How Do Cats Know To Use The Litter Box?

For non-cat-people (yes, they exist), the litter box is often the number one trigger that compels them to avoid adopting feline furbabies. While some will claim their aversion comes from cats’ aloof attitudes (cats are not innately aloof) and others will gripe that they ruin furniture (well-adjusted kitties provided with proper environments including cat towers, cat beds, scratching posts, and toys do not scratch furniture), the real reason most people won’t get a cat is because they don’t understand the litter box, and so they pretend it’s a disgusting nuisance and assume it’s difficult to manage. Sure, it is admittedly a daily task that any cat owner needs to add to the list of chores, but there’s nothing particularly gross or difficult about it. Where this curmudgeonly crowd does gain some ground in the debate, though, is with the difficult-to-manage behavior of marking, but the assumption that this is a potty issue is false (it’s most often an environmental stress issue, and therefore avoidable), and unfairly leads people to believe that training a cat to use a litter box is a cumbersome and lifelong challenge. And now that you, a sensible cat person, are thinking about it . . . how did you train your cat to use the litter box?


I don’t remember training the cat to use the box . . .


The reason for this is fairly simple. You probably didn’t. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that you were present at the birth of your kitty unless you’re a breeder, in which case, you already know how this works, but you may not know why. Whether you adopted him from a shelter, rescued her from the wild, or graciously took in a furball from a friend’s surprise litter, odds are strong that you didn’t receive the kitten until it was old enough to be weaned, at which point it was likely already trained by its mother.


Okay, but how did she know I wanted the kitten to use a box?


She didn’t, and the truth is that your cat, however old and however successfully he’s used a box for his entire life, isn’t exactly box trained. Have you heard of cats refusing to use the box after someone tried switching from clay sand to fancy pellets or crystals? What about all the “accidents” after someone moved a box to a new location? These mishaps stem from your cat’s attachment to material (primarily) and location (secondarily), and these are what your cat is attached to, and therefore trained to. The majority of accidents that come after successful use of a box, when not health-related, are caused by abrupt changes to its contents or location, which is why alterations to either category should be made gradually.


Fine, but how did the mother train the kitten to use a location, material, or whatever?


Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of the question. Cats live and die by scent (they’re discretely marking you and your home every time they touch anything) and they instinctively seek to bury their waste to hide the smell from predators. This means that, whether in the wild, in a crate, or in a home, they want a soft surface they can manipulate, dig, and altogether rearrange when nature calls. In the wild, this can include leaves or soil (which explains why some cats seem to enjoy using potted houseplants on occasion), but these materials aren’t often found indoors, where hardly any human-use substance fits the bill. Usually, the only things your cat can find to suit her burying needs are the materials you’ve introduced . . . in a litter box. Once a pattern is initiated, it generally lasts for life, barring sudden changes like those mentioned previously (location and material, or health). No one needed to train the cat to source a material; she just needed to be shown where a good one was. The cat you received after it was weaned was “trained” by her mother, who simply put her in the closest available litter box after meals, naps, and particularly vigorous play—all times when kitty was likely to need the facilities. By simply introducing her kitten to a great choice of burying material (the same one she would have been using, herself), she successfully trained her kitten.


What if I adopted a cat who was trained on a different material?


If you adopted, you probably received the cat from a shelter, rescue, or friend, in which case you can easily avoid this problem by asking what material the kitty prefers and using it yourself. If this isn’t the material you want to use for life, slowly introduce a new material by mixing increasing amounts of it with the old material over time until your furbaby is accustomed to burying with the new litter only. You’re all set. When adopting, you’re already changing the location of the box by introducing a new environment entirely, so don’t change the material right away, too, or you’re really asking for trouble from an over-stressed kitty. When you bring your new little guy home, be sure to show him where the litter box is right away, and it’s especially helpful if you can show him repeatedly at key times (those would be exactly the same times a mom shows her new kittens: after meals, naps, and play). In most cases, one introduction will work, as long as he can easily find and access the box at all times. You should have one box per floor of your home, especially in the beginning; otherwise, a new kitty may give up looking if he doesn’t find the box quickly enough when he really needs to go, and he’ll choose a random spot out of desperation. It’s not always easy to undo this choice once it’s been made, so prevent it.


This all sounds simple enough, but what about strays?


Good question, and kudos to you for taking someone in. Strays are accustomed to burying in nature and you probably don’t have too many natural materials available for burying in your home; even if you do, you really don’t want your new four-legger using your indoor gardening triumphs as toilets. In general, your vet is likely to advise that you introduce a stray to your home in small doses, usually one room at a time. Most new cat intros will involve a kitty living in just a single room for an adjustment period, getting used to the scents, sounds, and routines of the new household, so you’ll obviously want this room to be as kitty-friendly as possible. For box training purposes, clear the room of any malleable materials (bye bye, houseplants with appealing soil), and add a litter box in an easy-to-access spot, away from loud noises (windows—especially those with air conditioning units, ticking clocks, or anything that suddenly makes sounds). Introduce your new cat to the box as close to arrival in the room as possible, then simply follow the advice above for any other cat experiencing a litter change. If you’re particularly concerned that there could be accidents in the beginning (especially if the new cat is not very friendly or brave at first, making it difficult to place her in the box at key moments), just take the extra precaution of removing as much as possible from the floor of the new room to eliminate alternative potty temptations. Once your cat is successfully using the box, which should happen relatively immediately, the habit will be cemented and you can return the room to normal quite quickly.


While cats, in fact, do not innately know to use a litter box, there’s absolutely nothing difficult about training them.


1 comment

I have a robot litter box and my cat will not use it. HELP ME

Dale R Sassone November 24, 2022

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