by Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
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
- 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
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
View cat litter at Only Natural Pet Store