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Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Cat

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Types of Litter

You'll find a wide variety of litters available in pet supply stores and many other outlets. Some cats (and their owners) have specific preferences, but in general, cats seem to like relatively fine-grained, unscented sand or clay litters. Let's look at some litter options.

Traditional clay-based litter absorbs some urine. Most people with one cat remove feces once a day and change the litter once a week. If you have more than one cat using a single box, you'll need to scoop and change more frequently.

Cat Nip

Some people like to use plastic litter box liners, which hold the litter in the box and can make litter removal easier. Liners work with some cats, but other cats shred the plastic when they dig to cover their urine and feces, making the liner pointless.

Clumping litters are popular and are designed to form clumps or balls when wet with urine. The advantage of clumping litter (in theory, anyway) is that “pee balls” are easy to remove and litter doesn't need to be changed as often. Clumping litters are made of various ingredients, but many include sodium bentonite, a very fine-grained clay that forms clumps and swells to more than 10 times its original size when moist. If you've ever cleaned this type of litter out of a litter box, you know the clumps can glue themselves to the litter box surface.

Clumping litters have other potential disadvantages: some people are sensitive to the very fine dust these litters release, and because the litter tends to stick to cat fur, it gets tracked through the house more. More important, clumping litters pose a potentially lethal health hazard for some felines. Ingestion of litter particles has been linked to intestinal blockages—the minute particles clump together and swell into a ball of solid clay in the stomach or intestines. Kittens seem to be at higher risk than adults because they don't have to ingest much of the litter to block their tiny organs, but adult cats have reportedly had problems as well.

On the other hand, lots of cats have used clumping litter with nary a problem. If you want to try the clumping litter, avoid it until your kitten is full-grown and even then, keep a close eye on your cat so if a problem does develop, you can catch it immediately.


Don't dispose of used kitty litter by dumping it in your garden. Feces from carnivores shouldn't be used as fertilizer. Dumping cat litter inappropriately will certainly raise a stink, which will annoy your neighbors and probably attract roaming cats. It can also spread disease and parasites (see Vaccinating Your Cat Against Infectious Diseases).

Not all litters are made from clay. At least two inexpensive types of litter are made from ground corncobs. One, a sandblasting grit, is said to clump as well as clay-based litters and smell better. Another type consists of coarsely ground corncobs and is used with a specially designed litter box that has a screen over a drain pan. These types of litter can usually be found in farm and feed stores.

Wood shavings, often sold as animal bedding, can also be used for cheap litter. Some cats are fine with shavings, but others dislike stepping on them because they tend to be wet. Pelletized pine litter is more expensive but is said to be dust free, nearly odorless, and needs changing less frequently as long as waste is removed regularly.

If your cat isn't using his litter box, try changing the type of litter. Sometimes that makes all the difference.

Litter Box Cleanup

Many cats are fussy about their litter boxes and will stop using one that doesn't live up their cleanliness standards. If your cat is “tinkling outside the box,” try scooping more often. Many people scoop once in the morning and again at night.

Proper disposal of cat waste is essential to control odor and protect the health of people and animals. Some litters are flushable, but some shouldn't be put down any toilet, and some are especially bad for septic systems. (Clumps of litter can stick to the inside of pipes and block your home's plumbing.) If you're disposing of litter and waste in your garbage, it's a good idea to double bag it in heavy plastic bags. You also might want to wear disposable gloves for litter box cleaning, and whether you wear gloves or not, always wash your hands with soap and hot water after cleaning.


Never use cleaners containing pine oil on litter boxes or other areas accessible to your cat. Pine oil is toxic to cats and many other animals!

Cleaning the litter box regularly will help control odors. Some litters are less smelly than others, and mixing plain baking soda into the litter will help. Don't use strong scents to mask odor—remember, your cat's nose is more sensitive than yours, and a scent you like might overpower her. The most effective odor control practice is regular cleaning. When you change the litter, scrub the box with hot soapy water. Don't use scented disinfectants. If you want to use something stronger than soap and hot water, a 10 percent bleach solution (1 part bleach in 9 parts water) is effective against most bacteria and viruses—but be sure you rinse the box until all trace of bleach odor is gone.

Some people have successfully trained their cats to use the toilet. I've never had any particular interest in doing this because cats don't flush when they're finished, but if you want to try it, check out How to Toilet Train Your Cat by Paul Dunkel.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat http://life.familyeducation.com/cats/health/45708.html 2005 by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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