Steps to Reinforce a Cat's Appropriate Litter Box Use

The following steps can reinforce a cat's appropriate litter box use.

  1. Clean affected areas with an odor eliminator.
  2. Cover affected areas with heavy-gauge plastic to change the tactile sensation for the cat and prevent further penetration in the event of elimination.
  3. Encourage the cat to use multiple litter boxes. These litter boxes should be different styles (open, covered, deep, shallow, big, small) and be placed in various locations.
  4. Litter should be scooped daily, and dumped totally every other day. Newer, clumping litter does not have to be discarded as frequently but does need to be "topped up." Cats differ in their preference for litter depth. Boxes should be washed weekly and old boxes should be discarded.
  5. Various types of litter should be offered to the cat in a variety of boxes. If the cat is using soft substances, use softer litter: No. 3 blasting sand, playground sand, shredded newspaper or toweling, sawdust, or wood chips (not cedar). Recyclable, clumping litter has produced excellent results. Consider one of the new trays in which urine passes through rocks onto a pad. Some cats prefer very little or no litter.
  6. Litter box behavior usage develops in the absence of human intervention as kittens. A cat with an elimination problem can be encouraged to use a specific substrate by taking the cat to the litter box frequently, waiting with it, and praising it when it uses the box.

If the cat is observed squatting outside the box, punishment works if the cat is startled within the first 30 to 60 seconds of the onset of the behavior (includes circling, facial expression, and digging) and the startle makes the cat abort the behavior and leave. Foghorns, water pistols, and whistles may work. Physical punishment, including rubbing the cat's nose in the soiled area, is useless after the fact.

Some cats must be confined to a restricted area. Make sure the cat has a choice of litters and boxes and give the cat a lot of attention. If the cat is very social, confinement must meet the cat's social needs. If the behavior of other cats in the household changes when one is isolated, there may be a social problem that must be addressed to treat the elimination disorder. Access to the rest of the house should be expanded gradually. If the cat has learned a preference for a litter or box style, this is generalized to the rest of the house if the reintroductions are gradual. The number of boxes and cleanliness must be maintained.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 01 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 15 Dec 2014