It's been seven years since I first put "How to Toilet-Train Your Cat" online, and the response continues to be overwhelming. People regularly email me to ask for advice not just about toilet-training, but about all sorts of other cat-training and cat-care problems (spraying, shedding, eating flowers, etc.). Early on I made a valiant effort to answer each one, but was quickly forced to admit that the task was just too great — I'd never get anything else done!
Below are some suggestions I wrote up during the first year this site was online, as well as some links to books and other products related to cat training. (If you buy one of the latter from a link on this page, I get a kickback of a few cents from Amazon, which go to pay off vet bills.) This FAQ was revised in March 2003, but does not receive regular updates.
Disclaimer: I am not any more of an expert on these matters than simply having a very well-trained cat would make me. Some of my answers come from personal experience, some from things I've read, and some are just educated guesses. Every cat is different, and what works with one may not work at all with another. These are only suggestions. Good luck!
There's not really an age limit for toilet-training, but as with most training, the younger the better. Kittens are the most receptive, able to learn easily and fast. Cats in the one- to three-year range are still pretty young, though. At that point I wouldn't worry much about the age factor at all; if your cats are generally bright and sociable, you should make out okay.
It's certainly possible to train older cats. Moreso than with kittens (which have more malleable personalities), success in training older cats will depend upon the animal's temperament and intelligence — whether he's receptive to communication, easily spooked or annoyed, eager to please you, indifferent, etc. If you've taught your cat anything else in the past (for example, to come when called), you've laid the groundwork and have a better chance than if he's totally unfamiliar with the concept that you might want him to do a particular thing.
Generally speaking, you'll need to be more patient with older cats; I wouldn't recommend pushing the limits. Take it in slow, easy stages, so that they hardly notice anything's changing. There are always variations in personality, though, and yours might be a whiz even at eight or ten or thirteen. If you decide to train a very elderly cat, you may need to make some adjustments — like providing steps up to the toilet if she has trouble jumping that high.
Training two or more cats simultaneously is more complicated than training just one, in large part because if somebody messes up, it's often hard to figure out who to reprimand. You don't want to be scolding the cat who's doing it properly, or praising someone for peeing in the wrong place. Which makes it that much more important to keep tabs on who's doing what when. With kittens you know that they're going to need to use the toilet soon after eating, but adult cats have a lot more control and can sometimes wait for as much as a whole day. You don't have to actually follow them around the house, but it's a good idea to be aware of where each cat is at all times. If you have multiple cats who are at home alone for much of the day, you've really got your work cut out for you. Best to wait until an adult is at home on vacation, or until a responsible teenager is home for the summer and can remain vigilant during the training period.
I doubt that for most people an enforced separation is practical, but if you have the facilities it could be a useful tactic. If you have as many separate rooms with doors (and as many litter boxes) as you have cats, then you can let them out one at a time and determine who's got the right idea and who doesn't. The place to be careful, though, is in confining more than one cat in a room together. They might get along fine, especially if all the cats have been together since kittenhood. But more often the close quarters will tend to cause territorial squabbles, leading to even more elimination problems than you had to begin with.
If you're able to determine that one cat is messing up, you could try confining him to a cat-carrier when you're not around to watch him, and then devote particularly intense training to that one cat. But don't leave him cooped up like that for more than a few hours. In the case of multiple cats where one is the mother, you might consider concentrating on her. If she picks up on it there's a chance she'll help you train the others (and they might even pay attention, since after all they learned to use the litter box by watching her).
On the whole, in training multiple cats you usually have to cater to the lowest common denominator. If you've got one nervous or stupid cat you'll have to move at his pace, even if the others are quick studies. If you're lucky, your best student might provide helpful demonstrations for the others — if you're unlucky, your worst student may incite the others into carpet-dousing rebellion.
I do think there comes a point where there are just too many cats to make the whole thing practical. Whether that number is two or three or five depends on the individual cats and the particular trainer. For some people/cat combinations, one is too many.
Size shouldn't be a problem. A cat is only too big if he's obese enough to be clumsy and unable to achieve the balancing squat necessary to use the toilet. Very tiny kittens (less than ten weeks) may not have the necessary coordination; you should always train to a litter box first and then upgrade later.
One woman wrote me about her four-year-old cat with "really poor balance": He regularly falls off of the arm of the couch. He also loves water and frequently joins me in the tub so I'm not sure that an open toilet lid wouldn't be an invitation to the local swimming hole. As a kitten, he fell in the toilet many many times; finally I put a child-proof lock on it to prevent him from falling in. Is there harm in trying to toilet train them and not succeeding?
Unfortunately, poor balance is likely to be a problem. On the other hand, I don't think any lasting harm would be done by trying, especially if he doesn't seem any the worse for wear after having repeatedly fallen in the toilet. (I've never heard of any other cat falling in the toilet, although I do recommend keeping very tiny kittens away from it for that reason.) In a case where the cat is truly brain-damaged in some way, successful toilet-training is probably out of the question.
An approval-seeking cat, even if not particularly bright, stands a good chance of learning if you're willing to put a lot of patient effort into helping her understand what you want. If she doesn't understand that she's supposed to get on top of the toilet, pick her up and put her there, and then praise her like crazy. Do this repeatedly and even a slow cat will get the idea that being on top of the toilet gets her lots of praise and attention, so that she begins to do it on her own. Repeat as necessary for other behaviors.
One thing to keep in mind, if you're worried that depriving your cat of kitty litter will do irreparable psychological damage, is that cats' well-known "covering" instinct isn't really about covering the object itself — it's about eliminating the smell. You may have seen your cat occasionally trying to scrape linoleum over his food — same principle. Presumably when cats were roaming about in the wild, hiding the evidence meant that potential meals were not alerted to the presence of a predator in the vicinity and were that much easier to catch.
Not coincidentally, droppings that have been dropped in toilet water are less odiferous even than those that have been covered up with litter. (It's why we use toilets, after all.) This means that many cats, after an initial period of adjustment, are undisturbed by the absence of litter.
As with most things, reactions vary. Some cats just stop digging and don't seem to miss it; some will scrape at the toilet seat a bit before or after, almost as if for form's sake. Misha feels compelled to try to dig a hole in the toilet water before he uses it but otherwise adjusted very well. And there are some cats who are so stuck on litter that they don't ever take to toilet-training at all.
The only real conflict is if your cat feels compelled to paw around in the water after she's done her thing in it. I'm grateful that Misha never showed any such inclination, as I imagine that could get pretty disgusting. If you have this problem, you can try discouraging the post-toilet digging by praising your cat as soon as she's finished, flushing the toilet quickly to get rid of any lingering smell, and calling her away, thereby training her to get down immediately. You could also try feeding her just after she's used the toilet, as a distraction.
If you're at the empty-bowl stage and your cat is going off looking for clothes or carpet to pee on, try going ahead with water in the bowl anyway. In most cases they will actually be less frustrated by a bowl of water, where the odors are faint and everything just sort of magically "buries" itself, than with the empty bowl where everything is exposed. Once they catch on that eliminating into water makes the odor vanish, they'll probably relax quite a bit.
Some cats respond to treats and some really couldn't care less. I used bits of treats with Misha at first, and then weaned him from them after a few months.
At first, try praising and treating them every time they use the toilet at all. When that's a well-established behavior you can progress to treating them only for proper foot placement. Move their feet yourself, and then when they've finished give a treat — but if they do it with a foot in the bowl, no treat. And then finally when that's working you can treat them only when they do it without assistance.
Although I've read a method for teaching a cat to flush (you affix a weight on a string to the handle, and teach the cat to paw the weight), I've also read and heard quite a bit of anecdotal evidence which suggests that cats who do learn to flush tend to do it a lot — like whenever the mood strikes them — and it's difficult to get them to stop, or to associate that action only with the process of elimination. At any rate I never tried; I figured I'd quit while I was ahead. If I am both at home and awake, however, Misha will come bounding in and proudly announce to me when he's used the toilet, so that I can flush it for him.
If you aren't accustomed to flushing the toilet after every use, you'll have a conflict if your cat is the splashing type. In that case you'll have to make a choice — either go back to the litter box or start flushing the toilet after each use, including the cat's. If your cat doesn't do a lot of scratching around in his litter, he'll be even less likely to want to dig in the water (which is, after all, wet).
Misha, incidentally, won't touch the toilet water if it's dirty — he'll come ask someone to flush it, or he'll wait until it's been flushed, or (if he can't hold it any longer and no one's home or awake) he'll go in the bathtub instead. I always have a friend or a pet-sitting service come in once a day whenever we're gone to take care of things like flushing.
Cats generally do prefer their water a) cold and b) fresh, and one of the attractions of the toilet water is that it gets replaced very frequently. Misha tried that for a while, and I just trained him out of it by the most straightforward method: I'd catch him at it, tell him No! and lead him to the water dish (which I refilled with fresh water to make it more appealing). He got the idea pretty quickly. Every once in a blue moon I'll still catch him drinking out of the toilet (never when it's dirty, and only maybe once or twice a year), and I still handle it basically the same way. In some cases, once a cat starts to use the toilet she will be less inclined to drink from it; cats usually avoid eating and drinking near where they urinate and defecate. So if you have this problem it's just possible that it would solve itself once you started to train them; otherwise, I recommend the method described above. Keep the water dish clean and replace with cold fresh water a couple of times a day, too.
Misha took his first long trip when he was just over five months old — a cross-country move from Austin to Chicago. During this journey we confirmed that toilet-training is transferable, not toilet-specific: Misha did immediately recognize other toilets as having the same purpose as the one he was trained on. The first time I tried to get him to use a truck-stop toilet en route, however, was a terribly frustrating experience for both of us. We argued for half an hour over whether he was going to use that toilet; he tried halfheartedly at first but eventually just sat on the seat and looked unhappy.
How much of this common to cats in general and how much is specific to Misha I have no idea. But I soon learned that Misha needs a certain amount of time to adjust to new surroundings before he'll be comfortable enough to use a toilet. Quick gas-station stops are out of the question. He will, however, use a toilet in a motel room — after he's taken about half an hour to thoroughly sniff and investigate every corner of the suite. As a kitten he needed to urinate more frequently, and then we resorted to bringing a litter box with us for the road. But as an adult cat he makes it all day just fine, using the toilets in motels morning and evening.
Of course, not all toilets are created equal, and your cat will likely show a definite preference for whatever kind of setup he's accustomed to. It's that resistance-to-change thing. When we moved from Seattle to New York in 1995, it was a nine-day trip. One night we were in a motel with a toilet that Misha just didn't like — it was oval rather than round, very long and narrow, and there was hardly any water in the bottom — not at all what he was used to. He really did not want to use that toilet, but he'd been cooped up in the cab of the truck all day and had to go. He kept jumping off the toilet and scouting around in the corners like he was thinking about peeing there, and I just had to stand there and watch him and insist that he get back up on the toilet. I'd tell him No every time he thought about doing something else — and he'd argue with me; he's very vocal and opinionated. But I persisted stubbornly for about half an hour and finally he gave in and did what he was supposed to do. And then I fell all over myself telling him how good he was and fed him. And he used the toilet just fine by himself the next morning.
Occasionally there are situations where a brief return to the litter box is necessary, and you need not worry that your cat won't remember how. For the first couple of years Misha was a little reluctant to give up the litter on these occasions and go back to the toilet, but even this token resistance wore off eventually.
Here are a few things to consider if you find that your cat is consistently using the toilet for one operation and not the other. The squat positions are different: a high one for bowel movements and a low one for urination. The high squat is more unstable and may make some cats nervous; Misha's biggest problem was learning to place his feet in the pee squat where they didn't slip off. In the former case, make sure that the entire contraption is very secure — you may want to tape the metal bowl in place if it's shifting at all. If you're using a plastic bowl or liner or wrap, you should try the metal bowl method instead. In the latter case, you can try buying a padded toilet seat to give the cat more purchase.
Another possibility is that one operation is making a noise or splash that she doesn't like — maybe the sound of liquid against metal or the louder noise of solids hitting water from a great height. At this point, you basically have to experiment. If she's balking at the open toilet, go back to the metal bowl. If she's using the bowl only for one operation, try skipping ahead to the open toilet. If that doesn't work, go back to litter and make another run at it.
Then there's always the "see, it could be worse" training method, which sometimes works well with particularly stubborn cats. If your cat turns up his nose at a reduced quantity of litter and can't be coaxed, try just going ahead with water in the mixing bowl anyway. Leave it there for a day or so, and then remove the water and place a few grains of litter in the bottom of the bowl. Chances are, he'll decide a little litter isn't so bad after all.
If the cat is consistently using the toilet but not getting all four feet on the seat — well, first of all, congratulations. You're in the home stretch. You have a couple of options. You can try the obstruction trick — putting a piece or two of tape or string across the width of the bowl in order to force the cat to put his paws on the seat. It's worth a try, but it very rarely works; most cats just shift over to where there's no tape and put their paws in the bowl anyway.
Your other option is simply careful attention and persistence. Make sure you're there every time your cat starts to use the toilet. Praise effusively as he starts. If he gets into position with a foot or two in the bowl, move them up where they're supposed to be. If your cat gets annoyed and tries to leave when you touch his feet — insist! Go get him, bring him back, and put him in a squat. (You might want to let him sniff a treat first so that he knows there's something in it for him.) If you get him to hold for a minute in the proper squat, praise and give the treat, even if he doesn't eliminate. Then when he's got the squat down pat you can treat only for properly-placed elimination.
Also, once a cat has actually begun to pee, she's unlikely (in most cases, unable) to stop. If your cat gets ruffled by your attempts at manual paw placement, next time wait until she's started to urinate before adjusting her posture. Just make sure to keep your hands clear of the stream ...
One of my younger cats, less bright than Misha, was ultimately unable or unwilling to make the last leap to bare toilet. After months of trying, I finally decided to compromise: I bought a steel mesh colander to replace the mixing bowl and kept a tablespoon or so of chunky silica litter in the bottom. With this arrangement, he both peed and shat in the toilet, but the pee would strain right on through and could be flushed away. The drawbacks are fairly obvious: you still have to scoop out solid wastes, and any humans using the toilet must consistently move the colander out of the way first. In my case, it was worth it; I still saved a lot of money per month in litter, and so long as I was vigilant about removing solids, the odor was more controlled.
If a cat is upset by the change in his elimination spot, he may go quite a long time just "holding it," probably in the hopes that eventually things will go back to the way they used to be. No need to panic. Misha has repeatedly demonstrated (usually on long driving trips or while I'm away) the surprising ability to go a whole day, even twenty-four hours, without using the bathroom, without any ill effect. If your cat really needs to go, he'll go (although not necessarily in the place you'd prefer).
If it's been two days, you'll want to check the house over very carefully (possibly with an ultraviolet light). Most likely you have a damp spot somewhere you won't appreciate. At any rate, it's time to back up a step and approach that stage again more slowly.
You can hope to get through the whole training process without any messes, but don't count on it. If you have rugs or carpet in your bathroom, remove them before you start, and don't leave towels or clothes lying on the bathroom during the training period. Cats seek out absorbent materials to pee into, so remove anything from the area that might be tempting.
If you find a mess on the tile or in the bathtub, clean it thoroughly with a tub and tile cleaner. I strongly suggest investing in a bottle of enzyme cleaner before you start the process, especially if your house is carpeted or if your cat has ever before peed on a mattress, couch, or other furniture. I've had particularly good results with Simple Solution by Outright. I don't recommend Nature's Miracle; it doesn't seem to work nearly as well. Clean carpet spots thoroughly with the enzyme cleaner and then sprinkle white vinegar over the area. (This is equivalent to "marking" the area with your own scent to replace his; cats are drawn to places that smell of themselves.)
Also, never try to toilet-train a cat who isn't already using the litter box properly. You'll only compound your problem.
Some readers have asked for more detail about selecting a mixing bowl. Measure the toilet rim (not the seat, but the rim of the actual toilet) at its widest point side-to-side, and get a metal bowl of that diameter. It should sit with the metal bowl rim resting on the toilet bowl rim, touching on at least three sides (left, right, front). There will likely be a gap at the back; depending on the style of your toilet this may be covered when you replace the seat, but even if there's still a small gap it shouldn't be a problem. The bowl shouldn't be floating on the water, although (again depending on your toilet) the bottom may get wet.
If you're opting for the colander compromise, look for one with the smallest holes you can find, to keep the litter from falling through into the toilet as well. I ended up with one made of steel mesh; it set me back $25, but otherwise I'd be spending that in about six weeks on litter. Make sure there are plenty of holes in the very bottom of the colander; the ones on the sides are unimportant.
You can also sometimes find commercial cat toilet-training kits for sale in pet stores and so forth. One popular kind contains a plastic liner that fits inside the toilet; the idea is that you gradually trim away the plastic from the center of the liner to create a slowly widening hole, until finally you are left with just the toilet seat.
I've never personally tried one of the kits, but I've had email from a number of people who have tried them and couldn't make them work. The most consistent complaint is lack of stability — essentially the same problem I described having with a plastic mixing bowl. The liners in the kits are made of very flimsy plastic, presumably because you'll need to cut through it, but this means that if the cat ever steps on it the whole thing wobbles or falls, and the cat promptly (and sensibly) decides this toilet thing isn't for her after all. One woman bought a $10 kit made by Vo-Toys and ended up buying two more and stacking them in an attempt to make it stable enough for the cat to use. I don't know if she was ever finally successful. It's a pricey option at any rate; a metal mixing bowl will cost a lot less and when you're done, you've still got a perfectly good bowl rather than a useless ring of plastic.
And if in the end you give up completely, there's always the self-cleaning litter box.
In addition to the books scattered along this page, you can find many more books on training cats at Amazon. The ones I read in 1989 are out of print now, but can be found used; each of the ones below has a fairly extensive section on toilet-training.
A woman who first read 'How to Toilet-Train Your Cat' page in 1996 was inspired to start a mailing list on the subject; that list lives on as a Yahoo Group on the subject.