Litter Box Basics

The Importance of Healthy Cat Litter

When considering an overall health program for a cat, much attention is paid to nutritional choices, and to products that enhance natural behaviors, such as scratching posts, beds, toys and drinking fountains. However, the impact of the litter on the cat, even though a cat has contact with it many times a day, is often overlooked.

New information makes it clear that the choice of litter can support the health of a cat and its owner or be a source of stress and a cause of illness. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2000, the primary reason that cats are surrendered to shelters is because they stop using the litter box. Could something as simple as a change of cat litter prevent this?

A Cat Is a Bundle of Preferences

While feline health, human health, and the environment are all important points to consider when selecting a litter, the number one consideration is whether or not a cat will like—and therefore use—the litter in her box. In most cases, a cat can be switched from a less healthy litter to a healthier one. Still, if the cat prefers a litter that isn’t quite as healthful or environmentally friendly, the best option for the peace and health of the household may be to keep the cat on that litter. 

The Birth of Cat Litter

Indoor cats struggled with ashes, sawdust or newspapers until the invention of kitty litter in 1947. In that year, Edward Lowe was working at his father’s Michigan building supply company when Kay Draper, a neighbor, asked for help filling her cat’s litter box. Lowe suggested baked ground clay, a product his father had manufactured during WWII to soak up oil spills in factories. It worked. Edward packaged the clay in paper bags, wrote “Kitty Litter” in grease pencil on the outside, and invented an industry. Six decades later, the fastest growing segment of kitty litter has nothing to do with clay. Increasingly, U.S. litter boxes are being filled with renewable litters made from plant sources like wheatgrass, wheat and corn.

Litter Box Basics

The selection, placement and maintenance of a litter box can be just as important as what's inside for a cat’s overall health and well-being.

Cleanliness is very important to some cats. Certain cats may demand that their boxes be cleaned every day (in rare cases, even more frequently), while others may be happy to go a week or more between scooping. In general, daily maintenance, even with a clumping litter, is recommended.

Even if the box doesn’t seem to need it, daily cleaning can keep cat owners in tune with things like urine volume and stool quality, which are often the first indicators of potential health problems, like Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder or kidney failure. And early veterinary care can be the key to helping cats deal with these problems.

Location of the litter box is also important. An ideal location is both protected and accessible. When entering and exiting the box, the cat should have every opportunity to avoid ambush from other cats, dogs and children. Try to avoid things that may frighten the cat when they come on automatically, like furnaces.

The number of boxes is determined by the number of cats in the household. Feline behaviorists generally recommend the number of boxes be equal to the number of cats plus one, e.g., two cats should have three litter boxes. If aggression between cats begins to manifest around the litter box and elimination, try adding an additional box in a new location. Often, this can defuse the problem.

A Field Guide to Healthy Cat Litter

Most people are familiar with clumping clay litter. Clay litter has the benefits of being inexpensive, with great odor control. Unfortunately, clay has the drawbacks of being dusty, sticky, non-renewable and harder to pass if ingested. It’s true and unavoidable: cats will ingest some of their litter in the course of grooming.

Plant-based litters, made from a range of materials, are now widely available. From wheat grass to corn to soybeans to cedar, the effectiveness of a plant-based litter’s odor control is due in part to its natural enzymes. Because of this, and because all cats are different, some plant litters will work better for some cats than others.

  • Generally speaking, plant-based litters are well-suited to households with animals who may ingest larger quantities of litter. Such animals include kittens, dogs who live with cats, and long-haired cats (more litter gets stuck in their fur, and may be ingested during grooming).
  • Clay litters can be more practical for households with only adult cats, or cats who refuse to switch litters. Long-haired cats and kittens may experience digestive difficulties with clay litters.

The Right Shapes for Little Cat Feet (and Noses)

The particle size of a litter impacts clumping, odor control, how comfortable the litter will be for a cat to walk on, tracking and stickiness. There are many textures of litter, but some of the most common are:

Large pellets, which do not clump. This requires more frequent litter box changes, but the pellets are also much less likely to track. Large pellets are well-suited for:

  • Large cats – larger pellets support their weight better
  • Indoor/outdoor cats – the pads of their feet are tougher than their indoor-only counterparts
  • Long-haired cats – large pellets are much less likely to get stuck in their fur
  • Cats who live with other cats – because they cost less than many other types of litter, large pellets may be a good choice for multi-cat households

Small pellets, which may clump. Because of their increased surface area, small pellets are much more likely to stick together than large pellets when they get wet. These types of litters do not clump as firmly as granular clumping litters, but they also track less. Small pellet litters may contain additives to aid in clumping, and may be popular with:

  • Cats in multi-cat households – small pellets provide a good balance of odor control and low cost
  • Cats who leave footprints – small pellets are less dusty and less likely to track than granules

Granules, which are designed specifically to clump. This allows for easy maintenance and improved odor control; however, the smaller particle size means more litter will be tracked outside the box. Granular litters may work best for:

  • Short-haired cats – they have less fur for the granules to stick to
  • Indoor-only cats – granules are easy on tender feet
  • Cats in smaller residences – the odor control of a clumping litter will make the box easier to live with for both cats and humans alike

If a Cat Stops Using the Litter Box

If a cat suddenly stops using the litter box and begins to urinate in other areas of the house, it may be cause for concern. Such behaviors may be a sign of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder (FLUTD). If a cat is experiencing pain when urinating, she may associate that pain with the litter box itself, and so try urinating in other places in an attempt to avoid the pain. If you suspect that your cat has or is developing FLUTD, it’s time to consult your veterinarian.

Signs That a Cat May Dislike Her Litter

Cats don’t speak, but if a cat is dissatisfied with her litter, she has ways to make herself understood. A cat may use any of the following behaviors to express her displeasure:

  • Meowing when approaching the box
  • Perching on the side of the pan
  • Shaking her feet a lot when leaving the litter box
  • Not digging holes or covering waste
  • Occasionally urinating or defecating in other places

Each cat is unique, and any of the above behaviors may be normal for a given cat. Also, a cat may be perfectly happy with her current cat litter, yet still display these behaviors.

How to Switch Cat Litters

Method I: Fill a second pan with the new litter and place it next to the established litter box. See if the cat starts using the new litter. If she does, simply remove the old litter and consider the cat switched.

Method II: If the cat likes her current litter, choose a new litter that has a texture similar to the one she’s using. Mix a bit of the new litter in with the old. Each time the box is cleaned, increase the proportion of new litter to old until the old litter is completely phased out.

Method II works well for cats who are already using a litter that they like. If the cat dislikes her current litter, try Method I, but choose a litter that has a different texture than the current litter.

We’re not veterinarians. Mud Bay staff are well educated, and our writing is well-researched, but neither the advice of a Mud Bay staff member nor reading Mud Bay's written materials can substitute for visiting a veterinarian. We offer carefully chosen, natural solutions, but we believe that veterinary conditions should be diagnosed and treated by professionals.