For a pet owner whose cat stays mostly indoors it can be tricky to find the right litter. Kitty wants to be comfortable when using the litter box and you, as cat owner and busy person, prefer litter that’s easy and convenient to deal with.
Yet, the responsible pet owner might go one step further and wonder if the cat litter in use is safe and non-hazardous for cat and human.
What is conventional cat litter made of?
In general, there are two types of conventional cat litter: clumping and non-clumping cat litter.
Both are made of bentonite, which is actually clay. More specifically, clumping cat litter consists of sodium bentonite clay and the non-clumping version consists of calcium bentonite.
Many clay litters also contain silica, which is a form of quartz. Silica is a clumping agent and helps absorb moisture.
For odor absorption either carbon or baking soda are added.
Numerous brands use certain fragrances to make the cat litter smell more pleasantly. The question is if the fragrance is as pleasant to kitty as it is to us humans.
The different aspects of clay litter
Bentonite clay litter serves its purpose very well and has several advantages.
Clumping clay cat litter is also called “scoopable” litter because of its property to form clumps with cat urine and feces. This means waste can be easily discarded without having to change the whole litter box. Clay litter also keeps odor at bay when scooped up on a regular basis.
The non-clumping kind of clay litter absorbs waste to a certain point until the litter box is saturated (and this can take a few days) and it has to be replaced with new litter. That means cat waste doesn’t have to be scooped up every day and people with a busy everyday schedule will like this.
Another advantage of this type of litter is the fact that it won’t get stuck to the paws of your kitty like the clumping kind does and therefore won’t leave any litter traces in the house.
What are the hazards of clay litter?
Even though bentonite clay litter is still popular among cat owners for obvious reasons, being exposed to this type of litter comes with some health risks for cats and humans:
- When using clay litter, silica dust is produced. This may cause respiratory problems for cats and humans (silicosis!).
- Clay litter (especially the clumping kind) can get stuck in the cat’s paws and when she grooms herself she tends to ingest some of it which can cause gastrointestinal problems. After all, silica is toxic and not only kitty may ingest it but also your dog if there is one in the house. Remember that dogs like to explore the litter box and might take chunks out of the box if not secured properly.
- In order to make the litter smell better, some brands add fragrances. These are added chemicals and can be harmful to animals. If the scent is too strong, kitty might not like it due to her keen sense of smell.
- Environmental hazards: First of all, clay litter should never be flushed down the toilet because it can clog the plumbing. Bentonite clay is not biodegradable, and truckloads of clay/silica cat litter are dumped on landfills.
Second, bentonite clay is obtained by strip/surface mining. This may be of concern to some people because it is destructive to the environment. Layers of topsoil and rock are removed in order to get to the mineral underneath which means destruction of landscapes and soil erosion. By the way, a large area of strip mining to gain bentonite clay is in Wyoming.
Litter crystals, another favorite
It’s also called crystalline silica litter and it consists of silica gel crystals which are a combination of silica dioxide sand, water and oxygen. Depending on the brand, dyes are added to make the litter look more attractive and also fragrances.
One of the main properties of silica crystals is its high absorption of cat urine, which keeps the litter box dry and the cat owner doesn’t have to change the litter every day. Since there is not as much litter needed to keep the litter box clean silica crystals are sold in smaller bags than conventional clay litter and I am sure some people may appreciate the lightweight.
With silica crystals, less dust is produced when filling the litter box and there also seem to be less growing bacteria compared to boxes with clay litter.
Are there any risks when using silica cat litter?
Litter crystals seem to be the perfect cat litter, but there are some health hazards connected to silica crystals that we need to be aware of.
Even though silica cat litter doesn’t produce as much dust as clay litter, cats and humans will still be exposed to silica particles which are known to be cancer-causing. In cats, silica dust can cause severe respiratory problems.
I want to mention that there is a difference in quality when it comes to silica gel cat litter and that some brands claim that the silica cat litter offered is safe and specifically formulated for cats and does not contain any harmful substances.
Sometimes litter crystals can get stuck in your cat’s paws, and here again, depending on the brand you use. When kitty licks her paws, she might ingest some crystals, which can cause intestinal problems.
Cat litter alternatives
For pet owners who do not only care about the health of their cat or dog but are environmentally conscious there is a decent selection of natural, non-toxic and ecofriendly cat litter on the market.
If your cat likes clumping clay litter, look for a brand that uses premium quality clay without harmful additives, e.g. BOXIECAT. This litter is supposed to be dust-free, and if you like gently scented litter this company offers one that uses natural scents, with calming properties and safe for kitty.
Cat litter made from wooden chips are gaining in popularity, usually cedar chips or pine are used. Kitty might like OKOCAT, made from all natural wood and plant particles and highly moisture-absorbing. Or your cat is a cedar lover with CEDARIFIC (by NEPCO), litter made from aromatic cedar chips for odor control and dust-free.
If your cat likes to think outside the box she will ask for DR MERCOLA Biocharged Kitty Litter, made from recycled pine trees and using biochar, a type of charcoal, for moisture absorption.
These are just a few examples of brands that only use all natural ingredients and are biodegradable. I especially like the kind that can be used for composting and added to the flower garden.
Corn cob litter is another alternative to clay litter, but look for one that uses non-GMO corn. Corn cob litter is usually dust-free and corn granules have a very effective moisture and odor absorption. Corn cob litter is biodegradable, therefore ecofriendly.
There is one drawback with corn cob litter to be considered: It can be a breeding ground for aflatoxin mold which can make your cat gravely ill.
There are other innovative ideas makers of cat litter come up with, like litter made from recycled paper, e.g. YESTERDAY’S NEWS by PURINA. Supposedly it has a higher moisture absorption than clay, it is dust-free and ecofriendly. The only drawback (and an article on Dr. Mercola’s website points this out) is the fact that recycled newspaper is also used for this type of litter, chemical residues of the newspaper ink still present in the paper pellets.
Cat litter made from 100% grass is another natural alternative and is also biodegradable. Your kitty might like it because it doesn’t hurt her paws if she is declawed. Even though no harsh chemicals are added to the product, the question still remains how the grass was grown, were pesticides used or was it grown organically?
If you are a DIY person and are thrifty, you will find a lot of suggestion online as to how to make your own cat litter.
Honestly, I have never seen home-made litter and I do not know how work-intensive it is and if it really works with your cat.
You can find anything online from using old newspapers, wood chips, walnut shells, chicken scratch or chicken feed and more. A lot of instructions use baking soda to neutralize the odor.
I have even seen posts from people trying out orange peels as cat litter! Cats don’t like citrus scent and it actually drives cats away, so I don’t think that really works.
So, which litter do cats really prefer?
There is a consensus among cat experts that cats really like litter that is clumping. They prefer small granules and material that resembles sand. Just think how much kitty likes to scratch!Cats have an extraordinary sense of smell and they definitely don’t like overpowering scents, no floral or citrus fragrances, also be careful with too much baking soda.
Clearly, cats like to do their business in an environment close to nature. High quality clay litter, wooden chips or anything similar to that with the least amount of harmful additives, as long as kitty is comfortable with it. And when kitty is happy, you are happy.
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