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Mo’ Better Choose (Types Of Litter)

Choosing the best litter for your cats – and for your human family – is really important. However, what’s “best” is subjective. It depends on what the cats prefer to stand and dig in, and on what features of litter are most important to you.

If your cats show a clear preference for a certain litter, that is the best litter to use in their box. Because if anything about their litter (or litter box location) bothers them, inappropriate urination can become an issue.litter-variety

You’ll find the widest variety of litters in independent pet supply stores such as Fluffy and Floyd’s and Pet Works. They usually have samples of all their litters so you can check out the difference in texture, color, and smell.

Signs that a cat does not like a certain litter

Some behaviors that indicate a problem with litter choice can also indicate bladder problems, digestive tract issues, pain, litter box placement, frequency of scooping, or type of box (covered, automatic, etc). Note: every cat is different, so some of the following behaviors may be normal for some cats. For them, you would see an increase in these behaviors if they don’t like the litter they are using. It’s always best to visit the vet first to look for health issues that might cause these behaviors. If the vet finds nothing physiological that explains the situation, consider the litter box.

  • Meowing when approaching the box.
  • Meowing and darting out of the box immediately after leaving a deposit.
  • Perching on the side of the box without standing on the litter.
  • Shaking feet a lot when leaving the litter box.
  • Not covering waste.
  • Urinating or defecating occasionally in other places.

Note: If a cat suddenly stops using the litter box and begins to urinate or defecate in other areas of the house, get them to the vet ASAP because it might be a sign of serious urinary or digestive problems. When cats experience pain during these activities, they associate the pain with the litter box itself, so they try to find different places to go in an attempt to find relief from pain.

Another note: Some cats like their litter, but prefer a very clean litter box. For these guys, you’ll just have to be diligent about cleaning the box or try out an automated litter box.

Considerations when choosing litter

  • Is the cat mostly indoor or outdoor? If he is indoor only, his footpads are soft and he may prefer a soft litter that has a fine, sandy texture. Larger pellet shaped litters or those with rough edged pieces might not be comfortable on their tender feet.
  • Does the cat have long hair? Non-clumping litters generally work best for long-haired cats because litter can get stuck in their hair. They also ingest more litter particles when grooming because they groom more intensely than short-haired cats.
  • Does the litter support the weight of the cat? Make sure he can stand easily on it without sinking down into the litter.
  • Is the litter digable? If your cat digs around in his box, he’ll prefer litter that’s light and loose enough for easy digging. (Some cats bury, some don’t. There are lots of interesting theories about why some cats bury in some situations and others don’t. But I’ll leave that for a different post.)
  • How dusty is the litter? Most cats prefer litters that do not produce a lot of dust that gets all over their face and feet. Not to mention that they breathe in the dust which then coats their lungs. If you’ve ever noticed dust on your hands or in your nose after scooping the box, you can bet that your cat has the same experience every time he steps in the litter box.
  • Does the litter stick to the cat? For kittens and cats that have had recent surgery, it is very important to use a non-clumping, biodegradable litter. That’s because clumping clay litters are designed to stick to anything wet and form hard masses. Which means it may adhere readily to suture sites. Ack! Kittens who are still learning litter box skills frequently end up eating a lot of litter. And any pieces of litter that sticks to a cat’s paws or coat will be ingested when he grooms himself. Clumping clay litters are hard on cats’ digestive tracts and some illnesses have been traced to clumping clay litters in the tummy.
  • What does the litter smell like? Does it have added fragrances and dyes? Litter fragrances and dyes are the cause of many symptoms of allergies in cats and humans: runny eyes, runny nose, sneezing, itchy skin, irritable bowel. Additives used to color the litter or to mask or control odors inevitably get breathed in and ingested when cats clean themselves. Many people who say they don’t want their house to smell like a cat means they don’t like the smell of perfumed clay litter. By changing to an unscented and/or non-clay litter, the house seems much fresher.

Categories of litter

Litters fall into one of two general categories: mineral-based and vegetable-based.

Mineral-based litters impact the environment more than vegetable-based ones. The two most common types of mineral litters are clay and silica gel. These litters easily support cats’ weight and cats using the box won’t sink down into the litter. Clay litters often have a lot of dust that can gunk up inside our bodies. If you find lots of dust in a tissue when you blow your nose after changing the litter, imagine the impact on your cats every time they stir up dust when using the box and clean their paws afterward. Perfumes and dyes added to clay litters can cause problems for people or companions with allergies.

Vegetable-based litters are made from renewable materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill, are biodegradable and some are compostable. Cats who are are used to clay litters will easily transition to vegetable-based litters because their textures are similar. Most of these litters can be bought in forms with no added fragrances because they control odor well all on their own. These litters usually have minimal dust and are not associated with respiratory or digestive issues. However, some (but not all) cats and people who are allergic to corn, wheat, or grasses might notice flare-ups when using these litters. Vegetable-based litters are non-toxic and flushable. Most people like the smell of vegetable litters. I think that S’Wheat Scoop and World’s Best smell like freshly baked cookies. That’s pleasant, but takes some getting used to when you’re scooping poop.

Types of litter

Clay litters

Clay absorbs liquid very well and naturally absorbs slight odors. Many manufacturers add charcoal, baking soda, or odor absorbing chemicals and perfumes to eliminate or mask odors that clay doesn’t naturally absorb.

In boxes filled with non-clumping clay litter, soiled particles can’t be removed easily, so the entire contents of the box must be changed more frequently than any other type of litter. At least once a week. That makes this type of litter is fairly expensive because of the volume people go through, even though it’s often the least expensive by weight. (I use World’s Best and I only dump the entire contents of the box once a month.)

Dust from clumping clay litters can cause eye irritation, respiratory problems, and digestive problems if particles are ingested when cats groom. The clay used in cat litter is a non-renewable resource that has to be mined and cannot be reabsorbed into the environment. The silica dust used to make clay form into clumps is a known carcinogen in humans and should not be repeatedly inhaled. (It probably causes cancer in cats too, but I don’t think studies have been done on that yet.)

Silica gel litters

Silica gel litters are the most moisture absorbent litter available and they provide excellent odor control. They’re great for sensitive cats and people because they’re non-toxic and chemically stable. The crystal (rough chunks) form is easier for cats to stand on and easier for people to clean up than the pearl (round) form.

If cats ingest a piece of silica gel litter, it can stick tight to any wet membrane where it will absorbed lots of moisture. They tend not to be ideal for kittens, as the particles may stick on the paws and in the mouth. Some cats don’t like the sound made when they pee on silica gel litters – moisture is absorbed so fast by that it fizzles when liquid comes in contact with it. (Hahahaaaa, like Pop Rocks for cats! No, not really that loud or dramatic. But loud enough for cats to notice it.)

Some people like that silica gel litters have less dust than other types of litters. However, the tiny amount of dust that is present is an effective dessicant and should not be inhaled by humans or our companions. Prolonged exposure to dust may cause eye and mucous membrane irritation.

Silica gel litters are inert, stable products when they enter our homes, but manufacturing them requires chemical reactions and large amounts of water. They are also not biodegradable.

Clumping vegetable-based litters


Clumping vegetable based litters are great alternatives to clumping clay litters. The types you’ll see most often are S’Wheat Scoop (made from wheat), Cat Country Elite (made from wheat grass), and World’s Best (made from corn). Some people find S’Wheat Scoop inconveniently sticky when wet.

My favorite is World’s Best because it clumps well and smells great. Combine it with a Litter Lifter scoop and you’ll have the easiest, fastest possible litter scooping experience. People with arthritis or limited mobility will really appreciate that specific combo.

If you have dark flooring and are annoyed by the look of litter tracking, there are darker litters out there. Naturally Fresh particles are as dark as coffee grounds.

Non-clumping vegetable-based litters

There are loads of non-clumping vegetable based litters in the stores these days. They’re made from paper, oat hulls, wheat grass, wood pulp, tea leaves, pea pods, and nut shells.

None of the non-clumping vegetable-based litters have been associated with illnesses. There’s a huge variety of litter particle sizes and textures so you’ll probably find one that a cat will accept. All of these litters can control odors without added fragrances (although some add fragrances due to consumer demand), and they are virtually dust-free. These are great litters for long-haired cats, kittens, or cats recovering from surgery because the litter doesn’t stick to their fur or skin. Wood pellet litters are inexpensive and economical for multicat households. However, they take the longest to scoop if you use the “panning for gold” method.

wood-pellet-litterThese types of litter the most environmentally friendly options. Most are made of recycled materials or by-products from production in another industry. They are biodegradable, compostable (if feces is removed first), and non-toxic. Some are flushable, although households with septic systems and people living in different water treatment jurisdictions discourage flushing.

If this article is helpful & you’re able, please consider sending a thank-you tip/donation. Even small donations will help me keep my business running during the travel industry slump that has brought pet sitting to a screeching halt. Thank you! (FYI, for a sliding scale fee starting at $30, I offer consultations to help people solve their specific cat-related issues. Let me know what I can help you with.)

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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