Litter Box Training

by catfood

“Malachy,” a wonderful three-year-old neutered Persian cat, was brought in to see me shortly after the opening of our new Behavioral Therapy Center. After Tish, his owner, let him out of the carrier, Malachy, a confident kitty, instantly made himself at home on our consultation room couch. Tish had met Malachy “by coincidence” when taking her cat Cormick to the groomer. Malachy was brought to the groomer by his previous owner, who was unable to keep him due to his fighting with the owner’s other cat.


Thankfully, Malachy and Cormick did not fight. The two cats quickly became fast friends who enjoyed chasing and playing with each other. Malachy, on the other hand, had poor potty habits at his new house. Tish had her veterinarian check for any physical concerns that could account for Malachy’s repeated “mistakes,” but none were found.

Tish had endured Malachy’s housecleaning for a year before coming in to see me. Malachy had recently started urinating or defecating outside the litter box once a day, and Tish realized she needed help.


Tish and her cats alternate between a city apartment and a country cottage. Tish had donated a variety of litterboxes over the course of the year, some with hoods, some without, some in bathrooms, and some in bedrooms. Tish first used plain clay litter, but she has since switched to clumpable clay litter. Tish cleaned the boxes by scooping them many times a day and replacing them completely once a month. Malachy used the boxes as a toilet, but he also made use of Tish’s furniture. Her furniture and the guestroom bed were his favorites.

Isn’t the grass always greener on the other side?

After knowing more about Malachy’s history, I decided that the cat was just unhappy with the current state of his litterboxes and was looking for alternatives. Like many Persians, he spent more time pawing the sides of the litterbox than scratching in the litter. (In general, longhaired cats have a higher prevalence of litterbox difficulties.) They might not want to spoil their long, flowing jackets!


I conducted an experiment with Tish’s assistance to find litterboxes that Malachy preferred above his owner’s furniture. Tish agreed to provide three large, open-air litter boxes in both the city and the countryside. I instructed her to continue using clumpable litter in one, a piece of newspaper in the other, and old-fashioned coarse clay litter in the third. Every time Malachy used a box, Tish was supposed to commend him and give him a gift. I asked Tish to cover the chairs and bed with prickly side up pieces of thick vinyl carpet runner to break the furniture habit.

Malachy clearly preferred plain clay litter to clumpable litter after a few weeks (most cats choose the clumpable litter). He never read the newspaper. Cormick had not been picky, always using whatever litter was available. Then, at each house, we gave Malachy three boxes of his chosen litter. We did this because some cats prefer to urinate and defecate in separate locations; the third box would keep the boxes from becoming congested.

In the last three months, there have been no accidents. Tish is ready to remove the protective covers from her furniture and bed. Malachy should not revert to his old habits now that he has been accustomed to utilizing the new boxes.

The prognosis is really good.


Urinating and defecating outside the litterbox is the most common feline behavior problem.) Many cats are euthanized because of house-soiling problems. The vast majority of the time, this is superfluous. The prognosis is good for cats with disorders like Malachy’s. Simple therapy, such as the one Tish employed with Malachy, solve between 70% and 75% of litterbox issues. Consult your veterinarian first if your cat starts urinating or defecating outside the litter box. Any medical grounds will be ruled out. If the problem is determined to be behavioral, ask for a referral to a cat behavior specialist.

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