Here’s the Scoop: PugetPets Digs into Cat Litter

A Cat, a Cold Day and Some Clay

Until the late 1940’s, people kept their cats outside, using sand or ashes as litter on occasions when it was necessary to keep them indoors. It was just such an occasion, a frigid Midwest January day in 1947, when a certain Mrs. Draper discovered that her sand pile had frozen. She tried using ashes, but her cat tracked them all over the house. So she went to her neighbor, Ed Lowe, to borrow some sand. Lowe instead gave her a type of clay known as Fuller’s Earth, capable of absorbing its weight in water. She found it worked far better than sand. Before long, enterprising Lowe had packaged Fuller’s Earth as “Kitty Litter” under the brand name Tidy Cat, and an institution was born. In 1990, Lowe’s company sold for $200 million, small change to the current owner of the Tidy Cat brand, Ralston Purina.

Not Your Grandma’s Cat Litter

These days, the market is inundated with a mind-boggling array of cat litters. In addition to the old-school clay litter, you can buy litters made from corn, wheat, pine, coconut, reclaimed lumber scrap, old newspaper, and even something called zeolite. There’s scented litter, clumping litter, pellet litter, dust-free litter, flushable litter, crystal litter, home delivery litter and complete cat litter “systems.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to find the litter that’s right for you and your cat. So PugetPets decided to take a look at some types and features of litter to help you narrow down your search.

Scented or Unscented?

Unscented! A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times more powerful than a human’s. Your cat does not like perfumes, and many are concerned that chemical fragrances contain environmental toxins that can cause respiratory and other health problems for both you and your cat. The purpose of fragrance in litter is to mask litter box odor, not eliminate it, and manufacturers frequently use it in combination with cheap, poor quality litter materials that are not capable of naturally eliminating odors. Using a high-quality natural, unscented (odorless) litter and cleaning the box regularly will solve odor problems while creating an attractive, natural and healthy environment for your kitty’s potty needs.

To Flush or Not to Flush?

Many biodegradable litters are advertised as “flushable,” and they are indeed safe for your plumbing. However, cats are natural carriers for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, and flushing litter increases the risk of public infection with this parasite. The majority of humans that become infected are unaware of their condition because their immune systems are able to fight off infection without symptoms. However, individuals with a compromised immune system may exhibit severe symptoms that include pain, eye redness and blurry vision. If a pregnant woman becomes infected, her fetus may suffer brain or eye damage. Toxoplasma has also been linked to conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. Flushing cat litter down the toilet, even if that cat litter is marketed as safe for pipes, allows Toxoplasma gondii to enter the water supply, and it is therefore not advisable to flush even a “flushable” litter.

Clumping, Pellet, or…?

This is largely a matter of your cat’s personal preference, though you may be permitted to have some input on the final selection. Pellet litters are typically made of super-absorbent materials that soak up urine, allowing groups of pellets to be removed or simply to dry without odor. Pellet litters are made of everything from newspaper and sawdust to nutshells and high-tech minerals. Clumping litters work by the particles expanding and adhering to each other when wet, forming discrete clumps for easy removal. These litters are also made from a variety of substances, including bentonite clay (the old Fuller’s Earth), pine, wheat or corn. Bear in mind that some cats who were raised on sandy-textured clumping litters will have difficulty transitioning to a pellet litter, and some will outright refuse to use it.

So-called “crystal” litter forms something of a third category. This non-biodegradable litter is made from dried silica gel, the same desiccant packed with food products and medicines, usually in tiny packets prominently labeled “Do Not Eat.” Some experts have raised concerns about the safety of crystal litters, noting that they can be dangerous if eaten over a long period of time, which happens naturally when cats clean their feet. These litters are super-absorbent and can go a long time without being cleaned (except for solids), but the tiny, jagged crystalline particles are very hard on a cat’s sensitive paws, so while they may seem convenient to us, chances are that cats are merely tolerating them for lack of an alternative.

Cautions about clay

Clumping clay litters typically contain sodium bentonite, a natural clay which is considered to be an inert, non-toxic substance. However, some serious health concerns have been reported. In particular, kittens have been known to ingest small amounts of clumping clay litter causing intestinal blockage and death. In addition, the all too common “dust” from these litters contains crystalline silica, known to cause a variety of respiratory problems and lung disease if inhaled in sufficient quantities.

If you’re concerned about the possible health risks of clay litter, we suggest using litter made of an alternative clumping material, such as pine, wheat, or corn. These are biodegradable and have very few, if any health risks. A caution with wheat is that the dust is very fine and can also cause possible respiratory issues. Wheat dust settles on household surfaces and therefore should be avoided by anyone with a wheat or gluten allergy. Corn has been known to be a medium for mycotoxins (toxic molds) when exposed to moisture. The risk to cats is very slight, and keeping your corn-based litter scooped regularly should eliminate almost any chance of illness from mycotoxins. Corn-based litter has the advantage of producing very little dust. Some examples of these safe, biodegradable alternatives to clay litter include Ökocat Natural Wood Clumping Litter, Swheat Scoop Natural Fast-Clumping Cat Litter, and World’s Best Cat Litter (made from corn).

Pellet profusion

We can’t get enough of all the great pellet litters currently available. The advantages of these litters (if your cat will use them!) are many. They are entirely dust-free and less likely to get tracked around the house. Most are biodegradable, even compostable, and many are made of recycled or reclaimed materials, such as pine from lumber milling, nutshells, and newspaper. A downside of pellet litter is that it can be difficult to separate the wet pieces from the dry for scooping. Some have recommended using a bottom layer of clumping litter with a layer of pellet litter on top to get the benefit of scoopability from clumping litter with the reduced dust and tracking of pellet litter—the best of both worlds! Examples of pellet litters include Simply Pine All-Natural Pine Pellet Litter, Blue Buffalo Naturally Fresh Pellet Non-Clumping Cat Litter (made from walnut shells), Fresh News Cat Litter (made from 100% recycled paper – great for house-bunnies, too!), and CatSpot Litter (made from coconut).

Ed Lowe’s legacy takes pellet litter to a high-tech extreme with Purina Tidy Cat’s Breeze Litter System, a specialized box and litter system that features non-tracking pellets, a filter-tray and a drawer under the litter box that holds pads to absorb urine. The pellets allow the moisture to flow down through the filter-tray onto the pads for easy removal. You only have to scoop number two, so pellets need to be replaced very infrequently. This litter system is very clean and odor-free. Downsides include the pellets themselves. They are made from silica gel and a natural mineral called zeolite. While non-toxic, they are not biodegradable and some feel their size and shape make them uncomfortable for cats’ feet. Also, purchasing the system obligates you to purchase the pellets and pads (also non-biodegradable) on an ongoing basis. This is clever marketing on Purina’s part, but plenty of Breeze purchasers claim that you can substitute other types of (biodegradable) pellet litter for Tidy Cat’s zeolite version with even better results.

The Scoop on Litters

A lot has changed since Ed Lowe started the original “Kitty Litter” enterprise. There are so many varieties of cat litter on the market today, we had trouble even knowing where to start! But in the end, we (and our cats) prefer natural-material, dust-free, fragrance-free varieties that are healthy for the planet, for our cats, and for us. Many of these are also naturally odor- and bacteria-resistant. Whether you choose a clumping litter or pellets, pine or paper, corn or coconut will depend on what works best for you and your cats. If you’re looking for a new litter, take our advice and let your cat try out some of these new natural products. There are tons of them available—we’ve only scratched the surface!