Getting Down and Dirty with Cat Litter

Cat LitterThe other day I got an e-mail from Emily, our stalwart editor and unsurpassed pet newshound, asking if I would be interested in doing a piece on what is being touted as the latest advance in cat litter.

Since I’m just coming off a minor victory of my own in the field of cat hygiene (a prototype cat litter pan for an extremely large and senior cat), I thought it fitting that I should tackle the assignment. She sent me the contact information for the PR firm that’s handling this new super-litter, and I in turn contacted their representative with a few questions and a request for an evaluation sample. I’ll have more information on this product soon.

To be honest, I haven’t given advances in cat litter much thought over the years. My cat litter buying habits haven’t undergone any radical changes since the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. So I figured it would be good to do some background research before digging into this cat litter story.

It’s difficult for me to process the idea that cat litter was invented. The father of modern litter was Edward Lowe, an industrial absorbents salesman from St. Paul, Minnesota.

The story is that back in the winter of 1947, a neighbor of his was looking for sand to fill up the cat box. Sand was a popular filler for the cat boxes of the day, but the forward-thinking Lowe sent her away with a few pounds of clay instead. The neighbor was enthralled with its absorbent properties, and “Kitty Litter” was born. In 1964, Edward Lowe Industries launched “Tidy Cat”. That’s the brand I grew up using.

Another brand that has been around for a while is “Johnny Cat”. I don’t know much about its history, but today it is produced by the Oil-Dri Corp., which leads me to believe that it’s another cat litter spun off from the industrial absorbents industry.

Both of these brands started out as unscented bags of a substance known as Fuller’s earth, an innocuous diatomaceous clay that is also used for slow sand filtration systems to help purify wastewater. Johnny Cat still produces an unscented formula, but Tidy Cats, now a Purina product, specializes in deodorized products.

I surfed over to the Tidy Cats site and played with their product selector. You answer some questions and it tells you which Tidy Cat product you should use. The thing is, no matter how you answer the questions, it gives you exactly the same recommendations.

Purina would be very pleased if you would buy the crystals, or the crystal blend. Also, they think you should buy cat box liners (which are simply large, overpriced trash bags) and cat box deodorizer. It matters not whether you have one cat or four cats. It doesn’t matter where you say the litter boxes will be located. In fact, none of the answers to any of the questions matters in the slightest way. Just buy the crystals moron. So says Purina.

Following our historical timeline, the next big advance in litter technology (yes, they really say this) was the invention of “clumping” cat litter in by Thomas Nelson, a biochemist and a professor of medicine at Houston’s Baylor College. This litter is composed of bentonite clay, which is highly absorbent and forms a hard mass as it dries. In 1984, the world’s first clumping litter, dubbed “Better Way” was produced by a company called Harvest Ventures.

Clumping litter is very popular, comprising about 60% of the total cat litter market. I personally find scooping chunks of urine-impregnated clay to have very limited entertainment value, but that’s just me.

A lot of folks like it because it seems less wasteful than tossing the entire contents of the litter box every day or two. There are dissenters, though, who believe that the litter can be dangerous to pets that regularly ingest small amounts of it by licking their paws, or by inhaling the dust. Considering its properties, I would suggest that anyone whose cat is experiencing chronic digestive or respiratory problems might try switching to a non-bentonite litter to see if that lessens their symptoms. It’s a small thing that might be helpful, so it’s worth a try.

The Harvest Ventures folks didn’t stop at clumping litter. In 1999, they launched “Ultra-Pearl”, a silica-gel cat litter. Silica gel is a desiccant; that stuff you always get in tiny packages along with your electronics to absorb moisture… you know, the ones that say “DO NOT EAT” on them. Lots of silica gel comes from China. I believe that says it all.

There has been a plethora of cat litter innovations over the years, ranging from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. There are low-dust litters, litters that supposedly won’t track around the house, litters with extra odor control, but the claim that really raises my eyebrows is the assertion that any cat litter is “flushable”. I don’t care how biodegradable or chemically inert your cat litter might be, I recommend that you don’t flush it down the toilet. Of course, if you enjoy meeting new people, like septic system service guys, it’s your call.

There’s a whole array of “environmentally friendly” cat litters available now, and I have to admit that I’m slightly intrigued by the concept. The one that looks most promising to me is called “Swheat Scoop”. I plan to get a box and subject it to rigorous testing.

There are also products made from recycled newspaper, corn and peanut hulls… even orange peels, which sounds a bit wacky to me. My biggest concern about these is how my cats will react to them. I know that my senior guy, who struggles with arthritis, would have trouble walking on the palletized types.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written nearly a thousand words and barely scratched the surface of cat litter, but there’s more to come soon. A new product that’s purported to be a giant leap in cat litter is emerging. Stay tuned!

30 Responses to “Getting Down and Dirty with Cat Litter”

  1. 8tiggers says:

    Waiting with bated breath…

    I’ll be overjoyed if someone came up with a better cat litter.

  2. Claudia says:

    I’ve been using Swheat Scoop for several years for my 5 cats. I used to use the clumping clay stuff, but one of my cats would inhale the dust and it would end up coming out of his eyes, It was terrible. Since I switched over, I waste less, it’s not as dusty as the other stuff, it IS flushable (but you have to let it dissolve for awhile), and it absorbs odors very well. All of my cats have no problems using it and I don’t feel bad if they ingest some. It’s a lot more expensive than the clay stuff (massive bag is $35 CDN), but I think it’s worth every penny!


  3. Nemeria says:

    I second Claudia. I’ve been using Swheat Scoop for about a year now and I’m very pleased with it. In my area (suburb of NYC) the cost is only slightly higher than other clay/clumping brands. Looking forward to your review!

  4. Nancy G. says:

    We tried the pelletized newspapers and found it to be awful, it barely absorbed anything, I think you could use it to fill in holes on the highway and it would stand up very well. We loved the pine pellets– clean, fresh smelling, absolutely no wetness or mess– but with a cattery, it was very expensive. Till we discovered pelletized horse bedding, made from soft wood, it has a bit less of the pine scent but works just as well. Completely biodegradable, easy on the environment, uses up a product, sawdust, that would otherwise go to waste, and wood has a mild natural germ killing property, so we feel it keeps the litter boxes a bit more sanitary. A local co-op that has horse products should have it; ask for pelletized horse bedding. A 30 pound bag for around $5. If the cat does not like the texture, you can lightly wet it to fluff it up into sawdust- horse people sometimes do that when they put it down in a stall.

  5. Traci says:

    Been using Cat Country (organic wheatgrass) for my cats–what they got at the rescue and what they were used to and happy with so why fix what isn’t broke. I prefer pellets of some kind if the cats like them–the litter doesn’t move as far from the box and easy to see on the floor and pick up.

    It’s even edible if it ends up in a food or water bowl–why we use it at the rescue. There is also a clumping (non-pellet litter) Cat Country but I didn’t feel it clumped well.

  6. Stefani says:

    I am always waffling in my cat litter choices. My concerns are a) the health of my kitties and b) odor control.

    I have used EVERYTHING that is out there.

    A personal favorite in the “natural” category is Healthy Pet Milled Grain litter. I like this much better than Swheat Scoop, because Swheat scoop does not clump hard and tracks everywhere. The milled grain isn’t clumping at all — it works like Feline Pine, but the pellets are smaller, lighter, and there is less dust tracking. I think it controls odor of solids as well as Feline Pine, and urine is about equal.

    I’d been using it for a while, but one day I noticed mold growing in the bottom when I changed out the entire box, which I was doing 1x a week. This concerned me, and I stopped using it.

    I went back to clumping clay, and am using EverClean, which has carbon in it and seems to clump the hardest and control odor very well (which is really related to the clumping because if the litter doesn’t clump well, it doesn’t matter if you scoop all the time, the particles of urine break off and get left behind.) The carbon concerns me, as does the fragranty smell (even of the “unscented” variety).

    I’ve also tried the clumping kind made out of paper, which some environment magazine said are best, but it does not clump very well, therefore, it starts smelling very fast. Icck.

    I am beginning to wonder if it might not be better and cheaper to just use sand and change it entirely daily.

    Can the author share any personal experiences with SAND as litter? Or anyone else?

    The Toonces Project
    “Is Your Pet Safe at the Vet?”

  7. Patty Richard says:

    I used sand only once, when the local general store ran out of cat litter. There’s only the one store here, so I took myself down to the beach and scraped up a few pounds of beach sand. I don’t recommend doing this as it had lots of little shells and bits of seaweed in it… took me a long time to pick it reasonably clean. At any rate, I brought it home and filled the litter box. Since it was beach sand, I was treated to a kind of dead fish potpourri. That sort of fragrance doesn’t bother me but some folks might find it a bit niffy.

    I must say, the cats seemed to enjoy the experience; it was like bringing a bit of the outdoors inside for them. They actually played in the box rather more than i would have liked. The sand wasn’t particularly absorbent but it kept us going until real cat litter came. As a novelty, it was modestly successful, but if you’re planning to do sand as a regular thing, you’ll probably want to get the clean, washed sand that they sell for mixing concrete and stuff. Judging from the beach sand, you’ll need to clean the litter box frequently, but the cats were happy enough.

  8. 2CatMom says:

    The biggest advance so far has been clumping litter. I can remember before CL, cat boxes were foul from the first time they were used until you changed them a week later. Yuck! I know some people prefer it, but having a box that’s clean for weeks at a time is wonderful. I know my cats sure like it.

    Of course, you still have to be meticulous, scoop often and make sure you get everything out - but its a world of difference.

  9. Kate says:

    You should try World’s Best Cat Litter, it’s made from corn. From experience I can tell you it clumps much better than Swheat Scoop, which can be a little goey at times.

  10. Trudy Jackson says:

    I also use the horse pellets. for a multi-cat household, this works fine for Me. I love it.
    A lot of people i know use wood pellets for wood stoves but We can’t get that here, so I stay with the horse pellets. It’s what they put in the horse stalls. It’s cheap and clean.

  11. Maria says:

    I used Tidy Cat clumping litter for 9 years, but then switched when they messed with it last year and introduced their “new improved” TIDY LOCK formula. Terrible stuff. Has the look and consistency of aquarium gravel. It doesn’t clump well at all, the odor control is non existent, and my kitties kicked it out all over the floor. So I switched to Arm & Hammer clumping litter, which is OK. I’ve read the above posts and may be looking into some of the “natural” litters other people have tried.

  12. Dennis says:

    We’ve gone the gamut and around the roost. Started and used Tidy Cat clumping multicat for 21 years along with Arm & Hammer Cat Litter Deodorizer which contains baking soda and a fragrant to cover and or eliminate the odors. I suspect the fragrance is more for us than the kitty as it is pretty strong. I can’t say the cats have complained however about the fragrance. But with their sensitive noses, I bet some might complain.

    I’ve also noticed that Tidy Cat clumping multicat in my opinion doesn’t clump nearly as well or as hard as it used to and the new cat spreads the broken pieces around contaminating the pan and increasing smell. I used to dread scooping and putting more TK in the pan because the clay dust would waft all over two adjacent rooms along with the deodorizer smell.

    The reports that Sodium Bentonite in clay clumping litter might be harmful to our kitties was a bit alarming so I decided to try something else that clumped. I opted recently to try Swheat Scoop. After less than a week, with one cat, and with no A&H Cat Litter Deodorizer, the pan smells somewhat of urine, even though we diligently scoop and toss in a sealed plastic bag. So we’re back to adding the Deodorizer until we find something we like better.

    We were warned at the local Cat Show that Swheat Scoop might smell before a month was up and that it could get gooey. I’ve not seen goo. And I’ve not given up on using it with some additive.

    Now as to another option I heard of at the local Cat Show - Litter Mate ( My disclaimer - I saw this stuff and haven’t used it. It looked great for most, except me, I believe I heard the inventor say it contained gluten from wheat, corn, and millet. Being very allergic to corn products, I CANNOT use this IF it contains corn because I’d expect residue on the cat and I scoop the box. I didn’t have time to confirm ingredients.

    Basically Litter Mate is a dry powder product that you ADD to the cheapest non-clumping litter you can find and their product causes clumping and it causes the urine to be neutralized and thus the odor removed. Their claim to fame is that they are used by a lot of cat breeders. They demonstrate that just mixing this stuff in clay litter that the dry stuff added eliminates nearly all dust if the mix is poured between bowls at a height. The stuff does clump hard, not just so so. They suggest buying the very cheapest litter that you can find as it will work best with their addition. That means visiting the hardware store, or a feed and grain or a dollar store, etc. They mentioned $0.75 bags of clay litter that they then add this to. They have another claim - he hasn’t changed his kitty pan litter for most of two decades, without problems or odor. That’s right, his clump is so complete and so neutralized that he claims to not need to change it. They sell this by mail or annually at local cat shows bringing your order with them to pick up to avoid the shipping.

    I’d like to check their claim out myself, but the two downsides to his product: I sent him two emails and have gotten no reply. And I wanted to confirm it has corn in it as at a prior show, corn WASN’T in it. This time corn was mentioned. So strike one was corn? and strike two was no return email. I’m still waiting…

    But if this stuff works and I suspect it does because I’ve seen the stuff in demo, then you all deserve to know about it.

    I’d anticipate someone to say GLUTEN??!! So I’ll leave it up to that person to chase down Ted Klebke the inventor and ask him where they source it. I think it was U.S. Oh, and if you talk to Ted, ask him to email a reply to me from his info email. :)

  13. maddy says:

    I very much ewish you would do a piece on many of the newer litters around. I have used Sweat Scoop and liked it….however expensive.

    I currently would like to switch as I have noticed small pantry type moths and when calling the company was told that it is due to the storage within the supermarket distribution centers. This is not okay with me…moths can be a nightmare…………as finding a litter now is…since I do not want to go back to unnatural litters and feel forced to do that or try to use feline pine…the most accessible and I have not heard all good things on safety.

    Have heard that clump and flush is good….not available here though. Have used Here’s the Scoop and although not bentonite it is like glue everywhere and a disaster to use.

    So was hoping that this article would go into depth on safe litters -

  14. Velvet's Dad says:

    I switched from clay to Harmony about 15 years ago due to the dust which created respiratory problems for my cat. I have my newest baby on Harmony and, frankly, swear by it. It’s made of plant fibers, does not spread dust like clay does, and, despite what the writer says about clumping litter, IS flushable. Now, do I dump the whole box down the toilet? Of course not. I check the box twice daily and only a small number of fibers ever get flushed. Then once a week (religiously) I clean the boxes and replace the entire amount. That’s two 10 lb. bags a week for one cat, but I have never had any problems with it. Oh, only Calif. prohibits flushing flushable litter. Which I think is ridiculous unless you’re dumping the whole box down the toilet. Very few fibers, if you use the product the way it’s supposed to be used, ever get flushed.

  15. MaineMom says:

    Over the past 8-9 yrs all my cats have voted for EverClean Low Track Unscented. Although it was sold to Clorox and has gone through several reformulations, given their choice they still pick this clay litter over the enviornmentally friendly paper and wheat. I’ve followed all the directions for introducing a new litter, but they will always head for the “old” litter box if allowed a choice. With 4+ inches of litter in large clear plastic storage boxes, rather than litter boxes - scooped twice a day - it clumps so well, that under normal circumstances, the boxes only need to be completely changed once a month. Just add more litter as large clumps are removed. Minimal dust and tracking compared to other litters and no liners required even for big kitties since they rarely dig to the bottom of the box and it clumps so quickly. Just wash well and sun dry. In all these years, I’ve had no “litter box” problem cats.

    Also, with long haired cats, the light weight wheat litters track through the house on their britches! Even harder to clean up than clay.

  16. Daisy's Daddy says:

    I know what litter you are talking about!!!

    It is called Health Meter Cat Litter and it saved our cat’s life.

    We bought some at our local PetSmart to try it and we love it. Great odor control and liquid absorption.

    We used it for our Daisy and it changed color. we went to the Vet and he said we were lucky because we caught a Kidney disease early which could have killed our Daisy. Pretty incredible that a cat litter saved our cat’s life.

    Health Meter Cat Litter changes color to detect diseases. Pretty amazing.

    Too much to tell here but we love this stuff. Go to the website if you what to know more. They have a video and all kinds of information about the litter.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Useful subject, hope we can expand on it.
    Wood: what about problems w treated lumber? Obviously they’re not using grade A top quality stuff. Treated lumber can be dangerous.
    Papermill byproducts: Many chemicals used in the paper business.
    Wheat/Grain: Pesticide/mold retardants (god only knows what else)

    Sand is sounding better and better.

  18. momkat says:

    I never really thought about cleaning the litter box as entertainment!

    We’ve tried many different types, but since I’m allergic to wheat and pine, and we were nauseated by the smell of corn and urine, and urine-soaked newspaper…we’ve stuck with the clumping clay.
    We’ve tried almost all of them, and with my allergy to the scented powders they use in them, we finally landed on Dr Elsey’s Precious Ultra….the most dust-free one we’ve ever used and it has no toxic perfumed powders added to it. Those scent powders get into the cat’s lungs and stomachs, therefore bloodstreams! Why do they make them? Why do people USE them? If you scoop the box a couple of times a day, you don’t need scented litter!
    Dr Elsey’s is the best as far as we and our 5 cats are concerned.

  19. Dennis says:

    I did hear back from Litter Mate’s Bonnie Kiebke concerning what their product contained. It contains wheat gluten, not corn or millet.

    I guess I will have to try it. I’ve seen the demo and it works.

  20. ferdiemeow says:

    O.K. so is it just me or should I be concerned that someone is writing an article about cat litter but has not upgraded to something more natural when there is so much out there? My local store has an entire aisle of natural cat litter to pick from. I know that it is great to do research but how many litters can one person use in such short a time to be any real help. I can only hope that she reads these comments because alot of them are good choices and I believe she may need a little direction (not to be critical).

    In my opinion swheat scoop is great but with multiple cats it can get a little sticky ( I have used cooking spray in the box before filling to combat this problem)

    Worlds best is a little more expensive but seems to clump better.

    silica I have to agree is out. I just do not feel confident that it is as safe as they say.

    if you have a cat that hits or misses the box look in to cat attract.

    urinary tract problems give scientific a try (all five of my cats use this once a month just to make sure everything is o.k.. I have to seperate each one for a short time untill they go which they don’t like but they get over it.)

    there are a multitude of others that if I were writing an article I may go into but I am just posting a comment and have talked long enough.

    Hope I did not offend the author.

  21. Anonymous says:

    My cat prefers to go outside. Only in really bad weather will he use a litterbox…and he hates all commercial litters. So far, I’ve found one thing that he really likes: pine pet bedding. It’s cheap, clumps well, doesn’t stink (if the lumps are removed reasonably often), doesn’t track, and the huge bales last a long time. Most importantly, it doesn’t cause him respiratory problems from dustiness or deodorants.

  22. Deborah says:

    I have had cats for 40 plus years and while I did try the clumping litter, it was impossible with more than 2 cats, let alone 1 in renal failure. It wouldn’t break down, formed concrete slabs in the garbage bags that I had to haul to the dump. Bio-degradable? I don’t think so. Sorry folks, I continue to use Johnny Cat clay litter, clean the boxes every other day and then dump the contents once a month or more often if necessary into a compost box dedicated to cat waste layered with leaves and grass cuttings. . . after a year or two, the bad stuff is washed out by the rain and the clay that remains breaks up the “compost” much like peralite does in commercial potting mixes. That soil and that soil only goes into my perennial flower beds . . . . NEVER for the veggie garden. Mind you, I have 4 decades of cats pooping in my vegetable bed.

  23. Patty Richard says:

    Hi ferdiemeow, Don’t worry; I’m not in the least offended and your comments were helpful, particularly the vegetable spray tip. The thing about assignment reporting is that you are often called upon to write about subjects that might not be your particular area of expertise. I’m a *long* way from a supermarket and our general store carries only one brand, so I’ve been out of the litter loop for quite a while. The fun of writing articles like this is that you find some amazing things when you do the research, and in writing for itchmo, I get the benefit of some great feedback. The comments are every bit as helpful as the articles; in this case perhaps more so, but I like being able to open up the dialogue. :)

  24. May says:

    Not to state the obvious but, don’t buy clumping littler if you have a Maine Coone or Norwegian Forest cat.

    One time I bought clumping litter by mistake. The litter not only clumps in the box, it clumps right up in the all that fur my Maine Coone cats have between their toes (if you have one, you know what I mean).

    That bath was not a pretty sight.

    Anyone have recommendations for litter and boxes for really large, really furry cats?

  25. Azure says:

    Maria, I know you wrote this a while ago, so I hope you see this response! I had the EXACT same experience as you with Tidy Cat Scoop. I used to love their product, until they added those horrible TidyLock crystals. Never had any problems before that, and I too used the same cat litter for about 9 years. Every time I go to the store, I try to find a Tidy Cat brand that does not have Tidy Lock. I do not want to change brands because cats (like their owners!) do not like change. Why would a company that made products for cats ever change anything? Don’t they know their own customers? And every time I have changed the litter box (every day for the past couple of years), I think about how much I hate Purina now and how if I ever have kittens again, I will start them off using anything but Purina. There, I vented! Two years’ worth.

  26. Poppy's Mom says:

    Does anyone have any advice regarding safety for dogs who like to eat Kittie Rocha? My mini schnauzer, Poppy loves it, yuck! I should change her name to Poopy. I have tried baricades, etc…to no avail. So I am forced to find something safe for Poppy to ingest but something that my 4 cats and I will like too. I have been using Worlds Best corn litter, figuring it will be safe for Poppy to eat but it tracks so much and even though I buy the multi cat formula, the clumps still break up leaving urine granuals that then get tracked around too. Thanks

  27. tj says:

    Nothing could beat Arm and Hammer Essentials. NO dust , very low tracking, very fresh smell. Even seems to smell more like the litter when used(not a clay, not a heavy clumping type , just enough to coat the matter the cat has left in there) and is just pleasant from filling the box to scooping out. I only wish that it were in a bigger size than the bag it comes in,but you don’t need to use as much each time.It’s easy to clean up also. My cats (I have 2) love it. They didn’t hesitate to use it and I don’t see any clumps or excess on their paw pads as I sometimes noticed before with other litters.

    I’ve tried a bunch and won’t go use another now.This is at Target here for sure(where I found it at first time) and is acceptably priced.It’s light weight and has baking soda in the corn fibers it’s made of. Nothing works better. I hope the sale of this continues as I am done searching for a good litter to use,this is it.It’s the best.

  28. tj says:

    To Poppy’s mom. I have 2 dogs, one is weird about going to the cat box smell when it’s used. He stopped doing this with the litter I mentioned. It just doesn’t remind me or apparently him of the smell it had prior. I also use a cat litter box with high sides and a cover to avoid spills and to keep the dogs out. Try one of those that allow only the cats to enter and exit it instead.

  29. ILM of Willow says:

    I just called CS for Swheat Scoop (my 2nd fav litter). I was told that there are no pesticides/mold retardants in the litter. The litter is made from non-organic, non- GMO, non-food grade wheat “that could go in your loaf of bread” . It’s sustainable,biodegradable, has no silica dust, sodium bentonite, or chemicals. It does have protein in it which cats/dogs might want to eat. Also wheat can be an allergen for cats/humans.Target has it cheapest (where I live) at .73/lb.

  30. ILM of Willow says:

    My #1 fav litter is Cat Country. It’s made from organic western red winter wheat grass fibers. Made into pellets; it’s all natural and free of perfumes, chemicals, and polymers found in clay/clumping litters. The grass in the pellets bonds with the nitrogen to eliminate ammonia; IMO the best odor control in litter ever. Did I mention it’s compostable?
    Only a few cons - it’s expensive, hard to find at retailers(but you can order it online), and 1 of my 2 cats won’t poo in it.

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