Litterbox Training for Maine Coons

Follow these lessons in litter when training cats.

By Farrell Clancy

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Maine Coon Cat with Outstretched Paw
Take the advice of our experts as they provide you with the litterbox know-how required to make your Maine Coon's potty experience a pleasant one.

Perfect Pickings
The first step in creating a pleasant potty experience for your Maine Coon is to pick the right supplies. Because there are so many different types and sizes of litterboxes (hooded, no hood, small, large) and litter (scented, non-scented, scoopable, cedar chips), making a choice can seem overwhelming at first.

Hooded litterboxes flood the market because they're a popular choice for owners, but the truth is most cats don't like them because they create a “foul-smelling igloo,” says Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB, ACVA, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help (Bantam, 1999) and professor of behavioral pharmacology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. This can lead to non-use, which causes accidents. Also, some Maine Coons may be too big to fit under the hood.

Your best bet is to pick a simple box that's large enough for your cat to “urinate in one corner and defecate in another,” advises Katherine Houpt, V.M.D., Ph.D., a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who works in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York.

Bigger is generally better, but the box's sides shouldn't be so high that your Maine Coon, (if still a kitten) can't climb in. Bonnie V. Beaver, D.V.M., MS, executive director of American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and professor at Texas A&M University's department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery in College Station, Texas, recommends starting with a sweater storage box for your kitten, then moving up to a true litterbox as it grows. Liz Hansen, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at Nevada State College in Las Vegas, Nevada, and a Maine Coon breeder, exhibitor and owner of Chemicoons cattery agrees. “For many years I used inexpensive but roomy storage containers, which you can find at your local hardware store for less than five dollars,” she says. “Once a year I'd just throw them out completely and replace them,” she adds. Another bonus: they come with lids so they're easy to take along when traveling. Long and large boxes, are especially a must with longhaired Maine Coons. [WHY?] Your best bet is to buy one more box than the number of cats you have; if you have two cats, you'll need three litterboxes.

Litter Choices
Scented litters are mostly for an owner's benefit, and your cat may or may not like the odor. If you have a kitten, it will most likely prefer the type of litter it was raised with. “People often make the mistake of abruptly changing their cat's litter type,” Dr. Beaver says, which is why she recommends making a gradual change.

Start by filling the box with half of the old litter and half of the new, then slowly increase the amount of the new litter over a few days. Or, you could simply add another box with the new litter to see if your cat likes it. “Give your cat opportunities to use both litter types,” Dr. Beaver says. “After all, your cat may not like your choice. Cats don't care about coupons.”

Most cats prefer a litter that has a sand-like composition,” Dr. Dodman says. Clay-based litters tend to clump better, and are therefore easier to scoop. He advises against litters made of coarse granules, which would be like “walking on a stony beach without shoes.”

Make sure you put enough litter in the box; after all, cats like to bury their eliminations and don't want to walk through a minefield of deposits to do so. “I wouldn't let the litter get below 2 inches deep; 4 inches is better,” Dr. Dodman says.

Proper Potty Placement
Before you place litterboxes in spots that are most convenient for you, try thinking from your cat's perspective. “If you're only 6 inches tall, would you want to climb the equivalent of Mt. Everest [your stairs] and walk the 9-mile hallway to get to the third floor's back bedroom?” Dr. Beaver poses. “It might as well be Siberia.”

Although your basement keeps your cat's litterbox hidden from guests, it also encourages accidents when your Maine Coon doesn't want to make the effort (say after just waking up from a nap in your bed). Instead, place each litterbox in an easily-accessible spot, away from your Maine Coon's food and free from obstacles. “If your cat has to high-hurdle a baby gate or fear being eaten by your dog every time it needs to potty, it's going to think, ‘Why bother?'” Dr. Beaver says.

The best spot to place a litterbox is in a convenient, quiet spot away from high-traffic areas—but your Maine Coon must have access to it at all times. If you live in a multi-story house, your cat should have an appropriate potty place on each floor. “Three litterboxes lined up in the laundry room is equivalent to one big box,” Dr. Dodman says.

If you chose the basement over the first-floor powder room because you don't want guests to smell your kitten's litterbox, remember that “if you clean it more often, you won't have to smell it either,” she adds. In fact, a dirty litterbox is the No.1 reason cats soil outside of it. “In my experience, cleanliness is even more important than litterbox location or type,” Dr. Houpt notes.

End Pesky Problems
If your Maine Coon starts going outside of its litterbox, it could be caused by a medical condition, so always take your cat to the veterinarian for a checkup. If your cat receives clean bill of health, then there's a good chance you can put an end to this pesky problem by making a few simple adjustments at home, such as placing the appropriate number of litterboxes in easily-accessible places; using a scoopable, sandy litter; and keeping the box clean. But just how clean is clean?

Dr. Beaver insists on removing soiled litter and feces from the litterbox at least once a day, though some cats are pickier or urinate more frequently. “In my opinion, completely dumping and cleaning your cat's litterbox at least twice a week is critical,” Dr. Beaver says. Dr. Hansen does it more often for pregnant or sick cats. “I truly believe that frequent litterbox cleaning—just like when humans scrub our hands to ward off germs—can keep illnesses to a minimum,” she says. When you do dump and clean, you don't need to use anything more than a little bit of dish soap and warm water. Use the scooper to scratch away caked-on residue. “Avoid harsh chemicals, such as chlorine, bleach or other cleaning agents,” Dr. Dodman says. ”Your cat will smell it.” In fact, it's okay if the litterbox still has a faint smell of urine after you wash it to help your cat identify it as its potty.

To gauge whether you've provided a welcoming environment in which your cat can comfortably eliminate, “simply observe how your cat approaches and exits,” Dr. Dodman says. He illustrates proper litterbox behavior: “Your cat should dive right into the litterbox, spend some time walking about until it finds a corner to dig in. It will turn around, do its business, admire its handiwork, cover it up and skip lightly out of the box.” On the other hand, if your cat peeks into the box, takes a whiff and walks away, that's like “us saying ‘I'll wait—I can't do this' when we're faced with a porta-potty,” Dr. Dodman says.

Unfortunately, you won't have much success if you can't adequately clean up odors from previous accidents, Dr. Dodman adds. If you're not sure where your cat is urinating, use a black light to make the urine fluorescent. “Sometimes what you find is a terrible shock,” he says. You'll probably have to treat stubborn spots more than once. Occasionally, if your cat really favored a particular spot (or yikes—your entire bedroom!), the urine seeps from the carpet's surface down to the pad, and can even penetrate the sub-floor. I can't think of a better motivator for change than being forced to replace wall-to-wall carpeting!

Ahh, Perfection
There's no way to prevent all accidents, but you're bound to eliminate the peskiest potty problems by following the expert know-how we've outlined here: pick the perfect supplies for your Maine Coon, designate proper potty places and practice due diligence in keeping the litterbox clean. “Remember that cats are living creatures and they'll occasionally miss because they're not perfect,” Dr. Beaver says. “Don't condemn them, and don't get dramatic and change everything.” Simply assess the situation and make the necessary adjustments. Your Maine Coon — and your carpet — will thank you.

Farrell R. Clancy is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri, and is owned by her tabby cat Mr. Penny and Beagle-mix, Chloe.
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