If you’re a cat parent, cat litter is probably the Number 1 feline necessity in your home — other than cat food, of course. But as critical as it is to everyday life with your kitty, you may not know what’s in it. In fact, you may have even asked yourself: “Is the litter I buy completely safe? How do I know which type is best? Are there environmentally-friendly varieties? Can I make my own?”
Cat litter comes in a wide variety of materials with bases made from everything from clay to corn to crystals. Here’s the scoop on some of the most common types of cat litter:
Clay-Based Cat Litter
Cat litter is a fairly modern product. Even though cats have been human companions for nearly 10,000 years, it was only this past century that we started bringing them indoors with us fulltime. Prior to World War II, cat parents used boxes of sand or furnace ashes as indoor toilets for their felines — but that solution proved undesirable. “Housewives of the 1940s were none too enamored with cats tracking ashes or sand through their homes,” says the ASPCA.
Fortunately, an effective solution was discovered shortly after World War II. A businessman named Edward Lowe recommended that a neighbor fill a box with absorbent, granulated clay — a mineral Lowe’s father’s company used as an industrial absorbent. The neighbor found that the clay was successful in absorbing her cat’s urine, as well as at reducing both tracking and odor.
About.com notes, “In 1947, Edward Lowe decided to package the clay in 5lb bags marked ‘kitty litter’ to sell in a local pet store.” Mr. Lowe was soon able to transform this discovery into an empire we now know as Kitty Litter.
Bentonite and Silica for Clumps
Granulated, clay-based cat litter is still sold today. In fact, clay — in general — is one of the most-used elements of cat litter. But in the 1980s cat litter was transformed again…
“In the early 1980s, Thomas Nelson discovered that a certain type of clay, bentonite, formed clumps in the presence of moisture, and voilà … clumping kitty litter,” notes Dr. Justine Lee of PetMD. When Dr. Nelson tried this new clay litter out in his own cats’ litter box, he found that he could simply remove the clumps when they dried instead replacing all of the litter with each use. Dr. Lee goes on to point out, “according to a U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 987,000 metric tons of this clumping clay was mined in 2003 for cat litter.”
Eventually, silica — a component of quartz — was also introduced as clumping agent to many brands of cat litter. “Silica [like bentonite] is also a physically and chemically inert substance, and is a major component found in ordinary sand. Silica is also used as a moisture-absorbing agent in the little packets found in shoe boxes, medications and some foods,” notes the ASPCA. Silica gel is the main ingredient in some “crystal” cat litters today.
Is Clumping Cat Litter Safe?
While clumping (also known as “scoopable”) cat litter is one of the most convenient options available, there have been concerns that it’s toxic to pets. According to the poison control experts at the ASPCA, however, clumping litter is overall quite safe, posing only minor gastrointestinal symptoms in some animals when ingested.
The biggest threat is when large amounts of litter are eaten, which can sometimes happen when a dog decides to dine on the contents of a litter box or a kitten is first learning how to use the litter box. To be sure your pet is safe, don’t use clumping cat litter for kittens and learn how to stop dog litter box snacking.
A Plethora of Eco-Friendly Options
For “green” cat parents, there are also more environmentally friendly cat litters available that are not strip-mined like the clay-based litters. These formulas usually include various combinations of renewable or recycled products such as:
- Pine and cedar chips
- Sawdust shavings
- Processed orange peels
- Peanut shell meal.
You can even make your own cat litter using these or similar products. The Internet is filled with cat litter “recipes” created by inventive pet parents. Just be warned that your kitty might not be as keen on alternative cat litter as you are. To make sure your cat’s ok with any new litter you try, be sure to set up a litter cafeteria. Listening to your kitty’s litter preferences will help avoid a world stains and messes down the road.
Carbon and Baking Soda Additives
Many of today’s cat litter brands add odor absorbers to their formulas. Two common forms of odor control are carbon and baking soda. Fragrances are also added to some brands. Certain types of environmentally-friendly litter products, such as pine and cedar chips, are said to be natural odor absorbers by their manufacturers. If you’re interested in trying a scented brand, be sure to try a litter cafeteria first as many cats don’t like scented litters.
Choosing the Best Formula for Your Cat
Even though you now know what’s in the different types of litter, only your cat knows which kind he prefers best. Cats can be picky about their litter boxes, so sometimes you’ll need to try out a few different types before finding the one that works best for both her and you. Check out how to pick the best cat litter for you and your cat.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is cat litter made of?
- 2 What are some different types of litter?
- 3 Biodegradable litters
- 4 Do-It-Yourself Cat Litter
- 5 WHAT’S THE BEST CAT LITTER FOR YOUR CAT
- 6 TRADITIONAL CLAY CAT LITTER
- 7 ADVANTAGES:
- 8 DISADVANTAGES:
- 9 CLUMPING CLAY CAT LITTER
- 10 ADVANTAGES:
- 11 DISADVANTAGES:
- 12 SILICA GEL CAT LITTER
- 13 ADVANTAGES:
- 14 DISADVANTAGES:
- 15 BIODEGRADABLE LITTER
- 16 PELLETED BIODEGRADABLE CAT LITTER
- 17 ADVANTAGES:
- 18 DISADVANTAGES:
- 19 GRANULAR BIODEGRADABLE CAT LITTER
- 20 ADVANTAGES:
- 21 DISADVANTAGES:
- 22 IN SUMMARY
What is cat litter made of?
Cat litter isn’t something most of cat owners think much about. After all, we adopt cats for their beauty, grace and quirky personalities, not for the side benefit of scooping poop everyday. But, in order to create a successful waste management system for your pet — one that your kitty will actually use — it helps to know a thing or two about litter.
Cat litter was once a do-it-yourself material that people created from whatever was available in abundance, such as sand, dirt or fireplace ash, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The problem was that these materials were not very good at absorbing cat waste or odor, although they were great at getting tracked all over the house. It’s no surprise that shortly after World War II, cat-loving Americans were excited by the invention of commercially produced cat litter made of a substance called Fuller’s earth, a clay material capable of absorbing its weight in moisture.
How does this early litter work compare to what’s on the market today? To answer that question, let’s take a look at some different types of litter.
What are some different types of litter?
Cat litter made from traditional absorbent clay was the gold standard of kitty litter for several decades and is still widely used by pet owners. In the early 1990s, a new twist on this old classic became available. It was called clumping litter because of its ability to form clumps upon contact with moisture. The main difference between the two lies in how the litter box is maintained. Traditional clay litter needs to be scooped every day and completely replaced about once a week.
Clumping litters are a bit different. According to the American Chemical Society, scooping only the clumps out of the box should keep it clean for two to four weeks, assuming additional litter is added regularly. Both clumping and non-clumping litters are great at neutralizing odors, but which is better at this task is a matter of some debate among cat owners.
In addition to clay-based litters, there are also products made from silica crystals, which are composed of sand or a blend of sand and other materials. Silica is also very effective at absorbing moisture and neutralizing odor, but does not form clumps. This type of litter needs to be replaced about once a week. There isn’t much difference between silica and clay in terms of masking a cat’s waste, but silica may be more earth-friendly, albeit more expensive.
Although there is no scientific evidence to suggest that traditional clay or clumping clay litters are harmful to cats, many consumers feel that natural and biodegradable alternatives are healthier for animals, humans, and the environment.
These alternatives to clay litter include products made from plant-based materials such as paper, wood chips, or wheat. These products are great at absorbing cat waste and have the added benefit of being earth-friendly, so they can be reused as garden mulch. To understand how these biodegradable litters work, let’s take a look at a wheat-based product.
Wheat starch is a naturally absorbent substance that also tends to clump when it comes into contact with moisture, which makes for easy scooping. It also contains enzymes that neutralize odors, which is a helpful component of any litter. Litters made from wood chips, corn and other plant-based materials work on similar principles and many are available in clumping and non-clumping varieties. Some cats love these types of litter, while others have hard time getting used to the larger pellets.
Do-It-Yourself Cat Litter
You can also try making your own cat litter. There are a variety of household materials you could use, including old newspapers. This is a particularly practical idea for those who already have the daily paper delivered to their homes each morning. Just follow these simple steps, courtesy of Planet Green:
1. Shred the newspaper.
2. Soak it in water with a bit of biodegradable soap.
3. Drain, and repeat step 2 minus the soap.
4. Sprinkle the wet paper with baking soda.
5. Knead the soggy mixture, pressing out the water and creating clumps.
6. Crumble over a screen and let the clumps stand to dry for a few days.
7. Put a two-inch layer of your homemade litter in the box.
8. Sit back and enjoy the eco-friendly “loo” you created for your little lynx. Scoop daily and change once per week.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAT LITTER FOR YOUR CAT
It’s easy to get confused and even overwhelmed when considering all the different types and brands of cat litter that are available today. How do you choose which one to use?
All cat litters fit into one of the several major categories, and each one has advantages and disadvantages when compared to others. This article will help you to narrow down your choices, but you are still likely to be faced with some trial and error before settling on the one that works best for you. Actually, you need to choose the litter that works best for you and your cat, as our feline friends can be picky about litter, and if they won’t use, it… well, you probably know the rest.
TRADITIONAL CLAY CAT LITTER
These are the litters that look like sand, and in fact for a long time sand (and/or dirt) was what was used for cat litter. But clay is a lot more absorbent, and in the late 1940s, industrial absorbents were repackaged and clay cat litters became available commercially. With numerous other better performing choices, clay litters are not that popular any more, comprising only about 3% of sales at A Pet’s Life.
- It’s cheap. Clay litters cost the least.
- It’s dusty. And that’s silica dust, a known carcinogen when inhaled.
- It’s easily tracked. It sticks to cat paws quite easily, and gets tracked around the house.
- It’s heavy. You’ll be lugging it at least twice, once before and once after it’s used, and it’s like carrying a bag of sand.
- It’s not easy to dispose of. You can’t flush it or compost it, so you are likely left with putting it in the garbage.
- It’s not long lasting. You’ll use quite a lot, as it needs to be replaced often because of its limited ability to absorb liquid and to suppress odour. For this reason, many people put the litter box in the basement or garage, where the smell can be ignored longer.
- It’s environmentally unfriendly. Tons and tons of clay litters end up in landfills every year, and the extraction of clay for litters usually involves some form of strip mining.
All this doesn’t make traditional clay litters sound so terrific, well, except for that cost thing. Additives such as baking soda and odour maskers, either already in the bag or as an extra that you sprinkle in yourself, are sometimes used to help with odour control.
A traditional clay litter available at A Pet’s Life is Jonny Cat.
CLUMPING CLAY CAT LITTER
In the the 1950s, someone got the bright idea that adding some form of bentonite clay to a traditional clay litter would be a big improvement. Bentonite, which in litters is nearly always either sodium bentonite or calcium bentonite, is a type of clay that forms from the weathering of volcanic ash. The advantage of bentonite in cat litters is that it will absorb several times its dry weight in liquid, and in doing so it expands as much as 15 times its original volume and at the same time forms clumps that can be scooped out without removing the rest of the litter. This is a terrific functional improvement over traditional clay litter. Clumping clay litters are about 13% of sales at A Pet’s Life.
- It’s easy to scoop. Using a sifting litter scoop, you can remove both feces and the urine clumps, leaving the rest of the litter in the box.
- It’s economical. Although periodically all the litter has to be removed, the same quantity of clumping clay litter will last longer than traditional clay litter.
- It’s not so smelly. Since regular scooping removes both feces and urine, it’s easier to live with it in close proximity.
- It’s potentially unhealthy, maybe even dangerous. There’s plenty of controversy about this, but some believe that inhaling that absorbing and swelling bentonite dust is a bad idea, and your cat will certainly inhale some of it.
- It’s dusty. Like other clay litters, that’s silica dust, a known carcinogen when inhaled.
- It’s easily tracked. It sticks to cat paws easily, and gets tracked around the house.
- It’s heavy. It’s just as heavy as traditional clay litter, although you will use less of it.
- It’s not easy to dispose of. You certainly can’t flush it, imagine that clumping and swelling going on in your plumbing! The only disposal option is the garbage.
- It’s environmentally unfriendly. Again, it’s extracted using some form of strip mining.
Clumping clay litters available at A Pet’s Life include Cattitudes, and Dr Elsey’s Precious Cat.
SILICA GEL CAT LITTER
Silica gel litter is relatively new, and is sometimes referred to as crystal litter. It’s actually a granular form of sodium silicate, a substance with an incredible ability to absorb liquids, so it’s no surprise someone decided to market it as cat litter. It also has many industrial and commercial uses, such as those little packets you find in vitamin bottles. In use, you have to scoop out the feces every day, but urine is absorbed and just seems to vanish. It doesn’t, of course, it is just soaked up, and eventually the litter’s ability to absorb any more is gone. Then it’s time for a complete change. Some people find that a 2 kg bag will last for a month for one cat. Silica gel litters have gained much of a following, with only 2% of sales at A Pet’s Life.
- It’s economical. If a small bag lasts your single cat for a month, it might be the lowest cost alternative.
- It’s lightweight. No more lugging those big, heavy bags.
- It’s minimal work. Scooping feces and stirring the crystals are all that is needed, at least until it needs a complete change.
- It’s relatively dust free. Especially when compared most other types of litter.
- It’s fussy. It gives no warning when it’s “used up”. Usually, the only indication is the puddle of urine in the bottom of the litter pan. Then it quickly gets really stinky. Some silica gel litters have a portion of the granules change colour as they get saturated to indicate when it needs changing.
- It’s often not accepted by cats. While some cats are happy to use it, many refuse to do so.
- It’s sometimes messy. Those little round beads of silica gel can get rolling on the floor and go a long way. If your cat is a digger, and throws litter around, this might get really annoying. Look for the silica gel litters that are odd shaped, although there is a downside to these: some of the edges can be sharp and don’t feel very nice to step on, for you or your cat. If your litter box is in a high traffic area such as the bathroom or laundry room, you’re bound to step on one from time to time!
A silica gel litter available at A Pet’s Life is Clear Choice.
In recent years, a wide range and variety of plant-derived litters have become available. These biodegradable litters can be further divided into two types: pelleted or granular.
PELLETED BIODEGRADABLE CAT LITTER
Made from either wood or recycled newspaper, pelleted litter has an incredible ability to absorb liquids, and in doing so will crumble into an easily removable form. Sawdust that is a by-product of wood processing industries or recycled newsprint is formed under very high pressure into pellets, which are then thoroughly dried. Wood pellets absorb urine so well that they are used extensively as bedding in horse stalls. Feces must be scooped from the cat litter box regularly, along with the pellets that become urine soaked and crumbly, leaving the remaining pellets behind. Pelleted biodegradable litters are about 25% of sales at A Pet’s Life.
- It’s relatively dust free. And whatever dust there is relatively benign.
- It’s environmentally friendly. Made from either recycled newspaper or wood processing by-products
- It’s easy to dispose of. The crumbled pellets can be flushed or composted (but not the feces, of course!)
- It’s non-tracking. Well, the pellets don’t track easily, although the crumbled bits do.
- It’s often rejected by cats. Some fussy cats just don’t seem to like the feel of the pellets on their paws.
Pelleted biodegradable litters available at A Pet’s Life include Feline Pine, Crown Animal Bedding, Stall Dry, Yesterday’s News, and Good Mews.
GRANULAR BIODEGRADABLE CAT LITTER
There are plenty of choices in this category: wheat, corn, barley, and pine, and it’s worth trying some different types to find the best one for you and your cat. These litters are made from the by-products of the human and animal food, as well as the wood processing industries, and so use materials that might otherwise be waste. Clumping properties come from the starch or cellulose components and odour is controlled by the natural enzymes and proteins in the litter. Granular biodegradable litters are far and away the most popular, currently having about 57% of sales at A Pet’s Life.
- It’s environmentally friendly. They are biodegradable and made from renewable resources.
- It’s easy to dispose of. These litters are easily flushed or composted (but not the feces, of course!)
- It’s lighter than traditional clay litters.
- It’s fairly long lasting. With proper daily maintenance, a bag will last twice as long as an equivalent size bag of clay litter.
- It’s easily tracked. It sticks to cat paws quite easily, and gets tracked around the house.
- It’s somewhat dusty. Some users find these litters to be dusty, although at least it’s not silica dust.
- It doesn’t capture odours as well as clumping clay litters. Daily, if not twice daily scooping is necessary for odour control.
- Its natural odour may be offensive. Some people find the smell of the wheat, corn, pine, etc to be disagreeable.
Granular biodegradable litters available at A Pet’s Life include Swheat Scoop,World’s Best, Feline Fresh, and Rainforest.
The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a perfect cat litter. It would really be great if there were, but it just isn’t so. They all have their advantages and their disadvantages. Some of these are inconveniences for cat owners and some are negatives for the cat. It really makes sense to choose the litter that is the most accepted by your cat, given the range of problems that can arise otherwise. It will likely take some trial and error to find the right litter for you and your cat. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to any of the A Pet’s Life staff for good advice and go from there. Good luck!
High Quality Natural Cat Food
We carry many natural flea deterrents at our pet store in beautiful Oak Bay. We also carry an assortment of ‘made in Canada’ cat food from reputable and natural pet food manufacturers such as Acana, Orijen, Go!, Now, Wellness, Royal Canin, Natural Balance, Best Feline Friend (BFF), and many, more. Come visit us today!