My Kitten Refuses to Use Her Litter Box

We’ve been cleaning up multiple accidents per day. We can’t keep doing this.

A cat and its litter box
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by StockPhotosArt/iStock/Getty Images Plus and PLG/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Beast Mode,

We recently got a 7-week-old kitten. We keep her (for now) in a roughly 10-by-10-foot spare bedroom. She’s everything we want. She’s feisty, funny, purry, and adorable. She eats well. The only problem is that she refuses to use a litter box. She is very small (1.5 pounds), but we took that into account. We bought a cat box designed for training kittens and have used litter attractant spray. When she went to the bathroom elsewhere, we moved the box under the bed to where we saw her going most frequently.

When that didn’t work, we switched to a very fine grain litter. We’ve put her into the litter and mimed scratching. We’ve put her poops into the box after she does them. We’ve even cut out the spots where she’s peed on kitten pads and put those in the box to make it clear where the pee and poop go. She never goes on the carpet—only on the hardwood floors, which we clean up immediately and disinfect with a spray that’s supposed to take away pet odors.

We’ve been fighting with her for more than a week now and have been cleaning up multiple accidents per day, and we still don’t know how to get her to use it. We can’t keep doing this forever!

—Thinking (and Peeing, and Pooping … ) Outside the Box

Dear Thinking (and Peeing, and Pooping … ) Outside the Box,

Cats are magnificent negotiators. What other creature could persuade humans—the most selfish species on Earth—to purchase specialized equipment solely for the purposes of peeing and pooping inside our homes? Not even dogs, those charming masters of charisma, could pull off such a deal. Thank goodness cats don’t ask for much else, otherwise we’d all be handing over our car keys and ATM PIN numbers.

Housetraining a kitten should be relatively painless, so any difficulties with this process must be taken seriously. “The first thing is to make sure there is no medical issue,” certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado tells me. A kitten with diarrhea or other health issues may avoid its box, so be prudent and seek a vet’s advice before you take any further steps.

While this seems like a simple problem, there could be a complex combination of reasons for your cat’s behavior. “If I were doing a consult I’d spend an hour or more on the phone or visit their house to really try and tease apart the cause,” Delgado says. Before we get into possible solutions, don’t hesitate in seeking help from a specialist if this problem persists. Time is of the essence: “If the kitten learns that they like going to the bathroom on the hardwood floor then it might be more challenging to get them in the box later. It can turn into a preference.”

Be aware, too, that not all of your current strategies are helping. “In general, I would never recommend putting a cat in a litter box,” Delgado says. “There’s a risk you run by picking them up and putting them in a litter box, It can actually be a pretty aversive experience for some animals.” Instead of transporting her against her wishes, try luring the kitty with a toy. Once she approaches the box, use the scooper to scratch around in the litter: “The sound will attract them: Ooh, there’s something I can dig in.”

You should keep the kitten in its room for now. Delgado recommends using five or six boxes at once, each one filled with a different kind of litter. That way, the cat gets to choose. “We call this a litter cafeteria or buffet,” she says. (Appetizing!) “One of the boxes should either be empty or have a puppy pad in it. Something smooth, because this kitten has expressed a preference for the hardwood floor. It’s a very small kitten, and the litter boxes should be shallow enough so she doesn’t have to climb into the box—she can just walk in.” They make small, disposable litter boxes out of recycled material for this purpose, so you needn’t take out a second mortgage to accommodate your kitty’s bathroom habits.

With any luck, your cat will settle on a favorite type of litter. Or, she might choose the litterless box. That’s OK too. “Sometimes, cats who have a preference for smooth substrates can be transitioned to a very soft kitty litter, but certainly there are some cats that will go in a box but on a puppy pad for life,” Delgado says.

There are other things to consider, like your kitten’s fur. “Some long-haired cats are particular about litter,” Delgado says. “Some of them need what we call a hygiene clip where they get their butt shaved.”

This is a lot to consider, so allow me to reiterate that you should consider getting professional, hands-on help. Cats may be master negotiators, but this situation requires more than just bargaining.