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Kitty Litter: Does It Really Matter What Type I Buy?

Posted December 18, 2014 in Cat Behavior

Who knew there was so much to kitty litter? Dr. Justine Lee provides some valuable litter box advice. For more from Dr. Lee, find her on Facebook!

We’re bombarded by pet store advertising when it comes to what type of litter to use. Basically, it all comes down to personal preference. While living with my vet school housemate, I asked her why she used clay (“Hellooo! Old school!”). She said that’s what she has always used (my roomie was from the 1960s generation, when clay was hip). After being fed up with the smell and mess, I decided to change her litter to clumping one day. She was wowed, dumbfounded, an instant convert, and she hasn’t gone back since. Crystal, her cat, loved it too. 

Clay litter was first introduced in 1947 by Edward Lowe, who used to sell clay to garage owners to soak up oil and gasoline spills. When he realized it worked well in kitty litter boxes, it became an instant success. Since then, kitty litter has become a multimillion dollar business. (Why, oh why, didn’t I think of this first?) Clay is still a great absorber and cheap as dirt (well, clay), but it’s more environmentally unfriendly as you have to dump out the whole litter box once it’s full (in other words, once a week). Like its name suggests, clay doesn’t clump, so you can’t just scoop out nice, neat clumps of urine to clean the box. Notice how those large forty pound bags of clay litter are cheaper than the twenty-five pound bucket of clumping litter? You get what you pay for. 

Since the early-1980s, cat lover (and, oh yeah, biochemist) Thomas Nelson discovered that a particular type of clay, bentonite, formed clumps in the presence of moisture, and voila… clumping kitty litter. Because bentonite can absorb up to ten times its own weight, it is able to bind and hold water (or urine) firmly in place, resulting in that tight clump. Bentonite is dug up from the ground and processed into either granules or a powder form, and apparently we cat lovers are using a lot of it. According to a U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 987,000 metric tons of this clumping clay was mined in 2003 for cat litter. Popular stuff, right? Remarkably, the Bureau of Waste Management estimates that approximately 8 billion pounds of kitty litter fills landfills each year.


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Justine has more than 18 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a board-certified emergency critical care veterinary specialist and toxicologist as well as the CEO and founder of Vetgirl. She is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.