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How To Litter Train A Senior Cat

Senior Cat and Litter Problems

Featured Image: iStock.com/Aduldej

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My mom’s cat, Shaft, was a senior — that is, a cat older than 11 years old — when he started living in her home. My mom adopted him when my brother moved to another state. Before she brought him home, however, she took the time to set up an area for his litter box, using a type of litter my brother had been using. Luckily, Shaft started using it right away, and the transition into her home went smoothly.

Your new senior cat can have a smooth transition into your home, too. To help him feel at home right away, and to help prevent any accidents, let’s get his litter box set up and ready for him to use. First (and you may already know this), make sure you’ve got the basics:

  • Cat litter box: Your senior cat will most likely appreciate a litter box with short sides that he can easily climb over. He will probably like it even more if it is large enough for him to easily dig and maneuver around in. If you have a chance, try to find out what type of box your senior cat used before you adopted him. Having a familiar box in your home will help encourage him to maintain his good litter box habits.
  • Cat litter: This is another part of litter box training where using something familiar can help a lot in encouraging your new cat to be consistent. The shelter staff or foster parent will probably be happy to tell you what type of litter your senior cat prefers. One of my cats became quite set in his ways as an older cat, and when I changed his litter, he let me know he didn’t like it by using a spot just outside the litter box. I hope I can help you avoid the same problem!
  • Litter scoop or litter box liners: A slotted scoop with a big scoop area will help you remove waste from the box. Some of my cat-owning friends prefer to use litter box liners, so all they have to do is grab the edges of the liner and remove everything at once. Whichever method you choose, your senior cat is sure to appreciate your efforts to keep the litter box clean.
  • Plastic or paper bags to capture the waste: After my trips to the market, I place the empty plastic bags near the litter box to use when I scoop the box. I keep the litter box clean, and I use the bags a second time. Win-win!

Location, Location, Location

Your senior cat probably already knows how to use a litter box — so the key will be placing it somewhere he can easily find. Your new cat also will probably like it if the litter box is in a quiet area that gives him a sense of privacy. If possible, put the box in an area where other pets or children will not startle or disturb your kitty while he uses the box. Some people even will put up a baby gate so the cat can go in peace. Here are a few more tips for choosing a spot:

  • Locate it somewhere away from the cat’s food and water bowls.
  • Try not to place it near the cat’s bed.
  • Find a spot near where the family hangs out that is still private and quiet.

As cats get older, their bladder can lose muscle tone, which means your cat may have a little trouble making it to the box on time. If that seems to be the case, you may want to place extra boxes around the house so your senior can easily locate one when he needs it. In fact, if you have a two-story house, putting a box on both levels will probably help you — and your senior cat — avoid accidents.

If you already own a cat (or more than one), give your new senior cat his own litter box. In fact, a good rule of thumb for multicat households is to provide a litter box for each cat in the household, plus one more. So, if your senior will be the only cat in your home, give him access to at least two boxes. (Remember that you may need more than two if your senior cat needs quick and easy access to a potty spot.)

Try to set up the litter box before you bring home your new cat. If you want to try to prevent the spread of stray litter on the floor, put a towel or throw rug underneath the box to catch it. My cats tend to like a lot of litter in the box so they can really dig around. You’ll figure out what your new cat likes pretty quickly, but until then, pour a layer about 2 to 3 inches deep. With your scoop and plastic bags nearby, your senior cat’s litter box is ready!

Getting Acclimated

On your cat’s first day in your house (hooray!), take a minute to show him where he can find the litter box. Show him where you’ve put all the boxes (if there is more than one), so he knows where to go when he needs to.

As your senior cat explores your house, try to stay nearby. If he looks like he is about to eliminate in an area outside his litter box (for example, if he is sniffing and scratching an area of carpet), gently carry him to the closest box and place him in it. Stay calm and pleasant while you do so (try not to freak out, like I did one time). Your cat will pick up on your calm attitude, which means he will associate the box with a pleasant experience. If he is successful when you take him to the box, pet him and tell him what a good job he did — after he gets out of the box, of course.

Keep It Clean

Your senior cat will probably do a great job using the litter box, so be sure to do a great job of keeping it clean. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Remove waste from the litter box every day. I usually do this every evening before I go to bed, as it is easiest for me to remember if I do it at the same time every day. If it is really messy, I will scoop more than once a day.
  • Do not flush waste or cat litter in the toilet. This can damage your plumbing.
  • Clean the box and completely replace the litter regularly. I usually do this every other week, but I will do it more frequently if it seems to need it.
  • Do not use harsh chemicals to clean the box, as the smells from the cleanser could make your senior cat avoid the litter box.
  • Try to maintain a level of 2 to 3 inches of litter in the box. I will add a bit more litter to the box every other day or so after scooping the waste so the level doesn’t get too low.

Litter Box Troubleshooting

Litter box training your senior cat will likely come easily. If he suddenly stops using the box, however, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the cat litter box clean? Has the litter been changed recently? Your cat can smell things that your human nose can’t, and he may be rejecting a smelly litter box. Senior cats in particular can become more and more particular about the litter box as they age.
  • Did you switch brands of cat litter? Your senior cat likely has developed a strong preference for a certain type of litter, and he may reject anything unfamiliar. Switch back to his favorite brand to see if that solves the problem.
  • Does he have enough privacy when he uses the litter box? Make sure no one is bothering him during his trips to the litter box.
  • Does he have a medical issue? If you have cleaned the box and filled it with his favorite litter, and have made sure he can use the box in peace, he may have an underlying medical condition that is causing him to avoid the box. Schedule a visit with your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes.

In some situations, a senior cat may forget how to find the litter box. If you notice that your senior is having potty accidents along with other forgetful activity, try scheduling regular potty breaks about 15 minutes after he eats or after a play session.

Older cats may also have failing eyesight, which may lead him to have accidents if his litter box is moved. Keep the box in the same location so your senior can find it every time.


By: Stacy Hackett

Featured Image: iStock.com/Aduldej