleasant accidents.

Tips for the First 30 Days of Cat Adoption

Be prepared should be your mantra when bringing a new pet into your home. Cats are particularly sensitive to new surroundings and some may hide under a bed or in a closet for days or even weeks.

You can avoid pitfalls with your new critter and help him or her adapt more easily by following these guidelines:

Tips for the First 30 Days of Cat Adoption


Before You Bring Your Cat Home:

  • Cats are territorial, and coming into a new home leaves them feeling really uneasy. There’s all that unexplored space, and who knows what may lurk there. Do him a favor and provide a small area to call his own for the first few days or weeks. A bathroom or laundry room works well. Furnish the room with cat amenities, such as food, water and a litter box. You’ll want to spend time with your cat, so make sure there’s a comfortable place for you to sit as well.
  • Fill a litter box with one or two inches of litter and place it in his room where he can use it undisturbed. After all, everyone deserves a modicum of privacy when pottying, and giving him that will help forestall litter box aversion. Not sure which litter to choose? Check out How to Choose A Cat Litter.
  • Set up a feeding station with food and water bowls. Locate it away from the litter box. For more cat feeding and nutrition tips, visit our Pet Nutrition section.
  • Cats love to get away from it all in small places, and you can provide one for your new cat as his own little safe haven. If he came home in a cat carrier, that might be a good choice. You can also make one by cutting a doorway for her in the end of a box. If you prefer, you can buy a covered cat bed at a pet supply store. In either case, make sure the space is big enough for the cat to stand up and turn around in. Cat “feng shui” probably requires that he or she be able to see the door to the room from his hidey hole, so he won’t be startled.
  • A cat’s claws need to be worn down, and they do this by scratching on things. Since you prefer that it not be your chairs and sofa, provide your cat with a socially acceptable scratching place. Some types are made of corrugated cardboard and lie on the floor; others are posts which have to be tall enough so that the cat can extend himself upward to scratch. You can encourage your cat (once he has arrived) to use the post by sprinkling it with catnip or dangling a toy at the top. He’ll get the idea. You’ll probably want a scratching post in each room where there is soft furniture, perhaps blocking access to it. You can also install sticky tape (available at pet supply stores) to corners of upholstered furniture to dissuade scratching. Don’t miss these tips on how to cut down on kitty’s scratching, how to choose a scratching post, and facts about declawing cats.
  • Look at your house with a curious cat’s eye view for its climbing and exploring potential. When your cat is acclimated to your home, you may be surprised to find him on top of the upper kitchen cabinets, so make sure there’s nothing on display there or on other high shelves that can be damaged or knocked off.
  • Look for holes or registers that leave ductwork accessible and cover them up. A kitten can easily slither into one of these. You won’t want firemen in the house, jackhammering the concrete floor to extract your cat.
  • If possible, buy a cat tree for your new family member. Cats like to survey their territory, so a high perch is often a favored resting place.
  • If there are other human family members, go over the ground rules about your new pet. Remind them not to startle him and to keep the door to his room shut.
  • Bone up on how to introduce your cat to other pets. Keep her door closed and don’t let your other pet race in unexpectedly. See also: New Cat Introductions and Living with Cats and Dogs.

First Day:

Now, you are ready for your cat’s homecoming. Preferably, bring her home in a cat carrier. It will feel safer to her. She has seen a lot of excitement, so take her directly to her new room. (Make sure the toilet lid is down, if she’s to acclimate in your bathroom.) Ideally, you would restrict her exposure to the whole family, but naturally, everyone is going to want to see her. Remind them of the ground rules you’ve set up.

  • Sit on the floor and let her come to you. Don’t force her. Just let her get acquainted on her own time. If she doesn’t approach, leave her alone and try again later. Some cats are particularly frightened, and she may retreat to her hidey hole and not come out when you’re around at all. She may only come out at night when the house is quiet. Give her time.
  • Your newly adopted cat may not eat much or at all at first. It’s best to give your cat the same food she had at the shelter or in her foster home, at least at first. Keeping some things familiar will make her feel more secure. Be sure to change her water frequently and make sure that she is drinking. If your cat hasn’t eaten for a few days, call your vet to ask for advice.

Following Weeks:

It may take your cat a week or two to adjust. Be patient.

  • Within a week of being adopted, take your newly adopted cat for her first wellness visit with a veterinarian. If you have a record of immunizations from the shelter, take it with you. Don’t have a vet? Check out these tips for finding the right vet for you and your cat.
  • As your cat adjusts, she’ll show signs that she wants to explore outside her safe haven. Make sure other pets or family members won’t startle her while she gradually expands her territory. She may be ready to play, so you can furnish some toys. Many cats like feather wands from the pet supply store, but homemade toys are often favored. A wad of a tissue paper to bat around or a paper bag to hide in can be fun. For more ideas on how to keep your cat entertained see Keeping Your Cat from Getting Bored.

Congratulations! If you follow these tips, you’ll be on your way to having a well-adjusted feline family member.

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