Types of cat litter

There can’t be many feline households today without a litter box. The pervasiveness of the indispensable litter box makes it difficult to imagine a time before cat litter. But in fact, cat litter is a relatively recent accoutrement to the feline lifestyle. In less than half a century, beginning with the late Ed Lowe–who “invented” the first commercial cat litter when he handed his cat-owning neighbor a bag of industrial absorbent–the cat-litter industry has burgeoned to a more than 700-million-dollar-a-year business in the United States alone. Given the volume of cat-litter products, it’s not surprising that shopping for litter in the 1990’s can be bewildering. There’s a lot of it out there from which to choose.

Sometimes, even when you think you’ve settled on a litter product, you find you have to switch for one reason or another. Your product-of-choice may mysteriously vanish without a trace from your local supermarket shelf, or a subtle change in the product’s formula may cause your formerly “litter happy” feline to become displeased with the contents of his or her box. Don’t automatically assume, though, your cat no longer likes its litter if it begins to urinate and/or defecate outside its box. Your pet may have a medical or behavioral problem unrelated to the litter. If you change products and your cat doesn’t resume its normal litter-box routine, have you cat checked by your veterinarian.

When seeking the ideal litter, remember, it must satisfy two demanding critics–you and your cat. Unfortunately, you and Fluffy don’t always agree on what constitutes a “hit” litter. You both want an absorbent substance in which your feline companion will eliminate. And odor control is high on both of your lists. However, what smells good to you may not smell so good to your cat.

Also, for you, cost may be an influencing factor. So you’ll probably want to do some comparative pricing. (The cat-litter industry is price-sensitive, with manufacturers competing fiercely for cat owners’ purse strings.)

Types of litter:

Any absorbent substance can function as a cat-box filler. Cat-box filler products currently on the market include those made from newspaper, wood chips, wheat, corn, soy beans–even alfalfa sprouts. But the most commonly used litters (more than 90 percent of the market share) have an absorbent clay base. These clay-based products come in two types: the original gravel-like litters and the finer, sandlike litters that first came onto the market in the late 1980’s (also called clumping litters).


Gravel-Like Litters

This type of litter does not contain gravel, as its descriptor implies. On the contrary, like its sandlike counterpart, it is merely natural, dried clay. Not all clays are suited to become litter, however. Manufacturers mine, dry, and grind to size only the more absorbent clays. Manufacturers often add a dust-controlling agent to the ground clay to prevent the dust from becoming airborne. Some manufacturers also add deodorizing agents to block or mask waste odors.

Deodorizers are designed to be strong enough to block or mask the unwelcome odor of feline waste, but not so strong that they deter the cat from using its box or so pungent that they waft throughout the entire house. Developing a deodorizing-agent formula is the most complex aspect of cat-litter manufacture; therefore, deodorizing formulas are closely guarded proprietary information.

While at first glance gravel-like litter might seem cheaper than other types of litters, don’t forget, you must dump the entire contents of the box at least once a week (or more often if you have several cats). Thus, while the cost per unit is relatively cheap, your cats can romp through a considerable amount of this type of litter in no time at all–driving up the overall cost.


Sandlike Litter

Sandlike litter is made from highly absorbent clay mixed. These mixes often contain sodium bentonite, a particularly absorbent type of clay. Sandlike litter is ground to a smaller uniform size than gravel-like litter, resulting in a finer-textured product.

When a liquid, such as a cat’s urine, hits sandlike litter, the urine soaks into the highly absorbent granules, which clump into “scoopable” balls. Hence, rather than dumping the entire contents of the box, you need only remove the urine clumps and dried feces each day with a metal slotted scoop. You must, of course, top off the contents of the box with fresh litter as needed. Since you need dispose of only clumps rather than the contents of the entire box, you dispose of less litter–an attractive feature to many owners. Also, because you dispose of less litter, you buy less. So when you comparison-shop gravel-like and sandlike litters–to get “real” costs, you need to compare costs over time rather than comparing unit-for-unit costs.

On the subject of disposal–always read the fine print very carefully before flushing clay-based clumping litters down your toilet. Although some manufacturers claim their products are flushable, we suggest you don’t flush. Certainly don’t flush if you have a septic system.

One definite drawback of clumping litter is tracking. The finer granules tend to stick to a cat’s paws when it hops out of the box, and it subsequently tracks the granules throughout the house as it goes about its rounds. While manufacturers have attempted to address the problem, their solutions are products that offer less tracking at the expense of “clumpability.” So you have to weigh your preference for “clumpability” against your tolerance of tracking (or your love/hate relationship with your vacuum cleaner).

Most major manufacturers offer a range of both gravel- and sandlike products aimed at meeting the specific needs of various cat populations–multicat households, long-haired cats, and so on. The key variables within a particular product range are usually “clumpability” (that is, absorbency) and deodorizers.


Alternatives to Clay-Based Litters

If you decide against clay litters, there are a number of alternative products for you to consider. But you still need to check out the product with your cat.

Dr. Peter Borchelt, director of Animal Behavior Consultants, Inc., in Brooklyn, New York, has studied cats’ responses to cat-box fillers. Dr. Borchelt suggests that ground wood (not pellets or shavings) and wheat litters may be promising alternatives to clay litters in terms of feline acceptance, “clumpability,” and odor control. Wheat litter has the added advantage of being flushable, even into septic systems.

Sand (the real “McCoy”) is not a good choice. While outdoor cats will, on occasion, do their business in children’s sandboxes (always keep sandboxes covered when not in use), sand is nonabsorbent and therefore not suitable for litter-box use.


When Noses Supposes…

Odor control is an important concern of both cats and their people. The more absorbent litters provide more effective odor control. The less-absorbent litters don’t readily absorb urine, so it pools in the bottom of the box. From there, either it evaporates into the air as an odorous gas or it acts as a host for odor-generating bacteria.

Many manufacturers tout the advantages of their scented products to cat owners. An added fragrance, however, does not mean everything in the litter box will “come up roses.” Indeed, a fragrance may actually deter your cat from using its box–either because the cat doesn’t like the scent or because the scent masks the unpleasant smell of urine and feces and lulls you into not changing the litter as often as your cat would like. An unclean, smelly box is off-putting to most cats and can lead to litter-box avoidance behavior. According to Dr. Borchelt, the one sure way to get rid of an undesirable odor is to remove the cause of the odor–more specifically, scoop or change the litter.

While you may not be sure whether you’ve found the ideal product, your cat will certainly let you know if the litter is unacceptable–by refusing to “go” in it. With litter choice, as with most things feline, cats will have the final word. All we need to do is pay attention to what they are telling us.


Kittens and Clumping Litter

Cats of all ages occasionally eat their litter. According to Dr. Barbara Stein, director of the Cat Clinic in Chicago, Illinois, “Cats and kittens often ingest litter when they are anemic,” The behavior is an example of pica–a craving for a non-food substance. If you see your kitten or cat eating litter, take the animal to your veterinarian for a checkup.

Some owners have voiced concerns to CATNIP about kittens ingesting clumping litter. Is clumping litter safe for kittens? At present, nothing in the scientific literature suggests problems for kittens that ingest clumping litter. On the other hand, Dr. Amy Marder, animal behaviorist and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, has heard stories from veterinarians and veterinary technicians about cases where (they believe) clumping litter caused a problem. “But these cases are rare and anecdotal,” says Dr. Marder. “No one has collected the data.”

Although there is no proven relationship between ingestion of clumping litter and gastrointestinal upsets, we recommend keeping a watchful eye on kittens. given that kittens are curious and adventurous, you have to expect that when you plunk them down in any litter for the first time, they may test it out. Some may taste the new “stuff” to find out whether it’s food, and some may play in it. Certainly, as with any kitten “first,” you need to be available to supervise and help a kitten understand what it’s meant to do in a litter box.

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