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The Scoop on Litter

Recently I was helping a friend who was recovering from surgery. She asked for a particular type of kitty litter, so off to the pet superstore I went. When I got to the litter section, I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of choices as well as the astonishing variety. Clearly, niche marketing had arrived in a big way. However, many of the litters appeared to distinguish themselves simply by labeling. For instance, one brand had half a dozen sub-types; all the litters looked identical, but had different labels touting one special ingredient or function. There was multiple-cat strength, fragrance or no fragrance, fast or long-lasting odor control, anti-bacterial, low-dust or dust-free, hard-clumping or plain clay--it was all pretty overwhelming. Thank goodness I had a specific order from my friend, or I would have spent all day gawking at that wall!

Since house-soiling is a major cause of cats being abandoned or relinquished, the whole subject of cat litter and boxes is much more important than one might think. Despite the dozens of choices of box size and shape and litter type, the one who really makes the decision about which to use is the cat. Our mission, as humans, is to provide whatever our cat prefers, since the consequences of failing to do so are extremely unpleasant.

So, what do cats want?

  • Openness. Most cats prefer an open box (as opposed to one with a hood). Privacy is not so important to cats, and in fact a wide field of view--so that nothing can sneak up on them--is often a higher priority.
  • Cleanliness. This another human responsibility, and again, the cat will definitely let you know if you're falling down on the job. Remember, their noses are only inches away from the litter--that gives them the right to be picky! Clay and pelleted litters needs to be dumped and replaced every few days. Clumping litter should be scooped daily, and the whole box emptied and washed at least once a month.
  • Pleasant texture. Since they have to walk on it with their very sensitive paws, most cats prefer the soft texture of scoopable/clumping litter over clay or pellets.
  • Sufficiency. There should be plenty of boxes in a multi-cat home (experts recommend 1 box per cat + 1). Sometimes you can get away with less (my 5 cats shared one enormous box for years--until one day they didn't!), but if litterbox issues develop, adding more boxes in more places is one of the main ways to solve such problems. But just lining up a bunch of boxes in the basement won't do. There should be a box on every floor; this is especially important for older cats for whom stair-climbing may be uncomfortable.
  • Comfort. This means that the box should be big enough for the cat to easily turn around in (large plastic storage bins work well). Also, overweight, arthritic or declawed cats may be especially sensitive not only to the texture of the litter, but also its depth. If there's too much litter in the box, the cat could feel like it's sinking into quicksand. About 1-1/2 to 2" of litter is plenty.

Now, within this framework, we can make certain choices. Automatic litterboxes work very well in many households, but some cats just won't use them; the only way to know is to try, and it's a potentially expensive experiment. Hooded boxes may be acceptable if you're diligent enough about keeping them clean, but in a multi-cat home the "ambush factor" can discourage their use. High-sided storage bins are great for preventing litter from being kicked all over the room; but they may be too difficult to get in and out of for very young and very old cats.

Then we're back to the choice of litter. Most litters are made from clay of some kind, often bentonite (which swells and clumps when wet). However, clay has some serious drawbacks. For one thing, it's dusty. The dust contains silica, which can contribute to kitty and human lung diseases. Asthmatic cats (and people) should consider alternatives, since scooping the litter stirs up quite a bit of dust. (My own asthma virtually disappeared when we switched to World's Best.) There have also been scattered (but largely unconfirmed) reports of intestinal blockage from cats ingesting the litter. Young kittens (who don't know to avoid the wet spots), and cats with a lot of fur between their toes can get quite a bit of litter stuck on their feet; and of course they clean their paws by licking and will swallow whatever is on them. A natural cat litter made from corn or wheat does not carry this risk, as the body can break those materials down.

As a vet, I strongly recommend avoiding clay litter and the dusty clumping varieties, not only because of the health risks to you and your cat, but also because plant-based litters are a renewable resource. Clay comes from strip-mining and is very environmentally unfriendly. There are many natural alternatives available today. Offering your cat a "buffet" of 2 or 3 kinds will be a guide to your cat's preferences. If you do change litters, remember to do it gradually to minimize stress and increase acceptance of the new product.

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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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