KITTY LITTER

KITTY LITTER

For today’s cat owners, cat litter is as much a necessity as cat food. But before 1950, most cat boxes were filled with sand, dirt, or ashes instead of the more convenient superabsorbent litters to which cat lovers are now accustomed.

Kitty litter got its start when a neighbor frustrated with her cat tracking ashes throughout the house asked a budding entrepreneur named Edward Lowe for some sand. Lowe, whose family owned an industrial absorbents company, convinced her to try clay instead. So Lowe sent the neighbor home with an absorbent clay called Fuller’s earth. She loved it and soon would use nothing else in her cat box.

Her enthusiasm spurred Lowe to try to sell the stuff, which he dubbed “Kitty Litter,” as a cat box filler. But the local pet store owner was doubtful that anyone would pay money for the product when the alternatives were available for next to nothing. So Lowe began giving it away for free. Soon, he had satisfied customers willing to pay good money for Kitty Litter. By 1990, Edward Lowe Industries was the largest producer of cat box filler in the U.S.

The secret to Lowe’s Kitty Litter is granulated Fuller’s earth. Fuller’s earth is actually a catchall term for a chemically diverse set of absorbent clay minerals capable of absorbing their weight in water. Fuller’s earth litters naturally provide some odor control by sequestering urine. But if the soiled litter isn’t replaced and urine begins to collect at the bottom of the box, bacteria found in feces will convert the uric acid in cat urine into unpleasant-smelling ammonia. Fuller’s earth litters can alleviate some of the ammonia odor by trapping the positively charged ammonium ions that are formed when water in urine protonates the ammonia. To improve odor control, cat litter manufacturers use a number of additives, including baking soda to absorb smells, fragrances to mask unpleasant scents, and antibacterial agents to kill odor-causing bacteria.

Traditional clay litters like Lowe’s original Kitty Litter still make up about 40% of the cat litter market. But like ashes, dirt, and sand, traditional clay litters must be discarded and replaced fairly often, making cat box cleaning a frequent chore. Unhappy with the inconvenience of traditional litters, biochemist and cat lover Thomas Nelson began investigating alternative clay formulations in the early 1980s. He observed that a certain type of clay called bentonite clumped up in the presence of moisture, allowing waste to be isolated and scooped out, leaving behind clean litter. Today, roughly 60% of the cat litter sold in the U.S. is of the clumping variety, and most of it is made from bentonite clay.

Bentonite is largely composed of montmorillonite, a clay mineral made up of stacks of SiO4 sandwiched between two sheets of octahedrally coordinated aluminum, magnesium, or iron. Substitution of lower valence ions for some of the higher valence ones in the octahedral sheets creates a negative charge imbalance that traps cations, most often sodium or calcium, between the stacked sandwiches.

The absorption power of various types of bentonite is determined by which cation is present and in what amount. Because sodium ions have a larger hydration sphere than calcium ions do, sodium bentonite can absorb more moisture than its calcium counterpart, explains clay scientist Shobha Parekh of Wyo-Ben, a bentonite mining company in Billings, Mont. Sodium-rich bentonite is therefore the material of choice for clumping cat litter, she says.

Like traditional clay litters, bentonite litters provide some inherent odor control, thanks to their ability to sequester urine and to trap any NH4+produced from urine degradation. Recently, “crystal” cat litters that promise improved odor control have entered the market. The silica gel used to make these crystals is chemically similar to that used in desiccants. The silica gel crystals in such litters are dotted with tiny pores, allowing the crystals to absorb cat urine, then slowly allow the water to evaporate off.

Some cat lovers fear–unnecessarily, cat litter manufacturers say–that their cats might harm themselves by ingesting superabsorbent clay litters if they lick their paws after doing their business in the box. In response, a number of companies are marketing plant-derived alternatives made of wood pulp, corn, wheat–even peanut shells and orange peels.

For example, Swheat Scoop litter, marketed by Detroit Lakes, Minn.-based Pet Care Systems, relies on natural wheat enzymes to neutralize litter box odor, while wheat starches trap moisture and clump firmly for easy scooping. In addition to being safe to eat, Swheat Scoop and other plant-derived alternative litters are biodegradable and can be used as mulch or even flushed down the toilet. Swheat Scoop founder Mike Hughes estimates that more than 160,000 tons of nonbiodegradable cat litter ends up in municipal solid-waste landfills each year.

Despite this vast array of choices–both clumping and nonclumping litters made of clay, silica, and plant-derived alternatives–most cat lovers still think that cleaning the litter box stinks.

cented vs. Unscented Cat Litter: What does the research say?

Scented Litter and Unscented Cat Litter – what’s the difference?

scented cat litter is made without additional scent agents. Sometimes, unscented cat litter is called odorless litter; however, unscented cat litter will retain the smell of whatever it is made out of (clay, wood, corn, wheat, etc.). If you get an unscented cat litter with odor-absorbing additives like baking soda or carbon, it may smell like those things.

Scented cat litter contains additives that help cover or absorb those telltale litter box smells (ammonia, feces, mold). Odorants include fragrance, perfumes, deodorizers, or other natural or artificial scent agents. Sometimes an ingredient like carbon or baking soda is added in addition to the fragrance to help absorb litter box odors. Fragrances in scented litters are wide-ranging, from lavender, outdoors, and pine to fresh, spring breeze, and even Hawaiian.

So, which should you use for your cat? Do cats prefer scented or unscented cat litter?

What does the research say?

Mixed Results

The short answer is that it’s not clear if cats have a preference for scented or unscented cat litter. One researcher who has conducted a number of studies on cats and litter box behavior is Dr. Jacqueline Neilson, DVM. Dr. Neilson presented the results of one such study at the 2011 Veterinary Behavior Conference.

One relevant study looked at litter use for 35 neutered cats over a four-day period. At the end of the study, the total amount of urine and feces were measured to determine whether cats preferred scented or unscented cat litter. The results? The scented litter was used 134 times, while the unscented cat litter was used 143 times. Dr. Neilson’s conclusion was that, in general, cats did not demonstrate a significant preference.

Likewise for individual cats within the study, 16 cats preferred unscented cat litter, 12 preferred scented, and 7 showed no preference at all. This lead Dr. Neilson to conclude there isn’t a statistically significant preference for one kind of litter. You can read more about this study here.

Contrasting evidence is found in Dr. Debra Horwitz’s 1997 study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science. Dr. Horwitz compared two populations of cats: 100 with a history of housesoiling and 44 with no history of persistent housesoiling. Horwitz did find a correlation between use of scented litter and litter box problems.

Based on these two studies, as well as a number of others, it’s not possible to say definitively whether cats prefer scented or unscented cat litter.

Odor-Controlling Additives

A 2010 study by Dr. Neilson, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, might lead us to a slightly different conclusion. In this study, Dr. Neilson examined whether cats show a preference for litter odor control additives, specifically focused on carbon versus baking soda. The abstract of the study can be found here.

The study concluded that cats prefer carbon as an odor-controlling additive compared to baking soda. This result suggests that the question of whether cats prefer scented or unscented cat litter is too simplistic; perhaps there are more nuanced factors at work.

General Fragrance Preferences

There are also studies that focus on which smells cats show a general preference for. Dr. Neilson’s work shows up again on this topic; in two studies from 2007 and 2008. Dr. Neilson demonstrated that cats tend to prefer cedar, fish, and bleach aromas and that they tend to avoid citrus and floral scents. Read more about these studies here.

While we might be tempted to draw conclusions about scented cat litter based on these studies, it’s important to note that this research wasn’t carried out in association with litter box use, but fragrance preferences in general. That said, if you choose to use a scented litter, Dr. Neilson’s research might suggest that you avoid litters with citrus and floral fragrances.

Conclusion: Scented vs. Unscented Cat Litter

When faced with unclear and contradictory evidence, what conclusions can we draw? When it comes to scented cat litter vs. unscented cat litter, the question might be part of the problem. Instead of whether the litter has a scent, the determining factor might be what kind of scent that is. And if the litter has a scent, it should be one that the cat prefers—and your cat might have a different set of preferences than your neighbor’s cat.

We all want to encourage consistent litter box use and avoid problem behavior, and litter choice is just one part of that calculus. We know (more certainly) that the following conditions must be in place before we begin to blame the litter: Cats prefer clean litter boxes. They want a litter box of adequate size. They want a sufficient number of litter boxes available (usually one more litter box than the number of the cats in the household).

If your cat has no litter box problems, then there’s no reason to change your cat litter (which can upset your cat if not switched gradually). If your cat does have litter box problems, after a visit to the vet to rule out medical causes, you may want to try out a different type of litter. Already using unscented cat litter? Perhaps one with an earthy, natural scent will make the difference.

Cat Litter: Seven Brands Compared

What Kind of Litter is Best?

Most cats don't use their litter boxes as napping spots, though some nervous kitties find security in the tight quarters
Most cats don’t use their litter boxes as napping spots, though some nervous kitties find security in the tight quarters | Source

Will The Cat Use It? Can You Flush It?

In the search for all things to care for our feline family members, few are as important as choosing the correct litter. It has to have a good balance of odor control, clumping ability, good price-to-quantity value, and above all, something the cat will agree to actually use.

Some folks are concerned with the environmental aspect of the clay litters, which do have an impact, both in the sourcing and treatment of the clay, and with the disposal. That said, no matter which litter is used, both it and the scooped contents are going to end up in a landfill.

Despite claims of being “flushable,” cat litter is not something you want to put into the sewer system. It never fully dissolves, and can end up clogging your plumbing. You most especially never want any litter down your pipes if you are on a septic system, as we are. Even if you only flush the solid waste, and not the urine clumps, there is still litter attached, and eventually it can cause a problem that is not cheap to fix.

Another Reason Not to Flush

Besides that, many cats have the toxoplasma gondii parasite, which is not filtered out by sewage treatment plants, and ends up in the ground water and eventually in the ocean. In the United States, cats are the usual host source. However, before you panic and try to get rid of your kitty, please note that indoor-only cats are very unlikely to have this. The problem is far more prevalent in cats who live outdoors, or are in-and-out cats.

Otherwise, the most likely sources are raw or undercooked meat, and unwashed produce from commercial sources. Your own garden veggies should be just fine—but do wash them anyway—no one likes a mouthful of grit. 😉

Many cats are very particular, and if the litter is not to their liking, they may take to soiling in other places in the house, none of which are appropriate.

Here, then, are the brands I’ve had occasion to use, and my rating scale for each. I cannot, however, grade them on cat-approval, as every cat is different, and what our cats are okay with, your cat may balk at using.

Kittens?

If you have a young kitten, up to about age six months, they need not only a low-dust litter, for the health of their lungs in not inhaling dust, but also one of the eco-friendly brands.

The “World’s Best” or the “S’Wheat” are good for this, because not only is the dust a factor, but kittens, like young children. often try to eat things that are not edible or not good for them.

Yes, some kittens will sample the litter. The corn or wheat types won’t hurt them, but if they ingest clay, that could cause some real problems. Naturally, this compromises your range of choice until they grow out of that age.

Grading System

I’ve graded them each on six criteria that are important in choosing a litter.

1) Clumping–which can also be seen as absorption.

2) Odor control–very important to most people, (if not to the cat).

3) Dust–some varieties shed off a lot of dust. Knowing about this is important both to people with allergies, as well as those with small kittens–a lot of dust is not good for them.

4) Ease of scooping–does the litter form firm clumps that are easy to scoop out; and also, if your cat is a ‘deep digger,’ does the liquid content cause a slurry that sticks like glue to the litter box?

5) Trackability–does the litter stay in the box, or stick to kitty’s paws, and end up tracked everywhere else?

6) Weight–litters that are very heavy may be hard for some people to lift and carry, so may be a consideration.

7) Cost–this is an important consideration for many people; for some, it is paramount, even over some downsides in quality.

1. Tidy Cats

This is a common and well-known brand. It comes in several varieties, all of which offer odor control and good clumping characteristics. Available in several sizes. This is a clay litter.

Grading scale:

Clumping ability: Excellent.

Odor control: Very good.

Dust level: Average.

Ease of scooping: Poor; urine clumps stick firmly to litter box, if cat scratches a ‘hole’ first.

Trackability: Not bad; most is shed within a foot or two of the litter box.

Weight: Relatively heavy.

Cost: $$

2. Boots and Barkley

Supposedly a high-end brand of clay litter, this one earned no medals in our household. It was, bar none, the dustiest litter I’ve ever used.

Grading scale:

Clumping ability: Very good.

Odor control: Reasonable, (but not in multi-cat households like ours).

Dust level: Absolute failure; dust was everywhere in the bathroom!

Ease of scooping: Average.

Trackability: So-so. More of a problem with kitties who have very fuzzy feet.

Weight: Middle range, not too heavy, but not truly lightweight, either.

Cost: $$$

3. Yesterday’s News

Touted as an ‘eco-friendly’ litter, made from recycled newspaper pressed into pellets. We detested this one. Its pellets are far too large, and while it seems like a good idea, it was not well thought through, and is poorly designed. We did not find its good points to outweigh the significant downsides.

Grading scale:

Clumping ability: Does not clump; does not absorb.

Odor control: Zero.

Dust level: Excellent; no dust.

Ease of scooping: Terrible; nearly impossible to scoop the waste from the pellets.

Trackability: Does not track out of the box (however, some cats will end up throwing it about while trying to bury).

Weight: Very light weight.

Cost: $$$

4. World’s Best Cat Litter

Made from dried and finely ground corn, it works reasonably well.

Grading scale:

Clumping ability: Excellent.

Odor control: So-so; not great.

Dust level: Very good.

Ease of scooping: Excellent; clumps do not stick to litter pan.

Trackability: Tracks a little bit; usually stays within a few feet.

Weight: Very light weight.

Cost: $$$

5. Winco Foods Brand Clumping Litter

This house brand of a regular clay litter is what we have used for some time. It is surprisingly good for the price. The main problem is the packaging, which is difficult to manage when full. We usually dump it out into a bucket saved from a Tidy Cats brand.

Grading scale:

Clumping ability: Excellent.

Odor control: Very good, but put to the test with our six cats.

Dust level: Very good; little dust.

Ease of scooping: Fair to poor; does stick firmly to the box if the cats have dug too deep.

Trackability: Pretty much a standard clay type; most tracked out stays within a foot or so of the box.

Weight: Heavy, and comes in a slippery plastic sack that is very awkward to manuever.

Cost: $

6. S’wheat

S’wheat is another of the eco-friendly brands; it’s made from wheat. It is found only at pet stores, and not grocery stores. That is a good indicator of its price point. The odor control is only so-so, and urine causes it to have kind of a sour milk smell. However, this and any low/no dust brand are ideal for kittens, and again, won’t hurt them if they sample a taste of the stuff.

Grading Scale:

Clumping ability: Excellent

Odor control: Fair

Dust level: Very good; low to no dust

Ease of scooping: Excellent

Trackability: Not bad, (though kittens will make a huge mess anyway) but it mostly stays where it belongs, as its a bit heavier, and larger granules than some of the other non-clay litters.

Weight: Light

Cost: $$$

7. Feline Pine Clumping Litter

This is another of the eco-friendly types, in that it is made from a renewable resource, and not clay. I’m not sure whether they obtain the pine waste from mills or manufacturing operations, or whether it is direct-sourced from trees. If the latter, that’s a strike against it.

Its clumping ability is not the best. While it does from clumps, those clumps are very fragile, and it must take some special kind of litter scoop, as the normal every day type won’t sift it well; you end up tossing a lot of good litter.

Otherwise, if trying to shake the scoop to sift out the clumps, it all disintegrates, and the former clumps return to the box as sifted litter. This tends to make the remaining litter be on the damp side, which is not desirable.

It’s probably not as harmful to curious kittens as the clays, but probably not quite as innocuous as the corn and wheat types.

Grading Scale:

Clumping ability: So-so; fragile clumps

Odor control: Fairly good, surprisingly

Dust level: Very good; little dust

Ease of scooping: Mixed review here–easy to scoop from the box; terrible sifting ability. It’s letter grade, below, takes a hit from this.

Trackability: Terrible! This stuff migrates everywhere!

Weight: Surprisingly heavy for a product that appears so ‘featherlight.’ Comes in a rather slippery plastic sack.

Cost: $$ Have not seen this outside of pet/specialty stores

And Now, the Grades!

Below, for ease of comparison, I’ve created a table that summarizes the details given above, so they can be viewed together.

Grading Comparison Using Letter Grades

Brand
Clumping
Odor Control
Dust Level
Ease of Scooping
Trackability
Weight
Cost
Tidy Cats
A
B+
C
D
B
C
$$
Boots And Barkley
B+
B
F-
C
C
B
$$$
Yesterday’s News
F-
F-
A
F-
A
A
$$$
World’s Best
A
C-
B
A
B
A
$$$
Winco
A
B+
B
C-
B
D
$
S’wheat
B
C
A
A
B+
A
$$
Feline Pine Clumping Litter
A
B
A
D
F
C
$$

Try a Mix

I have found that mix of the corn (‘World’s Best’) and the odor-control clay (Winco brand) litters, in a ratio of about half corn and half clay works well.

The corn helps the clay be less sticky, and easier to scoop clumps, and the clay has the odor control missing from the corn.

In The End, the Cats Decide!

I hope my evaluations have helped you with your search for that perfect litter, or to avoid the not so great ones.

These are the litters I’ve had experience with, and I must say, it’s a good thing that our clowder is accustomed to change, for it’s the only constant around here. They are used to us always mixing things up.

Many cats are not so accommodating.

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