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The golden rules of litter tray hygiene – how to have a happy cat and a cleaner house


Fluffy gazed out of the window. Outside new cat in the ‘hood Thor gave him a hard stare, Mr Jones at number 23 was using his new drill and the Poodle sisters Yip and Yap were running round next door’s garden. ‘Hmmm’, he mused, ‘Perhaps it’s time to go wee on mum’s bed.’

In a recent survey over 60 % of cat owners said they believed that once a cat has taken a tinkle outside the litter tray, they will return to that same place time after time. Even if that place is on your bed, or in your boyfriend’s shoes.

So what’s the solution if your house is becoming more like a cat toilet than a home? Follow our 10-step programme to get your cat back into the litter tray.

  • 1.

    Get rid of all traces of cat pee odour

    “As my cat sat too close to the edge of the tray I changed to a covered tray and seated this in a second tray filled with litter..”
    Cats have an excellent sense of smell and are often attracted back to an area where they have previously toileted. Ammonia based cleaners and steam cleaners can also make the problem worse.
    There are a number of proprietary products that specifically aim to zap cat urine odours and completely break down the urine. Another good approach is to use biological washing powder to get clean up the stain, followed by surgical spirit. Do be careful as this approach can remove colours and varnishes, so is not suitable for every surface. It may be necessary to take a ‘CSI’ type approach using black UV lamps to show up old urine stains.
  • 2.

    Look at litter tray hygiene

    So, you might think that the litter tray is always kept spotless but guess what….that can actually cause a problem too! There needs to be enough odour to attract the cat back to the tray and remind them what it’s for. The general rule is once per cat per day for scooping out soiled contents. A good scrub of the tray should only be required every few weeks and be careful not to use chemicals that leave any residual odour. Provide one litter tray per cat plus one spare to avoid territorial disputes or intimidation around the litter tray.
  • 3.

    Litter tray location, location, location

    “One of our kittens liked to wee on the extension lead behind the telly....the other goes down the bath or sink plughole. When we changed back to the normal litter the problem stopped.”
    When your cat wees somewhere it shouldn’t, you know who to blame. Yes the litter tray. In our recent survey 20% of cat owner’s thoughts immediately went to the litter tray.
    It could just be about location – a perfectly acceptable litter tray might no longer be a des-res if it’s situated next to a window through which the local cat mafia is terrifying your pet. Consider moving the tray, or providing an additional tray in a new location.
    Another smart trick is to place the litter tray in the location where your cat is weeing (obviously that won’t work if it’s on your boyfriend’s shoes). Over time the litter tray can gradually be moved back to a more convenient location a few centimetres at a time, unless you prefer to just leave it where your cat wants it to be.
    Make sure you haven’t made the beginners mistake of putting the litter tray too close to the food bowl – after all who wants to wee in their dining room? Your dining room, yes but the cat’s own dining room, no.
  • 4.

    Create a little privacy

    Sometimes, life in your home may be busier than usual and the litter tray doesn’t offer enough privacy. A covered litter tray can be a good option, or some cats prefer what’s literally a half-way house – a tray that’s concealed but has no roof. You can provide that by cutting the top and bottom out of a cardboard box and sitting all four walls round the tray, providing a door big enough for access. Older and very young cats may just need a tray with a lower lip that is easier to climb into.
  • 5.

    Litter – don’t muck about

    Can changing litter cause your cat to stop using the litter tray? Yup! If one kind of litter isn’t available always try and mix some of the accustomed litter with the new litter to make the transition as stress free as possible. Older cats might have sensitive toes and may need a softer, sandier litter, or a new cat might have a preference for a particular kind of litter.
  • 6.

    Make that area less like a toilet

    “One of our cats often hides up and waits for the others to finish in the litter tray, then when they walk past, he ambushes them. I always intervene gently”
    So what do you do if the area is totally unsuitable for a litter tray ie your boyfriend’s shoes, a plant pot, your bed or sofa? In this instance you have to work on helping your cat to understand THIS ISN’T A TOILET!
    Ways to do that are, you’ve guessed it, put the food bowl here! Other possibilities are to use cling film or foil to make an unattractive surface. There are a few more techniques that can be used but remember there is a fine line to tread between discouraging your cat and scaring your cat. And stress can make toileting problems even more likely.
  • 7.

    Litter training kittens and cats – back to basics

    Many kittens arrive already litter trained by their mother but equally some adult cats have never been litter trained. Going back to basics and retraining can also be a valid strategy for any cat urinating around the home. Place your cat in the tray immediately after eating, after sleep, or when they appear to be actively looking for somewhere to toilet. Never punish your cat and then place it immediately on the litter tray, as this can create negative associations and discourage future use. If the cat does have an accident just gently place them in the tray.
  • 8.

    Litter training for problem cats

    Problem cats can sometimes benefit from refresher litter training. Restrict the cat to one room. Ideally this should be what behaviourists call an ‘unchallenging room’, meaning it should be calm and quiet and preferably not have access immediately to the outdoors, or anything that could be perceived by your cat as threatening. The tray and food should be separate but both easily accessible.
    While in this one room, do still interact with your cat so it’s clear being in the room isn’t a punishment. Once the litter tray is successfully being used, provide access to additional rooms one at a time, until your cat has complete access to the home.
  • 9.

    Reduce stress

    “After chatting to the vet I located a behaviour specialist with this breed. She was so helpful and had lots of advice, even looking at their diet.”
    We’ll talk about this in more detail later but suffice to say at this point, stress and emotions play a big part in toileting issues, so try not to react by changing everything at once and keep both yourself and your home environment as calm as possible. It might seem challenging at times but an over-reaction can cause the problem to escalate.
  • 10.

    Talk to your vet

    Although many cat urinary problems are associated with stress or behavioural issues, some are not and it is important to talk to your vet so that any medical problems can be ruled out. Cats that seem to be having difficulty passing urine may need urgent attention, so always be safe rather than sorry and seek veterinary advice. Your vet may even decide that a referral to a cat behaviourist is a good option.
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