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Cat litter can be an eternal struggle for cat owners.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself gabbing on and on with fellow cat people at the store, over dinner, at parties — about CAT LITTER. It seems that we are all on that quest for THE ultimate cat litter. Does it exist? Maybe not, but we’re all hoping we can get really close.

Sometimes cat litter can feel like a “Goldilocks” situation.

This litter has great odor control, but it’s too messy!

This litter is nice and tidy, but it is STINKY!

Or even the dreaded: my cat hates this cat litter and WON’T USE IT.

How can you find a cat litter that is just right?

Truth be told, you might have to go through some trial and error. We know, sometimes it can be so frustrating and you just want to go to your closest mega store and buy a 30 pound bag of “Good Enough Discount Cat Sand” and be done with it. But remember, just like food, water, and vet care, your cat’s litter box is a major part of their physical and mental health. Lack of attention to a cat’s litter box can have major ramifications on your cat’s well being.

So to help you and your cat make the smartest choices in cat litter, here are a few things to keep in mind when selecting one.

Know Your Cat

You could have the greatest cat litter in the world, but if your cat won’t use it, it’s garbage.

That’s why starting with what you know about your cat can be a great indicator of which direction to go with litter. Some questions to consider are:

Are your cat’s paws sensitive?

Has your cat been recently declawed? After a cat undergoes paw surgery such as being declawed, their paws are understandably going to be very sensitive. In order to keep your kitty comfortable and free from pain and infection, it’s probably best to use a litter that is softer (shredded newspaper or newspaper pellets) and cannot get embedded in wounds i.e. clay or sand litter.

Once a cat has healed they may prefer to return to a sandy, clumping-style litter or they may be doing so well with pellets that you decide to stick with them. Every cat is different.

Furthermore, some cats — with or without claws — just may have sensitive paws. This could either result from a medical condition or procedure, or they are simply more finicky about what touches their paws. Whatever the reason, paw sensitivity could impact your cat’s litter preference.

Does your cat have breathing issues?

If you cat has breathing issues like asthma or respiratory problems related to cardiomyopathy, then you may want to consider a non-clay cat litter. While there is some controversy over whether or not clay litter can cause breathing problems in otherwise healthy cats, the dust from clay litter can potentially worsen or exacerbate any breathing problems your cat might have. (Not to mention any breathing issues you or any other human family members might have.)

While many people like the odor control and absorbency of clay litters, there are many alternatives to clay on the market now that will keep kitty’s box just as clean and fresh, without effecting your cat’s breathing.

Does your cat have allergies?

If your cat suffers from environmental allergies, that may limit which cat litters you can bring into you and your cat’s home. With litters being made from various plant-based sources now, if your cat has a food allergy — wheat, corn, even soy — you should certainly steer clear of cat litters made from such plants. Just like with your cat’s food, if you’re looking at a “natural” cat litter, be sure to read the ingredient label.

But my cat isn’t going to eat his or her litter, why do I have to worry?

Well, the truth is, your cat may end up consuming a small amount of litter. Remember cats fastidiously groom themselves with their tongues, so some litter particles are bound to be consumed — long-haired cats especially. Not to mention the small amount of dust from litter that may be in the air could effect an allergic cat (cat owners with sensitive cats may also want to stay away from scented cat litters). While dust may not effect a mild to moderately sensitive cat, a severely allergic cat may suffer serious issues. In this case, in addition to avoiding allergy-causing litters, you may also want to look for a “low dust” or “no dust” cat litter.

How finicky is your kitty?

Is your cat the type who can go the whole day while you’re at work without having her box scooped? Or will she refuse to go NEAR her litter box until it’s cleaned after each and every use?

While most cats can be pretty easy going about having their box cleaned once or twice a day (with a nice thorough litter box washing about once a week), there are certainly some cats who demand a pristine box at all times. If your cat is of the latter mindset, a small-grained or sandy litter may be better for them — especially if you are gone most of the day. That way, kitty can better cover up any “deposits”, as opposed to a pellet litter which may not allow for as adequate “coverage”.

Some finicky cats prefer clumping litters, while others prefer a litter that allows any moisture to seep to the bottom of the litter box and away from their discerning feet. If a cat is SUPER finicky about their box, there are litter box “systems” that allow liquid to fall through to a lower level thus completely away from your cat, as well as automatic litter boxes that scoop your kitty’s box after every use.

What do you want out of a litter?

Having lived in small, one bedroom apartments or studios for most of my life, these were the things that were most important to me:

  • low-tracking i.e. there isn’t litter tracked all over my relatively small floor space

  • strong odor control

  • as natural as possible/eco friendly (this didn’t have anything to do with living in a small space, it’s just what I prefer for my lifestyle and my cat)

  • no clay/low-dust (my cat’s heart issues and my own mild asthma made this important to me)

As for clumping, no-clumping, corn, wheat, pine, or paper-based litter, none of that was as important. As long as the litter met my cat’s and my needs, I didn’t care.

Some other qualities in a litter people look for are:

  • clumping/non-clumping

  • biodegradable

  • flushable

  • “all-natural”

  • scented/unscented (NOTE: A scented cat litter can mask odors from a dirty litter box, tricking the owner into thinking it does not need to be cleaned when it does. Also, many cats will refuse to use a scented litter as they find the artificial scent off-putting.)

  • baking soda in the litter (baking soda can also be added to most cat litters, providing your cat has no sensitivity to it)

  • price

  • availability (some cat litters can only be bought at specialty stores, others are readily found at the supermarket)

  • appropriate for a multi-cat litter box (though it should be noted that some cats insist on separate boxes)

What do you want out of a cat litter? It’s a surprisingly personal decision! Once you know what your cat’s needs are, and what your needs are, you’re ready to choose a litter.

But what’s out there? Here are some of the more popular options available, as well as what they can offer you and your cat.

Clay, clumping or non-clumping

A clumping, clay litter may be the most popular type of litter on the market. Typically made from bentonite clay, the litter does exactly what it says: it clumps when moisture hits it. This makes for easier scooping, and less litter wasted. Bentonite clay litter also does a pretty good job of absorbing odors.

Non-clumping clay litter is made from other clays, but does not clump. Some cats prefer non-clumping litter, and non-clumping formulas can absorb a rather high amount of liquid. However, an excess of moisture that is not absorbed by the clay will seep to the bottom of a litter box, and often pool there. A drawback with non-clumping clay litter is that the entire box often has to be changed instead of just scooping the “wet spots” like with clumping litter.

Both clumping and non-clumping clay litter have the drawback of clay dust which, as mentioned above, can be detrimental to cats (and humans) with breathing issues. Also, finely grained clay litters tend to track quite liberally (though a silicone mat, piece of carpet, or “litter catching” mat outside of your cat’s litter box can help with this problem).

Clay litter is also popular in that it is readily available at most stores (in various formulations) and can be relatively inexpensive.

Corn or wheat litters

Lots of biodegradable and “all-natural” litters are being made of ground corn or wheat. These litters can usually be found in a rough to medium fine “sand”, or pellets. If your cat does not have any sensitivities to wheat or corn, these absorbent, effective odor controlling, eco-friendly, often-flushable, available in clumping formulas litters might be a great choice for you and your cat. Additionally, they are low-dust litters.

However, if your cat has any wheat or corn allergies (corn is a common allergy or sensitivity in cats), this is not the right litter for you.

Silica or silicone crystals

Synthetic silica gel crystals or silicone bead litter is excellent at controlling odors, absorbs a lot of moisture, is low-tracking, and is all but dust-free. Some are pleasantly scented, seemingly extending the longevity of the litter (this doesn’t mean you can go days without changing your cat’s litter!). Once the crystals or beads have absorbed all they can, moisture will pool at the bottom of the box.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Drawbacks are that some cats don’t like the feel of the crystals or beads on their paws, and over time ingestion of the material, through grooming, can potentially be unhealthy or toxic to your cat.

Walnut shell

Made from crushed walnut shells, this eco-friendly litter is absorbent, available in clumping formulas, can be low-dust (brands vary), low-tracking, does not have the allergy issues of corn or wheat, is biodegradable, and is usually pleasing to cats who like to be able to scratch around in a sand-like litter (though walnut shell litter tends to be coarser).

Walnut shell cat litter may be a great alternative to clumping clay litter. It offers the convenience and efficacy of a clay litter with the peace of mind of a plant-based, natural litter. Though the verdict is still out on the effect of walnut shell dust on cats with breathing issues, if your cat has severe breathing problems, you may want to make sure the walnut shell litter brand you select is low or no-dust.

Pellet litter

Typically made of pine (pre-treated to remove dangerous toxins and oils), newspaper, wood pulp, straw, even walnut shells, pellet litter can be the great divider amongst cat owners.

On the one hand it is typically low to almost-no-tracking, low to almost-no-dust, highly odor and moisture absorbent, often-flushable, and biodegradable. I’ll admit, I’ve personally been a fan of it in my tiny apartments for years.

However, pellet litter isn’t for everyone. While I find all of the above to be true, some cats just don’t like it. They don’t like how it feels on their feet (though each kind of pellet has a different “feel” — some rougher some softer) and they don’t like digging in it. Some cats will take to suddenly not covering their solid waste with pellet litter — creating extra smells in a home.

Also, cleaning a box of pellet litter takes getting used to. It doesn’t clump, but rather the wet parts fall apart. So if you don’t scoop your cat’s box regularly (twice a day is best), you can end up losing a lot of litter per cleaning. However, if you regularly scoop your box (PRO TIP: Get a scooper with wide-apart slats to let the excess pellets fall through!) pellet litter can be just as cost effective as a mid-range “all-natural”, sand-like litter.

So there’s a rundown on the basics of choosing a cat litter.

Like I said, it may take a little trial and error, but with some smart shopping and knowing what you and your cat want, there’s no doubt you can find kitty litter bliss!


~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger

Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet or lifestyle. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.

Featured image of cat attribution: By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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