Cat Litter Options: Finding One For Your Cat
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM July 02, 2019
Our feline friends bring us tremendous joy. The snuggles, the purrs, the understanding stare, the litter box…wait, what?! For most cat parents the litter box is not a cause of joy, in fact it can be downright stinky, messy, and gross. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. Finding the right cat litter for your kitty can make a very positive difference in the way your litter box smells, looks, and your cat’s willingness to use it. Let’s explore the different types of cat litter to help you find the perfect one for your purrfect pal.
What Litter Substrates Do Cats Prefer?
In general, cats prefer sand-like substrates. Our cats were domesticated from the African wildcat, which would dig in the sand to eliminate and hide its scent from predators. Similar to the wild cat, our cats’ natural instincts are to bury their urine and feces in a sand-like substrate.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Different Cat Litter Substrates?
With a cat’s evolvement in mind it makes sense that most cat litters out there are modeled after a sand-like texture. Not only is seeking out this texture ingrained in a cat’s DNA, it is also just easier to use than hard dirt or rocky-type substrates. The issue with using straight sand in our cat’s litter box is that it tracks easily and doesn’t do a very good job of absorbing odors. So let’s take a look at what some other cat litter types do well and where they are lacking to help you choose one for your cat.
- Clay Clumping Litter
Clumping cat litter may be the most popular type out there. This clay litter typically contains a material called bentonite that clings together when wet to form a solid clump that is more easily scooped. This doesn’t mean that litter boxes don’t have to be cleaned. It just means that, by scooping out the clumps and feces as needed, you can leave the unused litter in the box and theoretically save litter in the long run.
The benefits of clay clumping cat litter are less frequent whole litter box cleanings, less wasted litter, and usually better odor control.
The downsides to this type of litter are that it tends to be more expensive, is heavier to lug around, and can have quite a bit of dust (which can be a real problem for kitties with sensitive airways). If left for too long, clay clumping litter can form a ‘cement’ layer at the bottom of the litter box that seemingly takes a hammer and chisel to remove. Clay clumping litter can also pose more of a problem for cats (or dogs) that nibble the litter as it can form clumps in the digestive tract. It is also a tracking problem because it can stick to damp kitty paws as they leave the litter box.
- Clay Non-clumping Litter
Clay non-clumping cat litter is another widely used type of cat litter. This type of litter uses small chunks of clay without clumping abilities. Clay non-clumping cat litter is still absorbent but has a saturation threshold. Once that threshold is reached, odor and wetness will reign. As a result, all of the litter will need to be thrown out, and the litter box will need to be cleaned.
Non-clumping clay cat litter does seem to be a more natural choice for most cats. The texture and low dust make it more like the sand substrates that a cat’s ancestors are used to. It also tends to be less expensive than clumping litters and doesn’t leave that hard-to-clean, stuck-on layer in the litter box.
Litter boxes with non-clumping litters do have to be cleaned more frequently and the best way to do that is to dump out all litter, used or not. This can be very wasteful, but the box will start to smell if this isn’t done. Clay non-clumping litter is also known to be bad for tracking since the size of the particles sticks well between a cat’s toes.
- Silica Gel Litter
A relatively new cat litter on the market is silica gel litter. This litter is made up of large granules of sodium silicate, a porous material that is highly absorbent. These granules absorb the urine and leave the feces making it easily scoopable. The wet granules can stay in the litter box so that whole litter box dumps only have to occur a couple of times a month.
The ease of silica gel cat litter is by far the biggest pro. Other benefits are that they are very low dust and extremely lightweight. No more lugging around that heavy bag of litter! Silica gel litter is a great choice for your automatic litter boxes since they don't require frequent changes and the lightweight granules sift away from the feces very well.
The major downside to silica gel litter is the price. It costs significantly more than clay litters, but this needs to be factored in with the low waste aspect as well. Another downside would be odor control. Since you technically don’t need to dump the whole box more than a couple of times a month, you can get some odor buildup. After all, the granules are absorbing urine which we all know has a smell. That urine sitting inside the litter box for a month can stink and be unhygienic as well. Picky kitties might find the crunchiness of silica gel litter texture undesirable to walk on. Moreover, the lightweight quality of the litter can increase tracking.
- Paper Litter
A more eco-friendly cat litter option lies in the world of paper. Not only is paper cat litter made from recycled materials, it is also recyclable itself. Paper is biodegradable and can be flushed. Paper cat litters can come in pellet or granular form.
For kitties that have recently had an injury or surgery on their paws, there’s nothing better than paper litter. Paper won’t irritate those sore paws or cause infections like clay litters can. These litters are highly absorbent. The particles balloon up to many times their original size, making scooping feces and urine easier. Paper cat litters are virtually dust free and non-tracking, meaning a cleaner house for you and your cat.
This type of litter will be more expensive and more difficult to find. You won’t be able to pick up paper cat litter during a trip to the grocery store. Paper cat litter, especially the pellet versions, might not appeal to your cat. The textures are very different from that sand-like substrate that our cats seek out. Therefore, some cats will just not use it.
- Other Eco-friendly Litters
If paper litter isn’t your cat’s thing but you’re still interested in a litter that’s eco-friendly, then check out cat litter made from pine shavings, walnut shells, wheat, corn, and even grass seed. These types of litters are biodegradable, meaning they can be flushed. They are often made from byproducts such as wood shavings that would otherwise go to waste. These types of cat litters can come as compressed pellets, granules, or shavings, making it easier to find a texture that agrees with your cat.
These types of litters can be clumping or non-clumping. Most are low dust and highly absorbent. Odor control varies, but most emit a more organic type of smell rather than the ammonia/urine smell that we all despise. These are also good litter choices for cats with respiratory problems or those that have had recent paw injuries or surgeries.
You might end up using a larger quantity of these types of litters. Most of them absorb liquids from the bottom of the litter pan. This means that you’ll have to sift around to scoop out the used litter, and you’ll need to put deeper layers of litter inside the litter box in order for it to work properly. Cost can also be a factor as these natural products can be higher priced than the traditional clay cat litters. Due to the variety of textures available, kitties might not take well to these eco-friendly litters.
What Litter Features Are Available?
Hopefully you’re not thoroughly overwhelmed by all of the different types of litter substrates out there because there are additional options to consider. These options are more like the icing on the cake (with the cake being the type of substrate), but the icing can have an affect on whether or not your cat uses a type of litter as well.
- Scented or Unscented
Some cat litters come with a scent. No, the scent isn’t cat urine. It’s usually some sort of floral smell. Some of these scented litters are made so that the scent is activated when the cat digs in the litter, releasing a floral smell rather than the smell of urine or feces. The scent can be a nice odor masker, but it can also be undesirable to kitties with respiratory issues.
- Odor Control
Rather than emitting a different fragrance, these cat litters work by locking odor into the granules. Now odor control litter is no substitute for regular litter box cleaning, but it can definitely help if your house is starting to smell.
If the smell of your cat’s litter box doesn’t bother you, the endless amount of litter scattered about your house might. Non-tracking cat litters tend to have larger granule size so that they don’t easily stick between a cat’s toes. The shape of the granule can matter as well, with smoother shapes being less likely to track.
- Dust Free
We’ve all been at the center of a cat litter dust storm at some point in our cat parent lives. Clay litters especially tend to pack a dusty punch, especially when pouring it into the litter box. For a less dusty version, try non-clay litters, like the eco-friendly ones or the non-clumping types. Larger granule size is also typically less dusty.
Multi-cat households can really wreak havoc on a litter box. Multi-cat litters are made to standup to repeated use by having better odor control and clumping abilities.
- Biodegradable and Flushable
Disposing of cat litter may be more of a problem for some cat parents than it is for others. Choosing a biodegradable or flushable cat litter could help with that problem because biodegradable litters are generally safe for septic systems.
How Do I Find The Right Litter Option For My Cat?
So there are your options when it comes to cat litter, but how do you choose? The answer is you should consider what you and your cat prefer. When choosing a cat litter, also take into account if there are any medical concerns for your kitty. This can be respiratory issues, paw injuries or surgeries, or if your cat is a litter eater. You will want to choose a low-dust, unscented option for those sensitive airway cats, a non-clay type for paw troubles, and a non-clumping form for those indiscriminate eaters.
Next you’ll want to take note if your cat is picky or not. Picky kitties may have trouble with the texture or smell of a cat litter and will choose not to use it. You may have to test out different varieties to determine a favorite litter for your cat. But in general, cats are more comfortable with substrates that they were familiarized with as kittens.
Once you get those settled, the rest depends on your preferences. Make sure to choose a litter that you can afford and get your hands on easily. If your kitty isn’t particular, you may choose to go with a clumping or non-clumping litter depending on how frequently you want to clean the litter box. Also, to make disposal of cat litter easier, a natural litter that can be flushed is a good option.
How Do I Properly Dispose Of Used Cat Litter?
You may not know it, but there are various methods for disposing of cat litter. For litters that are biodegradable, flushing them down the toilet is by far the easiest and most hygienic. Before you do so, be sure to read the label. This will help you make sure the litter is okay for your type of septic system and your state doesn’t discourage you from flushing litter. California for example, discourages flushing of litter. Aside from flushing, some of these litters can also be spread outside to degrade if you have the space and ability to keep unwanted critters out of it.
Litters that aren’t biodegradable need to be thrown in the garbage. You can either scoop the litter directly into your garbage can with your other trash or first seal it in a plastic bag to help keep the smell down. There are also options for litter only garbage cans that help absorb odors and keep your litter mess confined to one area. If these options don’t fit your style, some areas offer litter collection services which take care of it for you on a regular basis. These services vary and can be quite expensive though.
Whether you’re new to the cat parenting world or a long-time veteran, choosing a cat litter can be overwhelming. There are many options out there to pick from. The main take-away is to keep you and your cat’s personal preferences in mind. You don’t want to pick a litter that your cat refuses to use or that you can’t stand the smell of. Hopefully, this article has made your search for the perfect cat litter easier.