The Fine Art of Litter Box Care
J. Anne Helgren
Plant and plant by-products. These earth-friendly, biodegradable, renewable source litters are made of various plant materials like wheat, corn, grass, alfalfa, peanut shells and citrus, and are either formed into pellets or granules. These may be a better choice if you or your cat has health concerns, because they produce little or no dust. Most are lightweight, smell fresh and clean and control odors well without the use of chemicals or additives. While they don't form hard clumps like clumping clay litters, many form soft clumps that are possible to scoop out, although they do break apart more easily. Unlike clay litters, most can be flushed down the toilet in small amounts, so don't contribute to growing landfill problems. The downside to these are tracking, availability and cost. Lighter litters tend to track more, particularly the granules, and are easier to scratch out of the box.
Your local grocery or superstore is not likely to carry plant-based litters; they are available at the larger pet supply stores, some health food stores and through mail order. These are also more expensive than clay, although manufacturers assert that they last longer than regular clay litters and therefore are a better value. Some manufacturers say these litters can be composted, but don't because of the risk of spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.
Wood. These are also earth-friendly, biodegradable, and come from a renewable source. They come in pellets of various sizes and are made of wood, wood fibers, bark, sawdust and other wood byproducts. Wood pellets are usually dust free and have a great woodsy smell. The pellets break down when moistened and do a good job of absorbing urine and controlling odors. Small quantities of some wood litters can be flushed. They have the same disadvantages as plant-based litters – tracking, availability and cost.
Paper litters. Made from biodegradable recycled paper, newspaper or reclaimed paper-mill byproducts, two forms exist: pellets and fluffy or very small lightweight pieces. Both are lightweight, absorb moisture, control odors well and are easier on tender kitty feet than clay litters. Some form soft but easy-to-remove clumps, while others absorb well enough that you can usually scoop out the soiled litter, leaving the fresh. They usually don't produce dust, can be flushed in small amounts, and generally don't track much. Some concern exists about possible toxicity from ink remaining from recycled newspaper, although those made of paper-mill byproducts shouldn't have that problem.
Silica pellets. The newest thing in cat litter, these small round particles of biodegradable silica gel look like clear round beads. They absorb fluid completely so there's no need to scoop out clumps of urine; only solid wastes must be removed. The pellets are lightweight and absorb odors very well; odor is virtually eliminated as long as you remove the solid wastes often and stir the litter every now and then. When the pellets turn yellow (in about a month if you have one cat), you simply discard them and replace with new litter. The downside is cost, which is currently much higher than other litters. Some cats don't like the texture of these litters, and while the round silica pellets don't exactly track, they do bounce out of the litter pan like tiny super balls. A new flattened shape was recently introduced that may reduce this problem.
Medicinal. These litters are formulated to act as an early warning system for owners of cats at risk of feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), a group of disorders and diseases affecting the urinary tract that is a common cause of illness and death in felines, particularly males. When the pH level of the cat's urine rises, the cat litter changes color, usually bright red, on contact with the urine, alerting the owner. Top products also clump and produce little dust, are flushable, environment friendly, lightweight and do not contain sodium bentonite. If your cat is prone to FLUTD, this product can save his life. The disadvantage is cost – it's the most expensive of the litters. Still, the product could be used intermittently as a precaution. These litters are usually sold by veterinarians.