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Monday, November 28, 2011

Best Cat Litter

The Best Cat Litter... and the Worst 

Cat in the box picture
Photo: wolfsavard/Flickr
Just as us humans have our preferences of toilet paper, cats, too, are finicky about their lavatories. In fact, the kind of litter you buy may affect your kitty's bathroom habits, so unless you and your cat are 100% satisfied, you might want to experiment with making a change. Plus, with all the new kinds of litter out there, you may find one that's better for your cat, yourself and even the environment.

What follows is a litter primer that lists pros, cons, and recommended brands. For guidance and advice, we went to three heralded cat experts: Dr. Peter L. Borchelt, a renowned animal behavior consultant; Dusty Rainbolt, author of Kittens for Dummies; and holistic health counselor Celia Kutcher. And of course, we also polled the best experts of all -- cat owners.

After the jump, find information and recommendations for the best clay, silica, corn, pine, wheat, soy, aspen, and even tea leaf litters!

- Types of Cat Litter -

Photo: Amazon
The granddaddy of all litters, clay has been around since the 1940s. There are two varieties: clumping (i.e. scoopable) and non-clumping. Both come from strip mining, which isn't very easy on the environment. The clumping kind is made from clays containing aluminum and silica, allowing it to absorb liquids and form sticky clumps.

Pros: Easy to find and inexpensive. Borchelt says that, when it comes to what cats like, clay litters are "the highest preferred stuff." The scoopable kind usually clumps well -- no accidental crumbling -- while the non-clumping kind leaves behind no icky-sticky residue on the pan. (Likewise, claims one cat owner, "they don't stick to the cat's bunghole.")

Cons: There has been little to no published evidence to back it up, but conventional wisdom dictates that clay litters can be harmful to your cat's health. The non-clumping kind is similar to clay polymer products that are often used to absorb motor oil (widely considered carcinogenic), while the clumping kind contains silica dust (also widely considered carcinogenic). However, Borchelt -- one of the few people in the world to conduct studies on the subject -- says that the harm of these litters is in the dust that's generated when they are poured or pawed at, and that "compared to even ten years ago, the clay litters that are out today generate very little dust."

Recommended brands: Borchelt is a big fan of Scoop Away because it's "pretty undusty, readily available, cheap, and clumps extremely well so that I hardly have to change the litter box." Rainbolt likes lavender-scented clay litters -- in her at-home experimenting, she's found that it's a scent cats respond well to -- especially Ever Clean ("excellent") and Fresh Step ("a good, odor-controlling product. I like the activated charcoal.")

Photo: Amazon
You know those little "Do Not Eat" packets in your prescription pill bottles that keep meds moisture-free and fresh? That's how silica litters work. "There are all kinds of little catacombs inside these little balls of silica that absorb liquids," explains Rainbolt. "And they are really good about absorbing odors, too." Made from silica gel and sometimes also referred to as crystals, this kind of litter is not at all the same thing as the silica dust found in clay litters.

Pros: Cat owners have lots of praise to heap on silica litters: "It's the only kind that really absorbs the smell." "No dusty residue." "Stays fresh practically forever as long as you stir it around daily." And the experts agree: "Pulls moisture out of poo, making it really, really easy to clean up," explains Kutcher. "Cats seem to like its pretty comfortable texture," adds Rainbolt. "No pan cleaning; you just throw it out."

Cons: One cat owner said, "It can be hard to tell when it needs changing." You can tell when silica litters need changing when you finally (usually after about a month) start smelling cat urine. Also, if you notice the cat pee beginning to pool amongst the silica balls, your litter has reached its saturation point. Different brands feature different-sized balls; says Rainbolt, "the little ones will travel all over your house," and can be tough on your feet should you step on them.

Recommended brands: Target's house brand earned praise, as did Space, which is carried exclusively by Trader Joe's. Honorable mention goes to Tidy Cats Crystals.

Photo: Amazon
What it is and how it works: There are corn litters made from cobs and there are corn litters made from whole kernels. Cob litters tend to work better for caged pets, including birds. Kernel litters, because of their naturally porous structure, absorb ammonia and clump, making them the stuff of a good cat litter. While you might find a cob litter marketed for cats, Rainbolt warns that these "clump very soft and fall apart," so stick with kernels.

Pros: Digestible in cats' bellies if accidentally ingested while cleaning themselves, plus it's flushable -- though you should check with your water municipality to find out if it's safe to flush cat poops (California sea otters were recently deemed threatened by increased floaters). Its clumps "form so hard and quickly that you can even use it in a self-cleaning box," says Kutcher, who also claims it lasts long: "A seven-pound bag lasts me more than a month."

Cons: It's pricier than other litter varieties, plus Rainbolt says, "They tend to come with a lot of scent," which one cat owner seconded by saying, "The litter itself smelled weird." Also, the clumps are so hard that "you can't just throw it in your toilet and flush it," says Kutcher, "or you will do a number on your pipes like nobody's business. You have to let it sit in the bowl for a few minutes."

Recommended brands: The world's only whole-kernel litter is World's Best Cat Litter, and the name says it all; all three experts gave it raves. Rainbolt and Kutcher use it at home.

Photo: Amazon
What it is and how it works: Pine sawdust is pressed into little pellets. When the cat goes wee-wee, the pellets expand and absorb.

Pros: One devout cat owner raves, "No chemicals, no odors, no dust, and it's biodegradable."

Cons: Can be pricey and sometimes hard to find. It doesn't clump, so you'll have to change the box regularly rather than scooping out waste. Kutcher warns, "I find it can stick to coats," while Rainbolt says, "The pellet texture can be an issue for cats with sensitive paws."

Recommended brands: Feline Pine takes the prize from pet experts and owners alike. Says Kutcher, "It's been around a long time and it's a very trusted brand. They made it for the right reason: to keep cats healthy." Borchelt also notes that Nature's Miracle "seems to clump very well and is a nice, alternative litter."

Photo: Amazon
What it is and how it works: Wheat litter's closest cousin is corn litter, as both are grain-derived, so it works the same as the corn kernel litters.

Pros: Non-toxic, naturally clumping, biodegradable -- it's all the things that those concerned about environment and health look for in a litter.

Cons: Big-time sticking to the litter box. Explains Rainbolt, "If you ever made flour glue as a kid, you know what I mean. I've had to throw away litter boxes when I can't get the wheat litter off." Borchelt also says that he gave wheat litter a try a few years ago, as did some of his clients, and it attracted bugs. "They were like little flies. They were horrible, and it took us a while to figure out they were coming from the litter."

Recommended brands: Kutcher likes Swheat Scoop, while Rainbolt says the key here isn't the name, but what it contains: Look for cornstarch as an ingredient, as those kinds don't stick to the pan as much.

Photo: The Organic Farm Store
What it is and how it works: The latest in litter wizardry, soy litter was unveiled in 2007 by The Organic Farm Store, a family-run business based in Washington state that produces organic fertilizers. Company founder Scott DeWaide said that he stumbled upon the idea after discovering that soybean meal had good water retention when used in his soil amendments. Soy's enzymes also make it naturally odor-absorbent, and when potato starch was added, the clumping began!

Pros: Not only is it all-natural, biodegradable and flushable -- it's made with meal-grade soybean, which means you can even eat it! As for cats, "It will pass right through their system," says DeWaide.

Cons: Only available at The Organic Farm Store's website and a select few independent pet boutiques. Hasn't been around long enough to develop a consensus as to its effectiveness, but Kutcher suggests there might be some unhealthy side effects. "Soy can affect female estrogen levels; in a very extreme case, you could wind up with some very bad issues with female cats."

Recommended brands: Right now, The Organic Farm Store's brand, called Close to Naturenow, is the only soy litter on the market.

Photo: Gentle Touch
What it is and how it works: Also derived from trees, aspen litter works the same as pine.

Pros: The scent of pine can be a natural repellent for cats, so if you like using pine litter but your cat doesn't seem to go for the scent, aspen should satisfy both of you. "I find it to be a better ammonia absorber than pine, and it controls odor much better," says Rainbolt. "When I did side-by-side tests of aspen vs. pine, the aspen won every time."

Cons: Very hard to find and not many brands to choose from.

Recommended brands: Rainbolt likes Gentle Touch's aspen litter. (They also make a pine kind.)

Photo: Amazon
Tea Leaves
What it is and how it works: A popular home remedy for smelly cat litter is to sprinkle dried leaves of green tea into the pan. So, of course, some folks got the idea to make a whole litter out of the stuff. The antioxidants that make green tea so healthy to drink are also what make this litter not stink.

Pros: Flushable and biodegradable -- and thanks to those antioxidants, bacteria-killing! Kutcher says it's "just clean and simple stuff. The absorption is really nice and it doesn't stink. More health-conscious people use it." It's also relatively lightweight compared to many other types of litter.

Cons: Like many of the newer types of litter, it might be hard to find in stores, and pricier. Kutcher suggests making sure the brand you want to buy is a clumping kind, as "some brands do clump and others don't."

Recommended brands: Kutcher's heard good things about Green Tea Leaves Clumping Cat Litter. 

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