If you’re considering going litter box-free, there are two common methods — toilet training and outdoor potty training. Toilet training isn’t recommended, as it goes against a cat’s instincts to bury their waste and is potentially harmful to wildlife. Outdoor litter training is a much better option, though it may still be best to keep at least one litter box inside the house.
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The Risks of Outdoor Potty Training Your Cat
Training your cat to go to the bathroom outside is the best option for litter-free toileting, but it has its limitations. It’s not as simple as throwing out the litter box and opening the door every few hours.
Cats Need Constant Bathroom Access
Unlike dogs, cats need constant access to their “bathroom”. This means that you’ll need to provide constant access to the outdoors or maintain at least one litter box inside. If a cat is forced to ‘hold it’, it can lead to some serious health complications. And oftentimes, they’ll end up finding somewhere else to go anyway.
It’s Not for Every Cat
Domesticated cats are pretty far removed from their wild ancestors.
Some may experience stress or anxiety when forced out of the home. Even cats that are comfortable spending time outdoors may not enjoy being outside in certain weather, when it’s particularly noisy or busy outside, or when there are other neighborhood cats or wildlife making them uneasy.
If your cat doesn’t seem confident going outdoors, don’t force them. Not all cats will adjust to outdoor litter training.
Parasites and Your Garden
Cat feces can contain parasites like T.gondii, roundworm, tapeworm, and hookworm, just to name a few.
When your cat goes to the bathroom outside it can be difficult, if not impossible, to control where they go. If they decide to use a vegetable or herb garden or go near a water source like a stream, well, or wetlands, these harmful parasites can spread.
If you have edible plants, be sure to wear gloves when tending the garden, wash your hands when finished, and thoroughly wash any harvested crop. If any neighbors have a garden, make sure to discuss your plans with them and make sure they’re okay with it. It’s irresponsible to allow your cat to poop in a neighbors garden without first discussing the risks.
Should You Go Litter Box-Free?
Even if your cat is very comfortable going outside, it’s still a good idea to keep at least one litter box inside, just in case. There are a couple benefits to doing so.
First, in the wild cats mark their territory with urine. Using a litter box inside the house can help make your home feel like home to your cat as well.
Second, consider that providing constant outdoor access for your cat also opens your home to uninvited guests. Wild animals are much more likely to sneak in at night when it’s dark and quiet.
Oftentimes, indoor-outdoor cat parents will choose to keep their pets inside at night. Both for their safety and so they can lock the pet door to keep out unwanted visitors. But you won’t have the option of locking the cat door without providing at least one indoor litter box.
How to Train a Cat to Go to the Bathroom Outside
So you’ve thought through the challenges of outdoor potty training, and you’re ready to give it a go. To train your cat to go to the bathroom outside:
- Start by moving one of your cat’s litter boxes just outside the house. They should still have at least one remaining in your home. Let your cat out to examine the new situation.
- As they start to become comfortable using the outdoor litter box, gradually move it toward your desired location. Your cat will ultimately go wherever they please, but it’s worth a shot.
- Once the litter box is in the desired location, and they’re using it regularly, remove the box and replace with a pile of litter directly on the ground. It may help to place some of their fresh poop in the litter to let them know that it’s “okay” to go here.
- As your cat becomes increasingly comfortable, slowly do away with the litter.
Remember, your cat should be comfortable when using the bathroom or their health may suffer. Don’t force your cat into desired bathroom behavior for your own convenience. And don’t rush the process. Cats take time to adjust to change, the more time the better.
How to Choose the Best Cat Door
The most common solution to provide outdoor access are cat door inserts for sliding doors or windows. They’re relatively inexpensive and don’t require making permanent changes to your home. Alternatively, there are cat doors that can be added to any existing door and those that can be installed directly into walls — both of which are much more permanent changes.
With some cats, the type of flap — soft vs solid, single flap vs double — can make a big difference. In our experience, more anxious cats in particular tend to avoid double flapped cat doors.
5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Toilet Train Your Cat
Toilet training is another common method of going litter-less. And while it sounds great in theory, it’s not a very good option for your cat or the environment.
1. Burying waste is an instinctual behavior.
All that scratching and digging in the litter box isn’t for fun or exercise.
In the wild, cats bury their poop to hide their scent from predators. It’s a crucial survival instinct that continues to exist in even the most domesticated cats. While it may be convenient for us, and our cats may learn to comply — toilet training a cat conflicts with deeply ingrained instincts.
2. It may harm wildlife.
Cat poop sometimes contains Toxoplasma gondii, a harmful parasite that causes the disease Toxoplasmosis. Unfortunately, many wastewater treatment plants aren’t equipped to handle T.gondii — meaning the parasite can end up in local waterways, where it can cause harm to wildlife.
3. You may be flushing evidence of health problems.
When you flush a cat’s urine, you may be flushing valuable evidence of potential health problems. Small changes in frequency and amount of urine can help with the early detection of certain problems. Diabetes, renal disease, and urinary obstructions are just a few of the many medical issues that can be detected by keeping a close eye on your cat’s urine. When flushing feces, it may be more challenging to notice other signs of medical issues like bloody stool.
Toilets aren’t designed for cats. To use a toilet, they need to be agile enough to jump onto the seat, and graceful enough to not fall in while doing so. Even if your cat is able to make the leap now, consider what will happen as they age. It will only become increasingly difficult.
Unless your cat has their own private bathroom, situations will arise where the toilet isn’t available. If dad sometimes spends 20 minutes on the toilet, your cat may need to either “hold it” (which is very bad for cats) or find somewhere else to go (which will probably be your pillow).
While it may sound great in theory, going litter-less has plenty of downsides. Toilet training your cat may cause your cat psychological distress, and is potentially harmful to the environment. Outdoor training a cat is okay, but it’s still best to maintain at least one indoor litter box. Whatever you decide, remember that your cat’s comfort is the most important factor. If they aren’t adjusting to their new bathroom situation, don’t force it. Scooping litter isn’t that inconvenient.
- Cornell Feline Health Center. (2018, June). Toxoplasmosis in Cats. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/toxoplasmosis-cats
- Krueger, W. S., Hilborn, E. D., Converse, R. R., & Wade, T. J. (2014). Drinking water source and human Toxoplasma gondii infection in the United States: a cross-sectional analysis of NHANES data. BMC Public Health, 14, 711. https://dx.doi.org/10.1186%2F1471-2458-14-711
About Matthew Alexander
Matthew lives in Maryland with his two cats, Puff and Pancho. He’s been caring for and fostering cats with various special needs for more than fifteen years. He hopes to pass some of the insight and knowledge that he’s gained on to the readers of Pawmore.