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How to litter train a kitten: A vet's guide

litter train a kitten
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the majority of cases, it’s relatively easy to litter train a kitten. Most kittens are taught to use a litter box by their mothers. This process is further helped along by a cat’s instinctive desire to eliminate in an area where she can bury her urine and feces. Given these factors, many kittens will use the litter box automatically and never require any specific training. 

However, in some cases, litter box challenges can be encountered. These can arise in young kittens or in older cats. Getting your kitten off on the right foot with litter box training, however, can help ensure that the rest of your kitten’s young and adult life go smoothly, and is minimally stressful for you and other members of your family. If you'd like more expert kitten-advice, try our guides to the best kitten food and the best kitten toys

Gather the right supplies

In order to litter train your kitten, you will need two basic supplies: the best cat litter, and a litter box. While these items may seem relatively straightforward, it’s important to give careful consideration to your product selection. We have a roundup of the best self-cleaning cat litter boxes for the more squeamish cat owner.

When you search for a litter box, you will find that there are a wide variety of litter boxes available in most pet supply stores. Some litter boxes are covered, some are open with high sides (designed to minimize spilling), some are open with low sides, some litter boxes scoop themselves automatically, and some litter boxes require you to do the scooping. While many cats will happily use any type of litter box that you offer, others are more picky. In order to have the highest likelihood of litter box success, you may want to purchase two different litter box options; this can give your kitten the opportunity to select the litter box that she prefers. Many kittens prefer an open-top shallow litter box because it is easier for them to climb in and out of an open, low-sided litter box. 

Like litter boxes, cat litter is also available in a number of varieties. The most common litter is clumping clay cat litter, but there are also alternatives made from pine pellets, recycled newspaper, and other materials. Many kittens will gladly use any type of litter that they are offered, but this is not always the case. Dr. Jacqueline Neilson, a veterinary behaviorist, states that most cats  “prefer clumping litters and litters with activated carbon.” This preference is attributed to the texture and odor control of clumping litter, combined with the odor control properties of activated carbon. Therefore, purchasing a litter with these qualities can help maximize the likelihood that your kitten readily uses the litter box. 

Give some thought to where you will place your kitten’s litter box. A quiet location is best, in order to give your kitten some privacy, but it’s important not to place the litter box too far away from the areas where your kitten will be spending time. A litter box that’s located in an extremely out-of-the-way area, such as in a basement, is less likely to be used than a litter box that’s located more centrally and more easily accessible. Although we’d all like to keep our kitten’s litter box out of sight, it’s important to think about a location that’s convenient for your kitten. 

If you have multiple cats, ensure that you have enough litter boxes to limit competition. A general guideline is that multi-cat families should have one more litter box than they have cats. Having fewer litter boxes means having to compete with other cats for the litter box, which makes using the litter box less convenient. Inconvenience increases the likelihood that one of your cats will decide to eliminate outside of the litter box. 

litter train a kitten

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Litter box maintenance

In general, kittens prefer a clean litter box. Just like humans, cats do not want to use a dirty restroom! Keeping your cat’s litter box clean will encourage your kitten to use the litter box,  reducing the likelihood of accidents outside of the litter box. 

If you use clumping litter, scoop your kitten’s litter once daily. This allows you to remove urine or feces that your kitten has left in the litter box, controlling odor. 

Dump your cat’s litter and scrub the litter box when you notice that the litter is losing its clean, fresh odor. In general, this should be done approximately once a week. When cleaning the litter box, use a mild dish soap; odors associated with harsh chemical cleaners may cause your cat to avoid the litter box. In most cases, this needs to be done approximately once weekly. 

Introducing your kitten to the litter box

As soon as you bring your new kitten home, place her directly in the litter box. This will allow her to locate the box and become familiar with its appearance, smell, and location. For the first few days after obtaining your new kitten, take her to the litter box several times per day, especially after meals and naps. 

When you first bring your new kitten home, confine her to a small area of the house in proximity to the litter box. Keeping her close to the litter box will facilitate convenient litter box access and reduce the likelihood that she gets too far from the litter box and has an accident. 

If your kitten does have an accident outside of the litter box, clean the area thoroughly using an enzymatic cleaner. Don’t punish your kitten for the accident. Instead, clean the area thoroughly, and attempt to prevent future accidents by confining your kitten near the litter box and ensuring that the litter box is cleaned regularly. 

Small efforts will pay off 

Although kittens can tolerate a wide variety of litter box situations, ensuring the best possible litter box setup will maximize the likelihood that your kitten develops good litter box habits. The habits that your kitten develops in these early months will carry forward for the rest of her life, so it’s important to proactively work to prevent problems from an early age.

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.