Cat litter is cat litter, right? If only it were that easy. With almost 90 million cats living in the US alone, it’s not surprising that the annual global sales of cat litter is nearly $1 billion. It’s big business, and with the advent of more eco-friendly litter materials competing with clay, it’s going to get bigger. Trying to determine the best cat litter for your cat can be a daunting mission. Just standing in the litter isle can be overwhelming to a new cat parent, as well as cat owners that are just looking for an alternative to their current litter. There are so many questions, so many brands and so many promises. Let’s take a look back at how cat litter was discovered, get familiar with some common litter types and materials, and examine the concerns that cat parents have regarding its use and safety.
Prior to 1950, most domesticated cats used the great outdoors as their litter box. The housecats of the day were treated to a box of sand or fireplace ashes. Just imagine the mess that sooty, sandy paw prints would make across a freshly mopped floor. It was for that reason that in 1947, a woman frustrated with the untidy tracks of her cat, approached her neighbor Ed Lowe to inquire about a more penetrable type of sand. Lowes’ family owned a company that sold industrial absorbents, so Lowe knew a thing or two about the absorbency of various natural materials. He recommended to his neighbor that she use clay because of its high absorbency, and because it’s larger grain size would minimize the tracking. The clay was a hit! Realizing the potential of his finding, Lowe began packing the clay in brown paper bags, scribbling “Kitty Litter” across the front and selling it to local grocery stores. And yes, for lack of a better phrase, the rest is history.
Non-clumping clay litteris made from natural clay, consisting of the minerals zeolite, diatomite, and sepiolate, and dried into tiny pellets or granules. Clay materials are highly absorbent, drawing the cat urine to the bottom of the litter box, thus reducing odor. A number of clay litters contain additives which offer additional odor control. Since traditional clay is non-clumping, the cat urine eventually mixes into the clay requiring more frequent cleaning.
Clumping clay litteris made from bentonite clay, which tends to clump together when wet. Due to the clumping property, the urine will clump into a ball rather than seep throughout the litter, making scooping much easier. While clumping litter is a little more expensive than non-clumping, you generally don’t have to replace the litter as frequently using less over time.
Clay concerns– There are some concerns regarding possible health hazards of using clumping litter. A common concern is that kittens, which typically ingest litter when they are very young, can develop an intestinal blockage, due to the swelling properties of sodium bentonite clay when it becomes wet. Therefore it is recommended that kittens not use clumping litter. However, there are numerous stories on the internet from owners who report that their adult cats, as well as kittens, have developed issues such as intestinal blockages and respiratory problems, due to the dust, when using clumping litter.
Silica Gel Litter
Made from silica dioxide, silica gel litter – also known as crystal litter – is a more common alternative to clay litters. The granules consist of tiny pores that can absorb up to forty times their weight in moisture. However, once the granules have reached maximum saturation, urine will begin to pool in the bottom of the litter box. While the dust associated with silica litter is less evident than that in clay litter, it is still a concern for some cat parents who worry about respiratory illnesses resulting from repeated exposure. Nonetheless, because of its high absorbency and good odor control, crystal litter is a favorite among many cat parents, but some cats find the granules hard and uncomfortable on their paws.
Until the early 1990’s, the litter decision was a relatively easy one: clumping, or non-clumping clay. The barrage of alternative litters has been steadily streaming onto shelves for almost 20 years, and thanks to the eco-friendly mindset of America, there has been a surge of biodegradable litters within the last decade. Biodegradable litters are made from a variety of plant resources, and because they completely break down in the land fields they are considered environmentally friendly. Although these litters cost more than traditional clay litter, they tend to last longer and most of them are flushable. Biodegradable litters are made from a vast array of materials including wheat grass, oat hulls, processed orange peel, cedar chips, pine sawdust; the list goes on. While generally thought to be safer than clay or silica based litters, the unusual materials can be off-putting to some cats, and some cat owners find that the odor control is lacking.
So How Do I Decide?
The truth is, there is no definitive formula for purchasing the perfect cat litter. Cats have a reputation for being finicky; therefore you may have to try a few brands or materials before finding the best fit for you and your cat. Before heading off to the pet store, take some time and research litter online, including visiting manufacturers’ websites. Look for unbiased customer reviews, usually found on cat related blogs and forums. Talk with your veterinarian about possible health effects that he/she may have seen as a result of a specific type of litter. Approaching the litter isle with some information in hand will allow you to make an educated decision that will meet your needs and more importantly those of your cat.