Buying cat litter would seem to be the most brain-dead decision you’ll ever need to make. After all, the stuff is designed for your cat to poop in, so how hard could it be to find something capable of performing that job?
Ask any cat owner, though, and you’ll discover that finding the right litter is both critical and surprisingly difficult. A bad litter can allow smells and germs to proliferate, cause dust to get all over your home, and make cleaning up after your pet even more of a chore than it already is.
This guide is intended to serve as an introduction to the most commonly used types of litter, including the positives and negatives associated with each one, so you can find an option that suits your needs perfectly.
The 9 Types of Cat Litter
1. Clumping Clay Cat Litter
This is the most common type of litter and the one you’re most likely to see if you buy from your local pet or grocery store. Made from bentonite clay, it forms little balls when your cat urinates, allowing you to scoop it out with ease.
One of the major advantages of clumping clay is that it keeps messes relatively contained. The urine is quickly absorbed as the litter clumps, so only a small portion is used up; the rest is left clean and ready to go for next time. As a result, you don’t have to change the entire box as frequently.
Clumping clay is one of the least expensive types of litter, making it a smart choice for budget-conscious cat owners. You can buy large boxes relatively cheaply, and many pet stores have giant mounds of the stuff available for you to bag that is much less expensive than the name-brand options.
The biggest problem most cat lovers have with this stuff is the fact that it makes a mess. You’ll need to place a mat outside the litter box or else your cat is likely to track crumbs all over your carpet, and every time she buries her waste or you refill the box, you’ll kick up a fine cloud of dust.
The dust can also cause issues for people with respiratory issues, so be careful if you have sick family members. The other major issue is the environmental impact. Clay has to be strip-mined, and it’s a non-renewable resource. It’s extremely heavy, too, so transporting it requires using lots of fuel and creates a massive carbon footprint.
2. Non-Clumping Clay Cat Litter
Non-clumping clay is exactly the same as clumping clay, except it doesn’t have bentonite in it. As a result, urine doesn’t form little balls, but rather it spreads freely through the litter.
Non-clumping clay is very good at neutralizing odors, especially pee smells. As the urine trickles through several layers of clay, it gets absorbed and the odors get trapped, so you likely won’t realize your cat used the restroom at all. Some litters also use baking soda or similar additives to help with this issue. While not as ubiquitous as the clumping variety, non-clumping clay is still easy to find and fairly cheap.
Since urine doesn’t clump, it spreads a lot farther than it would in clumping clay. As a result, you’ll need to clean the box and replace all the litter more often. This creates more of a hassle and more of an expense.
Also, if the pee manages to sink all the way to the bottom of the box, it can create quite a mess. As for environmental considerations, non-clumping clay has all of the issues that the clumping kind does, except there’s no need to mine bentonite for it.
3. Silica Gel Crystal Cat Litter
You know those little packets you find in the box when you buy a new pair of shoes? The ones that say, “Do not eat?” Those are silica packets, and they’re a close cousin to this type of cat litter (which you also should not eat).
Basically, the litter is made of sodium silicate sand that’s formed into little beads. Each bead has pores on it that allow it to absorb a massive amount of liquid — up to 40 times its weight, in fact.
We just gave you a big reason why these litters are popular — they can absorb a ton of urine. This means that you’ll have smaller clumps than with clay, keeping the box cleaner and ensuring the litter lasts longer. Silica gel crystals do an excellent job of odor control as well, and they create very little dust.
Litters made of silica gel crystals are more expensive than those made from clay, although the difference may be closer than it appears, given that these last longer than the clay varieties. While clay feels like regular dirt, silica gel crystals have a much different texture, and some cats refuse to step on it. Unless your kitty is willing to perch on the edge of the box every time she needs to go, this can create quite a problem.
Also, we were serious when we said not to eat it. While that’s (hopefully) not an issue for you, it may be for your cat — after all, the stuff can stick to her paws, causing her to lick them clean. While it’s supposedly non-toxic, you still probably don’t want your pet consuming it.
4. Recycled Paper Cat Litter
As you probably deduced given the name, recycled paper litter is made from recycled newspapers — talk about yellow journalism (sorry). It typically comes in two forms: granules and pellets. Pellets don’t form clumps when they come in contact with urine, but granules do.
The most obvious benefit of this litter is its eco-friendliness. Not only is it made from recycled materials, but it’s biodegradable, so it won’t take up space in landfills for long. It’s also flushable, if you want to skip the landfill entirely. It’s incredibly absorbent, too, which isn’t surprising. It creates virtually no dust, and it’s usually unscented. Oh, and it gives your cat something to read while she’s in there.
If you’ve seen the aftermath of a cat peeing in clay, then you know that the clumps form on top of the litter, making it easy to scoop out. With paper, the liquid sinks to the bottom before it’s absorbed, so you’ll have to dig through the entire tray to remove it.
It’s more expensive than clay, and some cats don’t enjoy the texture. Also, if you buy your litter at grocery stores or other non-specialty retailers, you may not be able to find a recycled paper option.
5. Pine Cat Litter
Pine is also taken from recycled sources; in this case, it’s either lumber scraps or fallen timber. The wood is treated to remove toxins and pollutants, and then it’s formed into either pellets, granules, or roughly-crushed pine.
The pellets turn to sawdust when they get peed on, whereas the granules and roughly-crushed pine will clump up somewhat. Don’t expect them to form the same tight balls that you’ll find in clay litters, though.
Like recycled paper, pine is gentle on the environment. It’s flushable and biodegradable, and since it’s made from recycled wood, you don’t have to worry that a tree died just so your cat could relieve herself.
It usually has a faint pine scent, which can help with odor control. However, some people don’t enjoy this smell, so this could just as easily be a “con.”
You may also come across cedar litters, but they have roughly the same advantages and disadvantages as pine.
Since it doesn’t form tight clumps, you’ll need to clean it more often than some of the other varieties shown here. It’s easier for cats to kick out of the box as well, so expect to sweep or vacuum around the box regularly.
As mentioned above, the smell could possibly be a turn-off, especially for cats. Some pets refuse to use it for this reason.
6. Wheat Cat Litter
Made from ground wheat, this litter is sold in both clumping and non-clumping varieties. The wheat is taken from non-food grade sources, so you don’t have to worry that you’re taking food out of someone’s mouth to fill your litter box.
Wheat is as eco-friendly as pine and newspaper, and it’s also flushable and biodegradable. While it’s not food-grade, it is safe to eat, provided your cat doesn’t have an allergy.
There are natural enzymes in wheat that block odors, so there’s no need to add chemicals or perfumes to the litter. It also has a similar consistency to clay, so transitioning should be fairly painless.
As alluded to above, some cats have problems processing wheat, so you may not want to take the risk of them eating it. Some wheat-based litters also have residual herbicides and pesticides in them.
More disturbingly, wheat is prone to developing a fungus called “aflatoxin” that can be fatal to cats. This isn’t a huge concern with wheat, but it’s not something we can tell you not to worry about, either.
7. Corn Cat Litter
Corn-based litters are likely the most popular of all the “natural” litters, and they were the first successful alternative to clay to hit the market. Corn clumps extremely well, so the box should stay relatively clean, and you shouldn’t need to empty it often. It’s also 99% dust-free, which should keep the rest of your home clean, too.
Corn is especially good at trapping ammonia from urine, as there are tiny pores on each piece of litter that pull in odor.
While aflatoxins may not be a huge issue with wheat-based litters, they’re much more of a problem in corn. The fungus grows when the corn is exposed to moisture — and it’s a safe bet that the corn will be exposed to moisture in a litter box.
Beyond that, it’s not very good at handling poop odors, and it may attract insects if you leave the box close to a door or window.
This may be the best-clumping litter of all. The seeds immediately soak up urine, forming extremely tight balls. They also cling to stools, so there’s less risk of a mess when you scoop them out.
The granules are very soft, and many cats seem to enjoy digging through them, so there’s less risk of an issue during the transition period. Grass litter is extremely lightweight, too, so your back will thank you as much as your kitten. Since grass is biodegradable, this is another eco-friendly option.
Grass litter is one of the more expensive litter types, and since it’s so new, you may not be able to find it everywhere. Since the seeds are so small, tracking is a major issue as well. You’ll definitely need to invest in a mat. Also, some cats have grass allergies.
- Related Read: 10 Best Cat Grasses
9. Walnut Shell Cat Litter
Made from crushed walnut shells, this litter is dark brown and fairly coarse. Walnut shells make a surprisingly good litter. They clump extremely well and trap odors like a champ, and they’re fairly absorbent to boot. In fact, they offer most of the benefits of clay with few of the downsides.
That’s especially true when it comes to impact on the planet. Walnut shells are completely biodegradable, and since they’re a waste product, you don’t have to worry about trees being harmed to make them.
This stuff isn’t very soft, and it tends to come in larger granules. That may be off-putting for some cats, but then again, it may convince yours to stop spending so much time in the litter box, too (what is she doing in there?).
It does stick to paws, so tracking’s an issue, and the dark coloring really makes it stand out on tile or light carpets. The color also makes it difficult to tell where to scoop at times.
- See also: Litter-Robot 3 Review: Is Litter-Robot 3 a Good Value?
- You might also like: Blue Buffalo Cat Litter Review 2021: Recalls, Pros & Cons
So Which Litter is Best?
The “best” litter is ultimately a subjective thing, and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s impossible for us to pick a champion.
While some are more eco-friendly than others and a few do better jobs of controlling odors, it will ultimately be up to your cat to determine what she likes best. That will come down to a variety of factors, including smell and how it feels on her paws.
You can always try to pull rank and tell her she’ll go in whatever you buy, but that’s a good way to convince her to use your shoes instead.
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