Julie Baird is proud to be a “cat person.” The Phoenix, Ariz., resident adopted her first cat, Oscar, in 1992 and has since been “Mom” to KC, Melody and Samaira. About 12 years ago, she switched from traditional clay cat litter to a chemical-free brand made from recycled pine shavings. She was happy to find a litter that was good for the environment, as well as her cats.
“I’m always interested in finding ways to be greener, as long as my cats’ health is still a consideration,” Baird said.
Deciding what type of cat litter to use can be an overwhelming choice, given today’s diverse market. It’s also an important choice, because Americans dispose of more than 2 million tons of cat litter each year, according to Judd Alexander’s In Defense of Garbage. Consumers can now choose between traditional clay litter and clumping clay, as well as cat litter made from synthetic silica gel, washable granules, recycled tires, or biodegradable products such as pine, wheat, corn and paper.
“It’s amazing how many different types are out there,” said Tina Wismer, DVM, DABVT, DABT, and medical director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Animal Poison Control Center.
She said of the two clay litters, using a clumping litter is more eco-friendly because the owner only throws away the litter clumping around the urine or feces, as opposed to throwing out the entire litter box and starting fresh each time. Litters made from recycled, plant-based materials are a good option, but Wismer is wary of those made from ground-up tires.
“[In the toxicology world,] we get a little concerned about [ground-up tires] because cat urine is very acidic, and it makes me a little concerned about what can leach out of these,” Wismer said. “It could be a concern for the waterways.”
On the subject of waterways, she added that it’s important never to flush cat feces down the toilet because feces can spread Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can be fatal to pregnant women and people with autoimmune diseases. She said water filtration systems don’t filter out the little cysts, and they can get into the water supply, particularly if a household uses city water.
“Don’t flush it; it’s probably best if you put it in your trash and it ends up in a landfill,” Wismer said. “In the same way, we do not recommend composting cat or dog feces and using them on your vegetable garden or anything like that, because it doesn’t get hot enough to kill all the parasites.”
She said the washable granules are an interesting option as long as people are careful to wash their hands extremely well after handling them (or any kind of cat litter), though the problem is if the granules aren’t cleaned at least once a week, the cat will eliminate outside the litter box.
“That’s one of the big problems that we run into with these alternative litters; many cats don’t like the way that they feel or the way that they smell, and they don’t want to use them,” Wismer said.
When introducing a new type of cat litter, it’s smart to keep the old box out just in case the cat doesn’t like the new kind, according to Wismer. She’s experimented with alternative cat litters, but her five cats won’t use them, preferring unscented clumping litter.
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, says close to 2 million cats are surrendered to animal shelters in America each year, and failure to use the litter box is a common complaint—one that is often easily corrected by using the right litter.
“Most people, when they’re buying cat litter, have all these considerations that are essentially human considerations, and they’re not thinking for the cat; they’re not thinking like a cat,” Dodman said. He recommends unscented clumping litter with very fine particles, like the type his cat, Grizwold, prefers.
“It’s like you or me walking on a white sand beach in the Caribbean with the sand squishing between your toes,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling, and the cat loves that texture.”
He said cats also don’t typically like plastic mats (that prevent tracking); box liners or covers; less than 3 inches of litter; or strong odors. He suggests using a nontoxic, odorless litter spray such as Zero Odor and putting the box in a ventilated area instead of in a basement next to a washing machine, for example.
“My main message is: You’ve got to think like a cat,” he said. “If you just think like a cat, you can get it right.”