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How Do Cats Know to Use a Litter Box? The Surprising Answer

Ed Malaker

By Ed Malaker

cat inside a hooded litter box

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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One of the biggest barriers we hear about that’s preventing new pet owners from getting a cat is their fear of training them to use the litter box. However, training your cat is easy, and your cat will likely figure it out without any training at all, but how do they know to do this? Keep reading while we explore various reasons for this behavior to help you understand your cat better. We’ll also cover some reasons your cat might not be using the litter box so you can spot any potential problems early.

hepper single cat paw divider

How Do I Train My Cat to Use the Litter Box?

Most experts recommend placing your cat in the litter box and scraping their front paw in the litter to help them get the idea. Others recommend placing the cat in the box until it figures out what to do. We found that as long as the litter box is in the same room as the kitten, they will find it and begin using it. In fact, the cat will find the litter box no matter where in the house it is. We’ve had dozens of cats and never had a problem getting them to use a litter pan.

cat litter box_Nadya Buyanowa, Shutterstock
Image Credit: Nadya Buyanowa, Shutterstock

How Does My Cat Know to Use the Litter Box?

While no one can be sure of why a cat does what it does, most experts agree that cats bury their poop in nature to help protect them from predators. Protection from predators might also explain many cats’ desire to run quickly from the litter box after using it. Cat poop is also a social status symbol among cats, and the dominant animal will leave its poop uncovered while the others will bury it. These strong instincts likely cause the cat to seek out soft ground or litter to use for these instincts without training or guidance from you.

Are There Cats That Don’t Use a Litter Box?

Some experts claim that it is possible a cat won’t learn how to use a litter box, but it is extremely rare. Wildcats bury their poop, so it is as automatic as running away when people get close or eating. Some people have taught their cats to use a toilet instead of a litter box, but this is the result of skilled training, not natural behavior. It is also not recommended to let cats use the toilet due to the risk of polluting water bodies with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.

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Why Is My Cat Going Outside the Litter Box?

It can be more challenging to figure out why your cat stopped using the litter box than it is to get them started in the first place, but the following list will probably get you on the right track.

  • Your cat doesn’t like the litter box. Cats are extremely picky, and if you have just switched to a new litter or box, there is a good chance your cat doesn’t approve and is refusing to get in. You can try to ride it out for a day or two to see if your cat submits to using it, or you will need to switch back. If you are trying to use a better litter, you can try to get your cat used to it by slowly adding more and more to their regular litter.
cat leaving the litter box
Image By: Lightspruch, Shutterstock
  • Your cat can’t use it. Many people purchase litter pans that are too small for their cat or put them near walls that make them hard to move around. Others might have an entrance hole that’s too small. We recommend observing your cat while they’re using the litter box every few months to make sure they’re not having a hard time.
  • There are not enough litter boxes. Cats are territorial animals, and if you have more than one in your home, you can expect disputes to break out. When this happens, one cat might refuse or not be allowed to use a litter box the other is using. Most experts recommend having one litter box for each cat plus one more box to prevent this type of dispute from taking place.
  • It’s too dusty. If you switched to a new litter, there might be too much dust in the air for your pet. Moving your litter box to an enclosed area can also cause it to be too dusty.
  • Your cat is sick. It could have an injury that makes it too painful to enter the litterbox or a medical condition that doesn’t give your cat time to reach it. If you suspect your cat might have a medical condition, it’s important to seek a vet immediately to have your cat looked over.
  • It’s dirty. Cats are extremely picky, and many will refuse to use a litter box that already contains poop, especially if it’s from another cat. If you notice this behavior frequently, purchasing more litter boxes can help keep the poop off your floor until you have time to clean the boxes.

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Final Thoughts

Natural instinct is the most likely reason that your cat knows to use the litter box. It’s the only place in your home that allows it to perform the important ritual of burying (or not burying) its poop, and it will likely search your entire house to find it, even as a small kitten. The cat will be unlikely to break this training for their entire life, with few exceptions. The most common reasons being a change in the litter they use, a health condition, or a dispute with you or another cat.

We hope you have enjoyed reading and learned some new facts about your kittens. If we have helped you understand your cat better, please share this guide on how cats know to use a litter box on Facebook and Twitter.

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Featured Image Credit: Zoran Photographer, Shutterstock

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