Humane Society of Central Illinois

Pick Of The Litter

When cat litter is on your shopping list ... what to choose, what to choose?

By Jacque Lynn Schultz

Your new cat is coming home from the animal shelter tomorrow. Busily you shop, checking off the items on your list, including cat food, toys, a scratching post and myriad of other goodies.

And at the very top of the list are litterbox necessities. You head to the nearest pet supply superstore, and are met by row after row of choices of cat litter. What to choose, what to choose... ? Whether you are an experienced owner or a novice, the multitude of choices available could prove daunting. This was not always the case.

Pay Dirt

Prior to World War II, most cats lived indoor/outdoor lives and their toileting areas were neighborhood backyards and gardens. For indoor needs, some families kept boxes of sand or ashes from the furnace for their cat's use in the cellar. Housewives of the 1940's were none too enamored with cats tracking ashes or sand through their homes. So an ex-sailor named Ed Lowe suggested that his neighbor try absorbent clay, which was a popular product for cleaning up industrial oil spills in wartime factories and happened to be made by his father's firm. Kitty Litter was born.

Granulated clay litter offered improved odor control over ashes or sand by siphoning urine to the bottom of the pan and controlling ammonia smells until the litter reached a saturation point - usually within a week in a box used by a single cat. Today, most folks either scoop solids daily and completely replace the litter once a week or use less litter in the box and dump and clean daily. The granules of traditional litter are fairly large and do not tend to cling to a cat's paws, so there is little tracking of litter outside the box.

To Clump Or Not To Clump

Granulated clay litters remained unchallenged for nearly 40 years, with little change or refinement until Thomas Nelson, Ph.D., needed a way to supplement his income while in graduate school. The biochemist began to raise Persian cats, and ended up developing clumping litter. Quoted in an October 1996 article in Cat Fancy magazine, Dr. Nelson explains, "I hunted around and found clays that were dried but not baked. They were very absorbent and would form a clump when the cat urinated on them. The clump could then be removed, thereby getting rid of the urine. I had a box of litter I did not change in 10 years - I just added more - and it had absolutely no odor at all."

The removal of almost all urine and feces does produce a better-smelling box area for weeks at a time without completely throwing out the old litter and starting from scratch. But we should point out that if more than one cat uses the box, there is usually a fairly pronounced odor in 4 to 6 weeks time, even with scooping and litter replacement. It is necessary to replace the approximate amount scooped out with fresh clumping litter, for if it is allowed to go below a certain volume, urine will tend to pool and cake in corners and odors will arise.

Lapsed Users

One in every 10 cats will have a litterbox lapse in his or her lifetime. The 20 most common reasons are:

  1. The cat is suffering from a medical problem involving the urinary tract.
  2. The cat experiences a bout of geriatric constipation.
  3. The caretaker does not keep the box as clean as the cat wants it to be.
  4. The owner changes the brand or type of litter.
  5. The owner changes the location of the litterbox.
  6. The owner switches to deodorized or perfumed litter.
  7. The owner buys a new box and throws out the old one.
  8. The owner cleans the litterbox with too harsh a cleaning product.
  9. The location of the litterbox is too busy or not private enough for the cat.
  10. The home is too large for just one litter box.
  11. The cat inadvertently gets locked out of reach of the litterbox.
  12. The cat is kept from using the litterbox by another animal in the house.
  13. There are too many cats and not enough litterboxes.
  14. There are too many cats and not enough territory.
  15. Stray cats can be seen/smelled near the cat's territory.
  16. The unneutered male cat has come of age and is marking his territory.
  17. The unspayed female is in heat and advertising for suitors.
  18. Over time, the cat has developed an aversion to the texture of the litter.
  19. The cat was never properly trained to use the litterbox in the first place.
  20. The cat is stressed by a change in routine or environment, including a new baby, new furniture, work schedule changes, vacations, overnight guests or a move.

For information about litterbox problems and how to solve them, write to:

Litterbox Problems
c/o ASPCA Companion Animal Services
424 East 92nd Street
New York, NT 10128-6804

Boxed In

Once you have made your litter selection, you will need a plastic receptacle to put it in. Litterboxes range from the simple rectangular box that sells for a few dollars to complicated multi-tray drainage systems that cost nearly $50. A brief overview of the marketplace follows:

Traditional rectangular box - These come with or without an add-on frame or lip that serves to keep litter from being kicked out of the box.

Oval litter pan - These have no square corners in which urine can build up when using clumping litter.

Basic covered litterbox - With a hole cut into the side of the plastic top for easy entry, this box helps prevent spillage and offers the cat an extra measure of privacy.

Booda box - This is the brand name of a covered box with an over-hanging chute, requiring the cat to climb up into the chute and over the side of the box. Ideal for keeping dogs from snacking on cat feces.

Lift & sift system - Three interlocking trays work in conjunction with clumping litter to eliminate the need to remove waste with a scoop.

Drainage boxes - Urine drains through non-porous reusable litter into a second tray and collects on absorbent paper. Claims to be more eco-friendly.