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The Best Way to Choose the Right Litter for Your Cat

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to choose a litter box

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are an overwhelming number of cat litter choices on the market today, and it can be a real challenge to decide which is best for your own feline family member
  • The most common types of litter are clumping and non-clumping clay; other types include crystals, paper, pine, corn, wheat, walnut shells, and grass
  • A good approach is to let your cat make her own litter choice by offering several different types in inexpensive side-by-side litter boxes and see which one she uses most often
  • 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 boxes for a multi-cat household and that the boxes are in cat-friendly locations around your home
  • Keeping your cat’s “toilet” scrupulously clean will go a long way toward preventing litterbox aversion

If you have one or more feline family members who live indoors with you, you're no doubt familiar with the lovely topic of cat litter, and the ever-increasing number of litters on the market.

Gone are the days when people used sand and ashes in litterboxes. The cat products aisle of your local grocery, big box, or independent pet store offers you a mind-numbing selection of litters made from every conceivable material — clay, corn, silica gel crystals, recycled paper, wheat hulls, walnut shells, bark, and on and on.

There's also a wide variety of sizes, textures, and scents to choose from. So many options can leave you with a headache — especially when you remember that cats are notoriously persnickety creatures who can be quite fussy when it comes to the litter they will and will not do their business in.

Different Types of Cat Litter

The most common types of litter are clumping and non-clumping clay, but again, they're far from the only types available on the market. Here's a partial list:

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.

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.

Pine — Pine litter is 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.

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.

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.

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 happen when kitties clean their paws.

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.

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 suggest avoiding wheat-based litters as well.

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How to Let Your Cat Choose Her Own Litter

Here's a good rule of thumb when selecting or changing your cat's litter — if your kitty is consistently using the box and never eliminates outside the box, keep doing what you're doing. Obviously, your cat 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 an adaptable feline who may be open to a litter change, picking eco-friendly, recycled, or sustainable products can be a good choice. Additionally, choosing a safe litter with low dust production is optimal.

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

In addition, kitties typically don't like synthetic scents or odor control additives in their litter. And as I mentioned earlier, the chemicals used to scent litters have no safety studies available. You can discover your cat'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 cat rescue.

Tackling Common Litterbox Issues

Since in cats the first sign of an underlying disease or disorder is often a change in behavior, if your kitty suddenly starts relieving herself outside the litterbox, make an appointment with your veterinarian. If there's no medical reason for the behavior, there are a few additional things you can try:

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 really must be disciplined about scooping the box free of all poop and urine clumps at least twice a day.

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 should 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 unwilling 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 litterbox in pristine condition.

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 food or water bowls.

Extra boxes for multi-cat households — If you have more than one feline in the family, you may need to add more boxes. The general guideline is one box per cat, and one extra.

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