In general, cats are clean and fastidious animals, and their normal behavior is to pass urine and farces in loose soil that is first dug and scratched out to make a hollow. Once the cat has finished, it uses its paws to cover its traces and scratches with more soil over the toilet area. In the first three weeks of life, kittens are relatively helpless and more or less confined to their bed or box. The mother cat licks them frequently and swallows the waste materials that her offspring pass. In fact, the kittens are stimulated to eliminate urine and farces by their mother’s licking of the genital and anal openings.
At the age of about three weeks, the kittens are moving around more and starting to explore the area outside the bed. This coincides with the time when the mother ceases to clean up the motions that the kittens pass and she may lift them onto the litter tray herself. In any event, the kittens are ‘programmed’ to use a suitable substrate in which to relieve themselves and will often choose to use a litter tray quite naturally.
The most successful way to proceed is to keep the kitten in one room (usually the kitchen) until it has learnt to use the litter tray. The tray should be placed in a quiet, secluded corner at a suitable distance from the bed. It may be an excellent idea to place the tray on a few sheets of newspaper or in a shallow cardboard box as the kitten may scratch and scatter the contents.
The kitten should be placed on the litter tray at frequent intervals, particularly on awakening from a sleep and immediately following a meal. (When the kitten begins to eat and food descends into its stomach, there is an automatic passage of digested material along the bowel caused by the operation of the ‘gastrocolic reflex’.) Most young mammals have little control over their bladder and bowels at first but rapidly acquire this as they develop. Accidents are inevitable with very young kittens, but many will be well on the way to becoming trained by the time they are taken to a new home. The move to a new home is, of course, unsettling for a new kitten, and owners should be patient over the mistakes that occur.
If the kitten is seen to be urinating or defecating in the wrong place, it should be told off sharply and immediately taken to the litter tray. The mess must be cleaned up thoroughly and disinfected-if any odor remains, the kitten may use the same spot again. The litter must be changed frequently, and certainly before it becomes soiled and smelly as cats are fastidious and may refuse to use a tray in these circumstances. Ideally, soiled cat litter should always be burnt and it may help to choose a type that is readily combustible. It should not be placed on the compost heap because the eggs of some internal parasites may be present which are very resistant to decay and could potentially be ingested by people, particularly children. Rubber gloves should be worn when changing the Utter and the tray should be washed and disinfected.
Occasionally, a kitten or cat is reluctant to use a tray because it dislikes the smell of a litter that has been treated with a chemical deodorizer. It is worthwhile changing the type of litter used to see if this encourages the kitten to use the tray. In addition, proprietary preparations are available that can be sprinkled on to the litter and that attract the kitten to use the tray. If the eventual aim is for the kitten to relieve itself out of doors, it may help to sprinkle some garden soil onto the litter from the start. Soil can itself be used as litter although there may be a problem with disposal.
Some cats quite naturally make the transition from using a litter tray to performing out of doors. Others are reluctant to use anything except a tray once they have been trained to do so. If this is the issue, it may help to move the litter tray gradually towards the door, just a few inches each day, until it is eventually placed outside. This is best accomplished in warm, dry weather when the door can be left open. Once the kitten is using the tray outside, a little used litter can be tipped onto an appropriate place in the garden.
It should be appreciated that there is nothing more annoying for someone who is a keen gardener than to have a cat digging in the soil and disturbing plants or bulbs. While the owners may not mind too much about their own garden, neighbors may object and there is no assurance that a cat will stay on its own patch. So, depending upon individual circumstances, it may be advisable to encourage a kitten just to use the litter tray. In any event, it is best to offer a tray for use at night and in bad weather as cats are great lovers of comfort and may prefer not to go out when it is cold and wet.