As a cat owner, you know that your feline can be finicky at times – even when it comes to her cat litter. While there's no shortage of litter options on the store shelves, how do you know which litter is best for your choosy cat? Hopefully, you’re already using an option that works for you and your cat (or at least well enough to avoid unfortunate non-litter box accidents!) but is the litter you’re using the best option for you, your cat and, let’s not forget, the environment?

The evolution of cat litter

Cat litter has come a long way since it hit the market in the ’40's and 50’s. Back then, sand, dirt, and even ash were considered acceptable uses for litter, until a clay-based litter developed by Edward Lowe called "Kitty Litter" was created and began to populate the market. Fast forward to 2010 and clay-based cat litters have evolved from a substrate that simply absorbs urine into scoopable clumping litters that currently dominate the store shelves.

Clay-based litters typically contain impure clay called bentonite. Bentonite is used in cat litter because it can absorb liquids such as urine quickly and efficiently, trapping the waste and odor. It doesn't hurt that bentonite is readily mined and cheap to use, as well. Unfortunately, clay-based litter isn't as environmentally-friendly as other types – which is why more than 2 million tons of cat litter, much of it clay-based, end up in landfills each year.

What other materials can be used as litter?

As technology has advanced over the years, so has the number of natural materials that can be used to create cat litter. Wood pulp from trees such as ash, aspen, and pine, as well as corn, wheat, peanut shells, even recycled newspapers have all come into play in the litter box. The obvious benefit to these are that they are from renewable sources instead of mined clay. Also, the food-based litters can be somewhat more digestible when swallowed inadvertently by our pets.

Let’s face it, cat litter isn’t necessarily what we’d usually consider a threat to our pets’ health but there is some controversy over whether certain cat litters can adversely affect your pet.

How can cat litter affect your pet's health?

Intestinal obstruction? Several individuals have reported that they have lost (usually young) cats due to intestinal blockage caused by clumping cat litter. While the loss of any pet is obviously tragic, I struggle to see this as a tangible risk to feline health. With the huge number of cats using clumping cat litter around the world, I would have to expect to see more veterinary-documented cases of intestinal obstruction due to cat litter if this were a common problem. Having said that, in the spirit of prevention, I usually avoid clumping litters in cats under 4 weeks of age and keep an eye on cats and dogs around the litter box; if anyone is eating appreciable amounts of litter, I would consider a change to non-clumping litter.

Dust allergies? This is a concern I can certainly jump on-board with. As with people, if your pets have respiratory allergies or asthma, litters that are overly dusty can certainly exacerbate these conditions. Using a low-dust litter like Yesterday’s News (made from recycled newspapers) can be beneficial in these cases.

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How to dispose of litter

OK, now you’ve got a litter that you’re happy isn’t going to make Kitty sick, what to do with the treats that your feline pal leaves in the litter box? Fortunately, there is an increasing number of options when it comes to disposal of litter.

Flushable – For those of us that hate carrying the litter out to the trash can and cringe at the landfill we’re helping to create, flushable litters can be a viable option. Before using a flushable litter, please check that your state allows cat litter to be flushed and that your septic system is approved for this type of waste.

Automatic litter boxes – Several of my clients have reported great success using automated litter boxes like the Cat Genie that hook directly to your septic supply and even washes and dries the special plastic cat litter! While they can initially be a little pricey, converts rave about never having to scoop again and all the money they save on cat litter! Also, like flushing, this minial handling of cat waste helps to prevent you pet passing along any transmissable diseases like toxoplasmosis.

Toilet training – While I have yet to see it personally, people are starting to train their cats to use the toilet! Anyone remember Mr. Jinx in the Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal lifts the lid on this phenomenon and points out some of the potential difficulties and dangers.

How do you pick?

So now that we know what’s out there, what should you choose? Personally, I’ve settled on a corn-based litter called, unashamedly, World’s Best Cat Litter. It may cost a little more per bag but I found that I use a lot less of it than my previous clumping litter. Initially, I chose the multicat formula for my three cats but found that it had a ripe, “foody” smell (assumedly from the corn derivative) so switched back to the regular kind which appears to be pretty much odorless. I mixed a little of their old brand cat litter (slightly used) in with the new type initially and the transition seems to be have been relatively smooth.

Whether you end up choosing clumping or non-clumping, natural or clay-based, or any of the other options available, a good rule of thumb to maintain a fresh litter box is to scoop out any waste found daily and change the litter completely every 2-4 weeks. This will not only keep the litter box clean and smelling fresh, but it will reduce the risk of any nasty bacteria finding its way out of the litter box on a traveling paw.

Jan 7, 2010

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