The Cat Litter Conundrum

Cat using a closed litter box isolated on white background


Since I became a pet sitter, I have scooped a lot of cat litter. (hey, that rhymes…) Before moving to Florida, I didn’t think much about litter. My cats always had the scoopable clay, usually the cheapest store brand at whatever store I was at when I needed it, and their boxes were in the basement, so we didn’t have to smell the unmistakeable not so pleasantly aromatic mix of clay litter and cat pee and poo until we went to feed the cats or do laundry.

Once we moved to Florida, since we don’t have a basement, the cat litter is more visible on a daily basis and more “smellable” as well. We had to figure out a way to have it NOT in the house. There is also the added annoying habit our Shiba Inu Malord has of partaking in a “crunchy treat” from the litter box whenever he gets a chance, so having it out of the way became a priority for a few different reasons. As soon as we got settled here, Don cut a hole in the back door to the deck and “fenced in” the deck with chicken wire so we could put the litter out there and so the cats can go outside and enjoy the outdoors without actually escaping. This arrangement works well for the cats, who LOVE spending time out there, and for us, since we don’t have to smell the litter or worry about enabling Malord’s nasty crunchy treat habit.

When we started 1st Rate Pet Services, one of the things we wanted to do was be as eco-friendly as possible. One of the services we offer is a complete kitty litter cleanup, so we did some research about the best kitty litter to use. What we found surprised me.

As mentioned before, I had always used clay litter. After our research, we stopped with the clay immediately for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, neither the scoopable nor the non-scoopable clay litter is good for the environment. Clay is not a renewable resource, so once it is gone, it’s gone. Since it is obtained by strip mining, the earth is damaged right off the bat. After an area is depleted of its natural resource and no longer useful for mining, the area is barren and dead, and must be “reclaimed” to be made into anything useful.  After being mined, the clay is shipped to another facility where it is dried by using a great deal of heat fueled by petroleum products to turn it into litter. Neither the shipping of the clay nor the processing it into litter is good for the environment.

Once the clay litter is used, there is no way to recycle it and it is not biodegradable, so it just sits in the landfill for years. “The United States Geological Society estimates that 85 percent of the 2.54 million tons of clay used in this country every year is used for absorption of pet waste, with cat litter being the dominant.”(Klaiman.). All of that pet waste absorbed litter has to go somewhere, and back into the landfill is most likely where it goes.


Aside from not being environmentally friendly, clay litter is also potentially damaging to pets and people. It is dusty and can cause respiratory problems in pets and humans. While it is absorbent, it can also become smelly even when scooped regularly. There is also a danger of cats or kittens ingesting the scoopable litter, which can potentially cause dehydration and intestinal blockages. (Ahlstrom.)

Since I started pet sitting, I have had a chance to compare different types of litter, and I must confess that cat boxes that have clay litter are the most difficult to clean for these reasons:

  • The smell is sometimes overwhelming, especially in multi-cat homes.
  • Inhaling dust while scooping is not very pleasant, even the scoopable “less dust” clay litter does give off some.
  • When extremely soiled the clay can become brick like and solid, sticking to the bottom of the box and making scooping very difficult.
  • Scooping multiple boxes full of soiled clay litter is difficult because the clay gets heavy and cumbersome to scoop…it’s a work out!!! Even if scooped every day, or twice a day, if there are many cats in the household using the boxes, this can become very tiresome!
  • The disposal of the clay litter always upsets me because the only thing I can do with it is put it in the trash can, which I know will soon be going to the landfill.

So, if you decide not to use clay, what other options are there? Litters such as Tidy Cat Crystals, Fresh Step Crystals and other “crystal” type litters are actually a patented formula known as silica gel and are said to be more absorbent than clay litter. (Those little packets inside your pepperoni packets that say “do not eat” have silica gel inside them to absorb the moisture.) Silica gel is made from a type of sand which has to be mined, so there again is an environmental problem. The litter is also not biodegradable, so even though less needs to be used, that which is used still winds up in the landfill.

I have never used this type of litter, so cannot offer any personal comment, but as someone who is trying to turn more and more to natural products, this just doesn’t seem natural or nature friendly to me!

The good news is that for the past number of years, various type of plant and paper based litters have become more popular, and therefore easier to find. There are many types of wheat, corn and pine based litters that are biodegradable, so even if they do end up in the landfill, eventually they will decompose.

Once we found out about the negative environmental aspects of clay litter, Don and I changed to the plant based litter. We first tried the pine pellets, which worked well with absorbing, but they were not scoopable so made it difficult to clean the litter box every day. Some of the paper pellets presented the same problem. I was thinking that these types of litters could be sifted out each day and the powdery used portion would sift through to be disposed of, and the intact pellets added back to the litter box. This would entail having a big enough vessel to use as a sifter, but it could be done.

We have also tried various corn, pine and wheat based “scoopable” litters.While they aren’t AS scoopable as the clay litter, they are somewhat good at clumping the urine and are a very good alternative to clay. Personally, I find any of these three options to be the best for numerous reasons.

  • While there still is somewhat of an odor once the litter gets used, it is more of a barn or stable type of smell, which I find much more tolerable than the clay-litter-with-underlying-ammonia smell.
  • The soiled litter is much lighter to scoop out and doesn’t get stuck to the bottom or turn into a rock/brick that has to be chiseled out of the box like the clay litter does.
  • The plant based litters are much lighter to lug around than the clay litters, so shopping and hauling them to and from the car is not as much of a work out.
  • There is minimal negative environmental impact to obtain the materials since corn, wheat and pine are grown and harvested for many other reasons besides litter, and are all renewable resources.
  • When I scoop the soiled litter and dispose of it, I feel better knowing it will eventually decompose.

Ultimately, the decision of what type of litter to use is a personal preference and determined by a number of reasons such as price, availability and ease of use. It is nice to have options rather than only have one type to choose from.

If you do decide to change the kind of litter you use, it is a good idea to do it gradually so kitty doesn’t get upset. Start by adding just a little bit of the new type into the litter box that is full of the type kitty is used to. Each time the box is cleaned, add a bit more of the new type. Eventually there will be more of the new and less of the previous, and hopefully kitty will be fine with the change. If not, there is no harm in going back to the old way. The most important part of the matter is having a happy healthy cat, regardless of what kind of litter is used!!!

Klaiman, Mark. Pet Camp and Cat Safari owner does some homework for his facility.

Ahlstrom, Kim.  Pick of the litter

1 thought on “The Cat Litter Conundrum

  1. This was a very informative article. I wasn’t aware of all the available options in cat litter and will consider switching from clay.

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