Confused About Cat Litter? Join the Club!

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat litter box

Story at-a-glance -

  • These days there are a staggering number of cat litter choices, including clay (clumping and non-clumping), crystals, paper, pine, corn, wheat, walnut shells and grass
  • The best way to determine your own kitty’s litter choice is to offer her several kinds in inexpensive side-by-side litter boxes and see which one she uses most often
  • One of my favorite types of litter is made with organic biochar, which naturally helps control odor without chemicals
  • Once your cat has made her selection, be sure to keep about a 4-inch deep level of litter in the box; also make sure you have enough litter boxes if you have multiple cats, and that the boxes are in cat-friendly locations around your home
  • Keeping your cat’s “toilet” fastidiously clean will go a long way toward preventing litterbox aversion

If you share your life with a kitty companion, you’re aware that the number of cat litters on the market is mind-boggling. In addition, the companies that sell kitty litter use clever packaging and marketing strategies that often serve only to further confuse the issue!

Back in the day, people used sand and ashes in cat boxes. Today the cat products aisle of your local grocery, big box or independent pet store means shelves stacked with litters made from an incredible variety of materials such as clay, corn, silica gel crystals, recycled paper, wheat hulls, walnut shells and bark, to name just a few.

There’s also a wide range of sizes, textures and scents to choose from. So many choices can leave you scratching your head, and in addition, cats are notoriously fussy creatures who can be quite picky when it comes to the litter they prefer.

Here’s how I like to approach the question of what type of litter is best: If your cat is consistently using the box and never eliminates outside the box, keep doing what you're doing. Obviously, your kitty approves not only of your litter selection, but also the box itself and its location.

However, if you’re introducing a new cat to the family or you have a flexible cat who may be open to a litter change, picking eco-friendly, recycled or sustainable products is obviously a good choice. Additionally, choosing a safe litter with low dust production is optimal.

Common Types of Cat Litter

Clumping clay — This type of litter is typically made from bentonite, which is a highly absorbent clay that forms into solid clumps when your cat urinates. Clumping clay makes litterbox scooping and cleaning easy. Drawbacks are that this type of litter is dusty, non-biodegradable and heavy to cart around.

Non-clumping clay — This type of litter is made from clays other than bentonite. It absorbs urine but doesn't form clumps, so it's easy to leave bits of moist litter behind when you scoop the box. This means it will start to smell sooner rather than later, and may require more frequent changing than clumping clay. However, non-clumping litter is often cheaper than clumping, and some cats prefer it.

Silica gel crystals — The crystals are made of tiny silica gel beads similar to the desiccant found in the tiny pouches packaged as a preservative with foods, medications and other products that can be damaged by excess moisture. Crystal litter is highly absorbent, controls odor well and is almost dust-free. Some people even say it tracks less than other types of litter.

Crystal litters are usually more expensive, but they tend to last longer. Downsides are that some cats don't like getting the crystals on their paws, and they can be dangerous if ingested in large amounts or over a long period of time, which can happens when cats clean their feet.

Many crystals are also infused with odor-absorbing chemicals. These chemicals have not had any safety studies completed, so we don’t know the long-term health implications of using synthetic air-freshening chemicals in cat litters. However, the negative health implications for humans are clear: they negatively impact respiratory, endocrine and immune health.

Recycled paper — This is litter made from recycled paper that is turned into pellets or granules. Paper is dust-free, highly absorbent and biodegradable. In pellet form, the paper doesn't form urine clumps, but the granule form does.

Pine — Pine litter is also recycled and is typically made from lumber scraps that are heat-treated to remove toxins, oils and allergens from the wood. This type of litter comes in pellets, granules or roughly crushed pine. It has a pine scent, which helps control odor.

The granules and cobble (roughly crushed pine) are somewhat clumping, but in pellet form, the pine turns to sawdust that must be regularly replaced.

Corn — Corn-based litter is biodegradable, absorbent and provides odor control. However, since most kitties ingest a bit of litter each day during grooming, and since corn is a problem ingredient for pets, I recommend avoiding this type of litter.

Wheat — Wheat litter is made from ground wheat. It clumps and provides odor control, is biodegradable, and is low on dust and tracking. Wheat can be another problem ingredient for cats, so I also suggest avoiding wheat-based litters as well.

Walnut shells — This litter is made from crushed walnut shells and is dark brown in color. Walnut shell litters have clumping ability, offer excellent odor control, are highly absorbent and biodegradable.

Grass — Grass litter is relatively new. One brand, Smart Cat, is a fine-grained litter made from USA-sourced grass fibers that is biodegradable, controls odor and has good clumping ability. Another brand, Touch of Outdoors by Dr. Elsey, uses USA-grown prairie grass.

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Determining Your Cat’s Litter Preference

Studies on the types of litter cats prefer show they are quite particular about particle size. The cat's evolutionary substrate, for potty purposes, is sand. These days, even though there's a wide selection of organic and natural types of litters on the market, many of them feature big particle sizes, which don't appeal to most cats.

Kitties also don't like synthetic scents or odor control additives in their litter. The chemicals used to scent litters have no safety studies available. The litter I use for my own cats is our Biocharged Kitty Litter made with organic biochar. Biochar has a large surface area and is a recalcitrant, which means the charcoal itself holds onto things such as water and smells.

Biocharged litter also has excellent clumping properties, which means it lasts longer and there’s less total wetness and mess. It’s also 100 percent biodegradable and compostable. And it's entirely fragrance-free, because the carbon helps to lock in odors.

You can discover your kitty’s litter preference by buying the smallest amount available of several kinds of litter, and several inexpensive litterboxes. Place the boxes with different litters side by side and see which box gets used most often. Once you know the type of litter your cat prefers, be sure it’s deep enough in the box (4 inches is recommended). Consider taking the bags of unused litter and (cleaned) extra litter boxes to your local shelter or kitty rescue.

I’m Buying My Cat’s Favorite Litter, but He’s Still Not Using the Box Consistently

Since in cats the first sign of an underlying disease or disorder is often a change in behavior, if the litterbox problem is new for your kitty, a visit to your veterinarian is the first thing I recommend. If there’s no medical reason for the behavior, there are a few additional things you can try:

Extra boxes for multi-cat households — If you have multiple cats, you may need to add more boxes. The general guideline is one box per cat, and one extra.

Litterbox location — Find locations for litterboxes that are somewhat out of the way, and away from noisy household machinery and appliances. Choose warm locations in the house rather than the basement or garage. And make sure boxes aren’t close to kitty’s food or water bowls.

Litterbox cleanliness — Cats are fastidious creatures, and many kitties, especially as they get older, develop an aversion to a less-than-pristine litterbox. Especially if you use unscented litter, you must be disciplined about scooping the box. As in, twice a day scooping of all poop and urine clumps.

I also recommend removing any litter stuck to the sides or bottom of the box with a damp paper towel. Dry the area thoroughly with another paper towel before scooping dry litter back over it. Keeping the sides and floor of the box clean and dry may help extend the time between full box clean-outs.

Dispose of all used litter and clean the box at least weekly. It's important to wash the container thoroughly to remove as much odor as possible so that your kitty doesn’t become averse to using his box due to a lingering smell.

Wash the box with plain hot water. If you use soap, choose a natural, fragrance-free variety. Avoid any cleaning product that is scented or contains potential toxins. Plastic litterboxes should be replaced every year or two. The secret to controlling cat box odor, for the benefit of all family members, including your kitty, is to keep the litter box in pristine condition.