Puppies and kittens aren't like human babies. You can't wait 2 years to start potty training. "With a puppy or kitten you say, "Oh it's just a little mess." But when that puppy is a 70-pound dog, it's not as cute," says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, associate veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California.
Start getting your pet into the habit of going outside or in a litter box as soon as you come home from the shelter or breeder. "Puppies and kittens like routines, just like human children," Cruz says. "They may not catch on immediately, but they will learn." If you're lucky, your pet will have already picked up a few training tips from mom and dad before coming to live with you.
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Don't give your new family member free rein of the house until you've established some training routines. Set up a space where you can confine your pet -- and their messes. For puppies, a crate is ideal. "Often people think of crates as being somewhat cruel, but it can be a secure area for them," Cruz says.
A good rule of thumb is to keep puppies in the crate for no more than 1 hour per month of age, plus 1 additional hour. So a 2-month-old puppy can stay in the crate for 3 hours max. Confine kittens to a small section of your house, like a bathroom, a closet, or even a playpen. Put everything your kitten needs -- food, water, and litter box -- within reach.
Learn to read your pet's body language. Some dogs are obvious when they have to go, Cruz says. Others are subtler. "They will give you that doe-eyed look and wander around." If you notice your pup nosing around, pick it up and head outside. When your puppy goes in the yard, instead of on your Persian rug, some serious praise is in order. Training might take some time, but by 4 months your puppy should be in the habit of doing their business outside.
Kittens are a snap to house-train. Cats instinctively cover their messes (to hide their waste from predators), so put them in the litter box a couple of times and they should get the idea.
If your puppy or kitten does make a mess, don't punish. More often than not, the problem is yours: Either you didn't let your puppy out in time, or you forgot to clean the litter box. ("If someone only flushed your toilet once a week, would you want to go in it?" Cruz asks.) Get a good odor neutralizer to clean up the mess, but never hit or scold. When a pet just won't house-train, see the vet. Your kitten or puppy might have a physical problem, such as a bladder infection, that you need to address.