A Walk on the (Kitty Litter) Wild Side
In the beginning there was clay litter, and it was good. Not great, but good enough. Sure it was heavy, dusty, tracked everywhere and did precious little to cut down on litter box odor, but for many years it was clay or nothing. Happily these days that’s no longer the case and cat owners are now faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to filling the litter box.
So you’ve decided you’d like to try something other than standard clay litter – where do you start?
Before you make a purchase it’s a good idea to take into consideration the following points:
- Cost per bag and length of use
- Clumping vs. non-clumping
- Scent and odor control
- Texture and tracking
- Environmental impact
Like your cat’s food, litter is something you are going to need to purchase on an ongoing basis, so you need to take into consideration how much money you’re willing to devote to it on a monthly and yearly basis. Alternative litters can be pricey, as much as twice as expensive per bag as their clay counterparts. A 14 lb. bag of Fresh Step litter costs well under $10.00, whereas a 12 lb. bag of World’s Best Cat Litter costs closer to $15.00. The price of paper-based litters generally falls somewhere between the two, as does the walnut shell-based Blue Naturally Fresh line. Pine has become one of the more popular alternate litters and you can generally find a store brand for a great deal less than the better known brands like Feline Pine and Nature’s Miracle.
It’s important to keep in mind that the amount you actually pay for the litter is only half the story. The real question you need to ask is how long the litter is likely to last. The answer to that will differ both by litter and by the number of cats using it; and if you divide the maximum lifespan of the litter by the number of cats it should give you a good general estimate.
For example: 4 weeks / 4 cats = 1 week between changes
4 weeks / 2 cats = 2 weeks between changes
Please note, that real world results will vary depending upon the cats using it, the size of the room (and ventilation) where the litter box is kept, your sensitivity to litter box odor and many other factors. Treat these numbers as a ballpark figure until you actually use the litter, at which point you may want to revise your calculations. The longer the litter lasts the more infrequently you’ll need to buy it, which means even the more expensive natural litter options can be surprisingly economical in the long term.
Many cat parents are quite passionate when it comes to the question of clumping. Certainly clumping litter can make daily cleaning easier, allowing for quick scooping and removal of waste. However there are many who would argue that clumping litter can have a detrimental effect on a cat’s health. Of particular concern is whether or not the litter is sticking to a cat’s paws and fur and being ingested during grooming. Franny Syufy covers the controversy in some detail at About.com, but only so far as clay litters are concerned. To date there’s been very little discussion of alternate litter types in terms of cat safety.
Of additional concern is the issue of aflatoxin mold in corn-based litter like World’s Best Cat Litter. The manufacturer takes steps to ensure that the litter is tested and is free of aflatoxins, but any corn-based product exposed to high temperatures and humidity is potentially at risk. While not currently a major concern to the veterinary community, it’s definitely something to be aware of when considering the pros and cons of a new litter.
Possibly the biggest concern for most cat parents when contemplating a new litter is the scent, and there are two levels to consider:
- Can you live with the base scent of the litter on a day to day basis?
- Does it effectively control cat urine and feces odors?
An easy way to address the first question very quickly is to buy a small bag of your chosen litter, place it in the room with the (recently scooped) current litter box and open the bag. Give it a bit of a shake then leave the bag open in the space for about an hour. Return to the room and just experience the scent. If there’s anything about it you find noxious, it’s definitely not the right litter for you. Mark it off your mental list of options; but don’t look at it as a total loss – you’ve narrowed your search and have an unused bag of litter you can donate to another cat parent friend or rescue group.
If your new litter passes the first smell test it’s time to see how your furry friend feels about it. Start by incorporating a small amount of the new litter into your current litter, increasing the amount each day. This is extremely important, especially if the texture and scent of the new litter is entirely different than your current litter. The last thing you want to do is discourage your favorite feline from using their litter box, or encourage them to find new and entirely inappropriate places to do their business.
By the time you’ve completely integrated the new litter you should have a good sense of how well it tackles odor. Does it cover up the odor or nullify it? Is the combination of litter and waste a scent you can live with long term? And overall are you happier with the new litter than you were with the old litter? Only when you can adequately answer all three of these questions will you know it’s time to completely switch. And until you do, hold on to your former litter, just in case.
Texture and Tracking
While some alternative litters may closely resemble the texture of their clay counterparts, some stray rather far afield. If your cat is sensitive to texture, the pellet format of Feline Pine or Yesterday’s News, may not be the best option. The biggest benefit to these varieties, however, is the fact that the pellets generally aren’t tracked outside of the litter box. Of course, once they break down, the light sawdust or paper particles have a tendency to end up everywhere.
The wheat, corn and walnut shell varieties have larger, heavier particles throughout their lifespan and tend to track less than either their sawdust/paper or clay counterparts. Often a standard litter mat in front of the box will catch the vast majority of these particles and prevent any further tracking.
Finally, many cat parents are switching to alternative litters out of concern for the environmental devastation caused by their clay counterparts. This devastation is two-fold, the strip mining practices used in the creation of the litter, and the fact that the litter and the waste it entombs are non-biodegradable. It’s no surprise that anyone concerned with the environmental impact of their lifestyle and purchasing choices would steer clear of clay.
There is no single, stand-out litter when it comes to being eco-friendly. Whether you choose renewable, plant-based or recycled paper-based litters, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re doing your part to help the environment. You might even say you’re helping reduce your cat’s carbon “pawprint”.
While all alternative litters are biodegradable, some are also flushable for even greater convenience. However, not all litters that claim to be flushable are safe for every system or locale. For example, it is illegal to flush cat litter/feces in California.
“The Legislature finds and declares that several types of nonpoint source pollution are harmful to sea otters, and that scientific studies point to links between cat feces, the pathogen T-gondii, and sea otter mortality. The Legislature further finds and declares that efforts to reduce the flushing of cat litter and cat feces are steps toward better water quality in the sea otters’ natural habitat.”
To date there is no completely reliable method of destroying Toxoplasma eggs in cat feces so the safest way to deal with waste is to bag it and put it in the trash. Even if you don’t believe your cat is infected, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You can always use biodegradable bags rather than plastic and rest assured that your cat’s addition to the local landfill won’t still be around a hundred years from now.
Finding the best litter for you and your cat is a process, and you shouldn’t get discouraged if it takes you a few tries to find it. Each of these clay alternatives has its positive and negative aspects, and you can often narrow down your search by re-ordering the factors above in terms of importance to you. Remember it’s always a good idea to read reviews, talk to fellow pet parents and don’t be afraid to ask questions on cat groups and forums online.
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