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Litter Box Training 101

Litterbox Training 101

Cats are notoriously finicky about the litter box process, and once they've made it a habit to choose their own bathroom, it can be a challenge to retrain them. "The number one reason that cats are given back is going outside of their litter box," says Tracie Hotchner, author of The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know (Gotham, 2007). "The good news is that if you start out well-prepared, you won't have these issues." This three-step process shows you how.

1. Round up the essentials.

Boxes: The box doesn't need to be designed specifically for cats, provided it has sides that are high enough to contain litter, but low enough so your cat get in and out easily. "Under the bed storage bins without the lids work perfectly," notes Hotchner. You'll need one litter box per cat, per level of your household. Place them in quiet areas that aren't too far off the beaten path, such as a laundry room or bathroom.

Litter: The wide variety of cat litters on the market may leave you scratching your head. Your choices boil down to clay-based litters that "clump" around waste for easy clean-up, and organic or green litters made from wheat or orange peels, for example. Clay litters tend to be less expensive, but can be dusty and also raise environmental concerns about the strip-mining it takes to produce them. If you have a child with allergies or you're mindful of sustainability, try organic.

Keep in mind that your cat will have an opinion, too. You can eliminate trial and error by simply using with what she's used to. If the shelter or previous owner can't tell you, place two boxes side by side, each containing different type of litter. Your cat will make her choice obvious by using one.

If you have to change brands or type of litter for some reason, make the switch gradually. Start with the preferred brand, and gradually mix in increasing amounts of the new type, suggests Karen Halligan, D.V.M., a consultant for Animal Planet's Cats 101 and author of Doc Halligan's What Every Pet Owner Should Know (Collins, 2008).

Scoop: Near each box, keep a scoop and small covered pail lined with a plastic bag to make clean up convenient. Some litter can be flushed down the toilet; check the instructions on the bag.

In case of accidents: Keep special cleaners developed specifically for cat urine on hand. Unlike household cleaners, they are formulated with enzymes or other ingredients to eliminate odor. If the odor lingers, it will undoubtedly draw your cat back again and again.

2. Start with one room.

Housing your cat in one room of the house for several days prevents him from being overwhelmed as he transitions to a new environment. It also makes litter box training much easier. The limited space makes it a snap for your cat to locate the box, and simplifies monitoring and clean up for you. You'll know right away if she's turned her nose up at the litter you picked or had an accident.

When you add litter to the box, don't be too generous, as this often backfires. Add only enough litter to reach a depth of 2 or 3 inches.

With your cat room selected, place the box or boxes in a corner or in a closet with the door ajar. Cats like privacy when they use the box. When you come and go, enter the room slowly to avoid startling the cat in its box.

You'll know your cat is ready to explore some more of the house when he is actively exploring and seeking play, comes to you for attention, and is eating, drinking, and using the litter box regularly.

3. Keep it clean.

There's nothing like a dirty, stinky litter box to send your cat in search of another place to do her business. So scoop wet spots and waste from the box at least twice a day, and either flush them or tie them in plastic bag to contain odor and put them in the trash. Once a week, discard all litter in the box, and scrub the box thoroughly with hot, soapy water. Allow it to dry completely before you refill with litter.

Follow these steps, and you'll soon be spending a lot more time enjoying your new cat, instead of cleaning up after him.

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