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Cat Litter and Litter Boxes

This section discusses litter, litter boxes, the best locations for the litter box, and what you’ll need to maintain your cat’s “bathroom.” (Note: If your cat has a litter box problem, please refer to Litter Box Problems.)

Litter Types

There are many types of litter on the market. And every week it seems, there is a new type of cat litter on the shelf. Most litters are disposable; some are even flushable. Clawed cats are not as likely to care what type you use. Declawed cats, on the other hand, often are challenged with litter box issues. Even years after surgery, a declawed cat could resist changes to her litter box routine.

Nonclumping Clay Litters

Granulated pieces of clay litter are about the size of small-grain rice. Litters that are 100% clay are natural, very inexpensive, and available in every grocery store and pet store across the country. They have been on the market since 1945.

Note that clay litters aren’t biodegradable or flushable. The clay naturally contains silica dust, which is a known carcinogen. The manufacturers say that cat litter doesn’t have any more silica dust than do sandy beaches. Even so, if your cat has a sensitive health or behavior problem, you may want to try biodegradable litters. Many, such as alfalfa pellets, are dust-free and flushable.

Some clay litters are scented with a deodorizer that absorbs odors or is activated when the litter is pawed at or stirred. Your cat may or may not like the scent, so try both kinds.

Warnings

  • If you are pregnant, do not handle used cat litter. Contact your doctor for advice, and get someone else to handle the litter for you.
  • Do not put used cat litter in a compost pile. Even though the litter itself may be biodegradable, cat waste is not suitable for compost material that will be used by humans.
  • If you have a septic tank, contact the manufacturer before flushing any litter down your toilet.
  • Some municipalities may fine you if certain clumping litters are found in your pipes or sewer.
  • California encourages disposal of cat feces in the trash and discourages flushing cat feces in toilets.
  • Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after handling litter boxes or litter.

Clumping Clay Litters

Clumping litter, also known as “scoopable,” forms a solid ball when urine penetrates a deep layer of the litter. The urine hardens the litter, which then can be scooped out in a hard ball. This litter lasts longer and controls the smell of urine quite well. Some declawed cats may prefer the fine texture and softness of clumping litters.

Because clumping litters control the odor so well, they seem ideal at first, especially if you have more than one cat. But there is a serious problem with some clumping/scoopable litters. For clumping litters to work, they need a clumping agent. A popular clumping agent in many scoopable brands is sodium bentonite. This agent acts as a cement and may compromise your cat’s health. An article written by Marina McInnis for Tiger Tribe, a now defunct holistic cat magazine, detailed the author’s experiences with clumping litters containing sodium bentonite. After losing four litters of Japanese Bobtail cats, she determined that the kittens’ deaths were caused by the sodium bentonite. After changing the litter, she no longer had the problem. The difficulty can be traced to sodium bentonite’s properties. It expands to fifteen times its size when wet. When a cat steps in the litter box, some sodium bentonite clings to her paws. Later on, the cat will lick it off. Once it gets into her digestive system, this trace residue will expand. According to McInnis, this results in an impaired immune system, respiratory distress, and irritable bowel syndrome. Nonclumping clay litters at least have larger granules, which tend to fall off of cats’ paws. And they don’t contain this type of cement, which gives scoopables their “clump.”

Warning
Clumping/scoopable litters containing sodium bentonite may kill kittens. Avoid litters containing sodium bentonite. If your cat is extremely young or has a medical condition or behavior problem, you’ll want to make sure the litter isn’t contributing to his problems.

Manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients on the litter’s label, so you’ll have to call them and ask if the clumping litter you use contains sodium bentonite. If it does, try another brand. If you really want a litter that is soft and clumps somewhat, try World’s Best Cat Litter or Arm & Hammer Essentials Natural Clumping Litter.

While biodegradable clumping litters are safe for both cat and plumbing, litter containing ingredients such as calcium bentonite, agar, and sodium bentonite may ruin the plumbing. Some municipalities may fine you if certain clumping litters are found in your pipes or sewer.

Biodegradable Litters

“Biodegradable” means that the litter will break down by the action of little bugs eating it at the city dump. Even though clay and newspaper litters are natural, they don’t “break down” in the city dump.

Biodegradable litters come from plants. These litters are made of alfalfa, corncob, aspen, citrus peels, pine, and wheat. Most are flushable, but call the manufacturers to be sure, especially if you have a septic tank. New biodegradable litters are hitting the market almost every year. Some litters are finely ground; others are more like pellets. Some (Arm & Hammer Essentials Natural Clumping Litter and World’s Best Cat Litter) clump naturally, without sodium bentonite. Most are dust-free.

A Few Biodegradable Cat Litters

For more detailed information, see Clumping Cat Litters.

  • Manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients on the litter’s label, so you’ll have to call them and ask if the clumping litter you use contains sodium bentonite. If it does, try another brand. If you really want a litter that is soft and clumps, try Arm & Hammer Essentials Natural Clumping Litter or World’s Best Cat Litter.
  • Rabbit food pellets (alfalfa pellets sold for rabbit food can be found at feed stores): clumps somewhat, flushable
  • cat litter pellets made of pine

Newspaper Litters

Litters recycled from newspaper come in pellet and sand-type form. These are found in grocery stores and pet stores. But newspaper could be toxic to some cats or people because some inks are toxic. Some of these litters may not control odor as well; however, adding a cat litter deodorizer product to the litter can help.

Litter Boxes

Look for litter boxes at hardware stores, pet stores, and yard sales. Disinfect and rinse them well before using.

Have at least one box per cat. Add an additional box if your cats are kept indoors-only or declawed.

The size of the box depends on the cat and his personality. If your cat is big or likes to fling litter around, consider a bigger litter box. Declawed cats and other handicapped cats tend require a larger box for better balance.

When adding a new litter box, consider that a cat may not use the new box for a few days. Don’t force him into it. Don’t put him inside it. Sound positive when he gets near it, and let him accept it on his own terms.

Covered Litter Boxes

Covered boxes help keep the litter and the smell contained and hidden. Some cats, however, don’t like a cover. Covered boxes generally are too small. If you’re going to get one, get as large a box as you can.

A covered box might leak unless the top has a locking lid and an inside lip. Scooping out solids is more inconvenient because you have to deal with these extra parts.

If you get a litter box with a swinging door, be prepared to remove it. You may have to, because some cats like to stick their head out of the box while relieving themselves.

Uncovered Litter Boxes

Uncovered boxes are easier to maintain. They come in different sizes and shapes, though most are rectangular. A few models have a “lip,” which is claimed to keep down mess. You also can use plastic utility bins, which are widely available at hardware and discount stores, as litter boxes. If you get them, though, don’t use anything taller than twelve inches for older cats, it will be too high for your cat to use. There also is a triangular box made especially for corners, which works quite well for smaller areas. These are very easy to clean and handle.

Litter Box Locations
Good Locations Bad Locations
Anywhere your cat can see who’s coming Around the corner or behind things
Laundry room, bathroom, utility room, basement Near food, water, scratching posts, beds, or play areas; living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and areas where the family likes to relax; garages and places near furnaces and gas-fueled water heaters, where carbon monoxide could collect, or where it’s not pleasant to be
Every level of the house where the cat spends time Remote dark places; basement-only litter boxes
One box per level for sick, declawed, old, or very young cats One location only or outside only (physically challenged cats need additional help)
Quiet places with some privacy; if possible, out of dogs’ reach Where dogs or others may torment or scare the cat while he uses it
Lighted and pleasant places; put a night-light nearby Dark and uninviting places
On linoleum, tile, or wood floors; or use a nonporous office floor mat or piece of cardboard over your carpet; a surface that is easy to clean Directly on the carpet—when he reaches outside the box to scratch the litter, he can snag or claw at the carpet

High-Tech Boxes

There also are electronic, self-cleaning litter boxes available that automatically remove the solids. One model even senses the cat entering the litter box. A few minutes after he leaves, a mechanical part rakes across the solids into a disposable tray. Some self-cleaning litter boxes require clumping/scoopable litter.

While it’s convenient, the manufacturers warn that the motor starts automatically and that children, hands, and clothing should be kept away from it. As with anything automated, be careful.

In addition, some cats are frightened of automated devices. Just one scare may be enough to stop a cat from using his box. A 30-day guarantee may not be a long enough trial period for your cat. This is a very expensive box that won’t be any good if your cat stops using it.

Litter Maintenance

Always read the package and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the litter you’re using.

With clawed cats, you should be able to get by with scooping solids once a day. For declawed cats, inside-only cats, or cats with litter box problems, scoop solids and wet spots more often. Be careful about sudden changes in litter brands, boxes, and locations.

Take the poop outside the house as soon as you lift it out, or it will stink up your garbage and house. Or, if the litter is biodegradable and flushable, flush it down the toilet after you’ve reviewed the Warnings listed in the box above.

Clay litter or nonclumping litter usually starts to smell in about a week. Dump, wash, and thoroughly rinse the box; cats are very sensitive to household cleaners.

Leave an bag of zeolite rocks or an open box of baking soda near the litter box area to absorb odors. (Search the internet for ‘odor absorbing rocks’ or ‘cat litter neutralizer’.)

Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after handling litter boxes or litter.

Helpful Hints

Wash the box every week. This formula works well:

  • 2+ parts natural all-purpose cleaner (found in health food stores, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day is a popular all purpose cleanser)
  • 10 parts water

1 teaspoon chlorine bleach (optional)

Put ingredients in a spray bottle. This solution is good for washing litter boxes as well as kitchen counters.

It’s cat urine, not cat poop, that eventually overwhelms the litter. By spooning the wet spots out, you can lengthen the life of the litter.

Maintaining Nonclumping Clay Litters

If you use nonclumping clay litters, fill the box one-half inch to two inches deep with five to ten pounds of litter. (Some manufacturers recommend levels as deep as three inches, but many cats prefer lesser amounts.)

After lifting out solids and wet spots, shift and shake the litter box so that one-third to one-half of the litter box is exposed. Many declawed cats, and some clawed cats, prefer stepping on bare plastic rather than on gravel.

To reduce dust clouds, don’t pour the litter. Instead, let it slowly slide out of the bag or box into the litter box.

Maintaining Clumping Clay Litters

Getting clumping or scoopable litters to work properly usually requires maintaining a certain depth. This means you add litter as the level of litter drops. If you use clumping litter, read the package for instructions on how to maintain the litter box, and when to empty and wash it.

Maintaining Biodegradable Litters

Read the package for instructions. Some biodegradable litters may require you to use more litter up front, but they tend to last longer and don’t need to be changed as often—you can simply add more litter after taking solids out. Most are safe to flush. Call the manufacturer to be sure.

Helpful Hints

Other uses for 100 percent natural, nonclumping clay litters

  • Garage spills—absorbs oil or grease
  • Charcoal grills and BBQs—protects bottom of grill and absorbs grease
  • Trash cans—a layer in the bottom reduces odors
  • Refrigerator—absorbs odor
  • Closets, storage areas, and boats—absorbs musty odors and moisture
  • Snow and ice—sprinkle on sidewalks and steps for traction
  • Facial mud pack—mix unscented natural clay with a little water, smear on face, let dry and rinse off

Switching Brands of Litter

If you need to change brands of litter, set up another box with the new litter to see if your cat will use it. Avoid making a sudden change. You’ll need to make sure your cat will use the litter before switching all litter boxes in the house to the new brand. Beware: If a cat suddenly stops using a litter that she’s been using with no problem, she could be very sick. See Litter Box Problems for help.

Special Considerations for Declawed Cats

When a cat is declawed, a veterinarian will recommend a special litter for a couple of weeks after surgery. He will sell you an expensive, dust-free, paper-based, sterile litter made for postoperative care of declawed cats. But just because there is a special litter designed for declawed cats doesn’t mean the cat will use it. Some cats stop using a litter box altogether after being declawed.

Once a cat is declawed, he’s at higher risk of getting infected paws, which will require more operations. Keep inspecting his toes once a month to check for infection. Again, it’s best to avoid facing unnecessary litter box challenges by not declawing any cat.

A Word About Toilet Training

Cats can balance enough to use the toilet. It’s a great way to reduce litter wastes. If you want to give it a try, you’ll find each step described in How to Toilet-Train Your Cat: 21 Days to a Litter-Free Home, by Paul Kunkel.

Shopping List

  • all-natural all-purpose cleaner (such as Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day all purpose cleanser)
  • spray bottle for cleaners
  • litter scoop/shifter
  • scrub brush

Optional

  • bleach
  • old large kitchen spoon to spoon out gobs of wet spots in nonclumping litters
  • open box of baking soda or search internet for “cat litter neutralizer”)
  • specially made litter mats to catch litter when cat exits box

See Cat Resources for more information.