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Cat & Kitten

The Scoop On Litter

Val Cairney August 5, 2022 51


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Hi everyone, and welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  It’s time to get back to our feline friends so in this episode I’m going to try and make sense of…are you ready…cat litter!

You would think that cat litter would be a simple product that you just fill up the litter box with and away you go.  Well you would be surprised how many people have cat litter questions.  We get questions often asking for a dust free litter, or one that clumps better or litter that doesn’t clump and even what litter can I flush down the toilet?  So, let’s go through it and visit the world of cat litter.

Cats as we know are interesting little characters.  They can be very fussy about their litter boxes and the litter in them.  Some cats have a serious meltdown if you change the type of litter they are used to.  Some cats will refuse to use litters that have a scent and some cats simply don’t care and are good as long as something is in their box.  

Clay

So let’s start with the most common type of litter which is clay litter.  According to prettylitter.com, “wet clay is gathered from below the earth’s surface about 30 to 40 feet down and carried away to processing plants for drying.  The clay is then broken into smaller pieces and loaded into a 2000 degree Fahrenheit kiln, which bakes away any moisture.  Next, the clay is crushed, sifted, crushed again, and ground up.”  Greenlivingideas.com states that “over two million tons of clay are mined in the United States every year, just to be turned into cat litter. The clay or more specifically, the sodium bentonite, is obtained via strip mining, requiring massive amounts of soil and rock to be moved in order to access the mineral seam underneath.”   Greenlivingideas.com also cautions that “not only is the conventional clay litter mined in destructive ways, bentonite clay cat litter is also known to contain silica dust, which is classified as a carcinogen according to California’s Proposition 65.”  Well that doesn’t sound very good does it?  And to make matters more complicated, clay litter can come in different qualities.  Most cat owners have bought a clay litter and found it to be extremely dusty where a cloud of dust goes up when they pour it in the box.  Also, ability to clump well relates to quality.  Basically clay litter is cheap period.  But, there are cheaper clay litters than others.  The cheaper the litter the lower the quality is usually how it goes.  A really cheap clay litter will be very dusty and although the pee balls will be clumped, when you try to scoop it out they break apart, therefore distributing granules of pee soaked bits throughout the dry litter contributes to smell.  Getting a high quality clumping litter can reduce the dust significantly with many stating on their bags or boxes that they are 99% dust free.  I find that there is no way any clay litter will be dust free, but a higher quality clay litter will reduce the dust significantly and the clumping ability will be good so that the pee ball does not fall apart.  Of course a higher quality clay litter will cost more and many people are of the mind that they are no way going to pay a certain amount for cat litter!  And if they are okay with the smell because cheap litter is also not good with odour control and the dust, and the possible health risks to their cat, well there isn’t much to do.  People with multiple cats usually try to find litter that comes in big amounts like 40 or 50 pound units and cost becomes a real issue.  So, clay litter is cheap compared to other types of litter but the way it is produced is not environmentally friendly and it may have a health risk associated with it to the cat. The quality of the litter will greatly contribute to the product’s ability to be less dusty, clump well and keep odour down.  Clay litter also comes in a non-clumping form.  People with many cats or shelters for example like this type of litter because they basically put out a very thin level in the box and throw it out each day.  The non-clumping form tends to be cheaper than the clumping form.  

The other feature with clay litter is that they are often infused with baking soda or some other kind of fresh scent.  The baking soda will be odourless but will help absorb any smell.  The scented litters add an enhancement to have the litter smell nicer.  There is quite a split between cat parents where some specifically look for something scented and others who specifically do not want any scent as either they can’t stand the scent or the cat can’t and refuses to use the litter.  

Also with clay litters there is now what is called “light”.  Somehow they have been able to get the clay to be much lighter so hauling a jug or bucket or bag is a lot easier than with the traditional.  Now, of course, the light form of clay litter is more expensive, but some feel this is worth the extra money to be able to pick up the litter.  

The last thing about clay litter is it does have a high tracking point.  This means it can stick to your cat’s paws and often its bum, but the litter on their pays gets tracked outside of the box and wherever it walks until it gets its paws free from the litter.  Each and every time!

So, that’s pretty much what’s behind clay litter.  Personally, I stopped using clay litter a few years ago now.  I have been looking after a friend’s cat recently and she uses a good quality clay litter but I had forgotten how yucky clay litter is so I’m really glad I switched.  But, many, many people use clay litter.

Alternative Litter

So, what is considered an alternative litter?  Alternative litters are litters that are made from some other form other than clay.  Many are from sustainable sources and are environmentally friendly.  Because there are quite a few, I’ll give a short overview of what is available that I know of and have had feedback or personal experience.

Recycled Newspaper

One of the first alternative litters that hit the market was recycled newspaper.  This form of litter is also used with small animals in their habitats.  Recycled newspaper can come in the form of pellets or what is called soft where it is sort of shredded.  The pellet form is quite popular.  So, this would not be a clumping cat litter so to speak.  As the cat saturates the pellets they break down slightly and form a bit of a ball and this is what you scoop out.  The newspaper litters will often say they are 99% dust free and are 3 times more absorbent than clay.  They often have no dyes or inks are sustainable and have no chemicals.  The drawback on this type of litter is basically the cat.  Cats are used to digging to make a nice place to go, so moving around pellets can be foreign to them.  But, if you can get a cat onto this type of litter you may have a winner.  This type of litter also can come in large bags, so it works for multi cat households.  The soft or shredded form of this litter gives cats the ability to sort of dig a bit when in the litter, the paper absorbs well and again you scoop as needed but there will not be a clumping factor.    We find that the pellet form is a lot more popular than the soft form.  And as brands have different approaches to the same style of litter there will be small differences with each brand.  Sometimes the pellets are longer, thinner, fatter it just depends.  Sometimes the breaking down of the pellets are different as well as the odour control.  So, if you don’t like one brand of pellets the best thing to do is try another brand, because they are not all the same.  

Pine

The next alternative litter that has been around for quite a while is pine.  There are several brands that provide a litter that is made from pine.  The wood pulp is ground down, pressed and sanitized. The litter in this case is like sawdust but also comes in a pellet form.  The sawdust style can be clumping depending on the brand and biodegradable and some brands say it is flushable.  I’ve always been a bit cautious with regards to this.  I know it says it is flushable, but how much can you flush?  Brands often say that the wood easily breaks down so it won’t clog or block a septic system.   I would say the flushable feature is up to the individual. This type of litter is also quite light and may or may not have a pine scent.  It is considered low to no dust as well. It has a low tracking rate but if they step in a wet spot it will stick to their paws.  Depending on the brand it can have a good odour control to it as well.  In terms of cost, all alternative litters are more expensive than clay, but on the scale of cost of alternative litters, pine rates fairly well as not being too over the top. In terms of odour, pine has shikimic acid which has been known to suppress and control bacteria which when we are talking litter, that can mean a good natural odour control.  Now as this is a sustainable resource as they say, it was interesting that during the lockdowns of the pandemic, one of the products that became impossible to get for quite a while was the pine litter.  Because the building industry basically came to a standstill, the wood by-product was just not available.  Most wood pellets or dust is made from reclaimed lumber, a by-product of the furniture industry and the building industry.  New trees are not cut to access the raw material and the product used would otherwise go to waste.  So pine litter in the pellet form or as a dust is an affordable litter depending and has some very good features.  

Wheat

Next is the wheat litters.  According to vetinfo.com two types of wheat litter are on the market.  One uses a wheat blend to make pellets and the other uses wheat grass as its base.  Waxy wheat is often used as this is not for use in the food market.  Because it has a high starch level it works well in litter.  There are some natural enzymes in the wheat that help control odour.  In terms of the pelleted wheat litter it is often made from red winter wheat grass which can also reduce odour.  Wheat litter is biodegradable and sustainable, it is light, very dust free and has a moderate control of odour.  It does have a higher tracking rate and some people report that the combination of wheat and cat urine is very unpleasant.  And this is something to think about because some cats have a wheat allergy so using this litter could trigger a reaction.  I did try a very popular wheat litter years ago because being biodegradable I thought I could put it out in the back 40 weed pile and it would do its thing.  Well, that became a nuisance and I found that it really smelled.  I didn’t try a different brand, I just abandoned using wheat based litter.  

Corn

Corn litter is similar to wheat.  It is also biodegradable and sustainable.  It is light and has a moderate odour control.  It too can be tracked.  Many people really like corn based litter.  Most corn litter is made by processing spent grains left over from corn ethanol production.  There are some things to consider however when it comes to corn litter.  According to wildernesscat.com, when corn litter becomes wet it can become a breeding ground for bacteria, bugs and mold.  Aspergillus flavus is a fungus that is found in soil and organic debris.  It can get airborne and land on corn or other grains.  The toxin from this, Aflatoxin, can cause serious poisoning to cats.  Bugs also like corn litter so meal moths and beetles could be present but they won’t harm your cat.  Some people freeze the product first before opening.  Best thing to do is to make sure that the brand chosen for a corn litter has a high standard and has their litter go through inspections before being packaged.

Walnut

Another type of alternative litter is made from walnut.  The shells from the walnuts are a by-product of the food walnut and can be transformed into cat litter.  It is biodegradable, can be composted with caution and sustainable.  According to petkeen.com, crushed walnut shell litter is very absorbent and has a low tracking rate.  It comes in clumping and non-clumping.  It does need to be stirred up a bit to make sure that the absorbency is activated.  The downside here is that it is dark in colour and we found when we used it that it did have an odd odour which was a bit unpleasant to us, but may not be to everyone.  

Coconut

Okay my next alternative litter is coconut.  Basically the husks of the coconuts that would be discarded are made into a cat litter.  It is biodegradable and sustainable.  It is quite light and feels almost like dirt.  It also comes in clumping and non-clumping.  There is no dust but tracking can be considerable due to its light texture.  It does absorb but not quite as well as other litters so smell can become an issue so changing it frequently is a must.  We did try coconut litter in the store but we found it didn’t clump well and it did smell.  

Silica

Next is silica gel or crystal litter.  Silica gel is composed of silica dioxide sand, oxygen and water.  We usually see this in those little packets that come in products to keep them dry.  Silica litter is very absorbent, obviously.  It does come in clumping and non-clumping.  It can be a bit rough on a cat’s paws and stirring the litter to facilitate absorption is recommended.  Silica gel is non-toxic and biodegradable but must be disposed of responsibly.

My experience with Silica was with an automatic litter that I was given.  The automatic litter was a frame that had a rake attached and you plug it in and place the frame over a provided tray of silica.  The frame had a sensor so when the cat went in it knew this and when it exited it would take about 10 minutes and the rake would move across the silica and pull back, opening a compartment where the poop would be deposited.  It worked quite well but I found that everything would be fine but then in a matter of overnight the silica would be saturated and it stunk, really bad!  With two cats I was changing out the tray in about a week and half and they are expensive.  I abandoned the auto litter because of the cost of the silica.  It is expensive. 

Grass Seed

So, the litter that I use now, is my last litter to look at and that is grass seed based litter. According to catinfodetective.com, grass litter is made from leaves and seeds that are made into tiny pellets.  My experience with this litter is that it is light, it clumps really well, the pee balls never disintegrate.  The odour control is really good and it’s biodegradable, sustainable and eco friendly, well the brand I buy is anyway.  But, I’m sure they all are.  I really like this litter.  I don’t go through a ton of it despite the fact that Rory pitches half of it out of the box because it clumps so well.  It is a bit pricier but I find it is worth it. So that is my pick.

There are some other litters I have heard of using Tofu, Diatomaceous earth, wood shavings and even green tea litter.   I can’t say I have any experience with these options.  

But, the bottom line with litter is going to be cost, clumping ability if you want that, odour control and how it is sourced.  If the strip mining issue doesn’t sit well with you, then clay is out and the alternative sustainable litters is what to look to. If someone has several cats, litter cost can add up, so that is definitely going to be a major consideration.  But, going the cheap route isn’t always the best, because you can easily go through a lot more litter than if you bought a better brand.  For me I don’t think I’ll ever go back to clay litter.  Now that I have experienced the alternative litters I’m much happier with the results and I feel better not contributing to an environmentally unfriendly product.  But, as I said cost is a factor for sure and many may not know how detrimental strip mining is, so perhaps a little homework is in order and some price comparison based on quality etc. because as I say, knowing is caring. 

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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