The Trouble with Kitty Litter: What is Safe and What is Not?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post appeared online in July 2008. At that time very little was known about the harmful effects of clay cat litter. This post offered scientific proof that clay litter is harmful to both cats and humans (see link in post to silicosis). Today’s consumers are much more educated about clay litter dust. And there are a greater variety of alternative litters (both clumping and non-clumping) available in 2013 than in 2008. In addition, this post focused only on clumping types of litters. This is why your favorite non-clumping litter may not be mentioned in this post.  We prefer clumping litter because our animal welfare agency (Texas Animal Guardians) cares for numerous cats. In a multiple cat situation we have found clumping litters provide easier maintenance of the litter box than non-clumping. Also, cat parents need to know that any type of grain, nut or food substance can produce allergic reactions in cats, dogs and humans. Therefore, if your cat has food sensitivities (or any other member of the family does) do not use grain clumping litter. Instead find a non-clumping alternative. Please monitor your cat’s reaction to any type of litter switch. If there are any adverse reactions to the new litter discontinue use immediately.

The more indoor cats you have the more important cat litter becomes.

Finding just the right cat litter brands can be one of the most difficult trials to deal with when owning a cat. And you’ll need to conduct your own test before finally settling on one brand. But there is more to the cat litter question than just what works for you. There is a question of health, not only for you but your cats.

Silicosis and the cat box connection?

When I conducted research on the Dust Bowl for an upcoming book on Route 66, I came across an interesting item. It was a disease that I had never heard of before called Silicosis. Silicosis is caused by the constant inhalation of tiny particles of silica. These particles then embed themselves into the lungs clogging up the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The particles are so small the lungs can not clear themselves out by creating mucous or coughing. In other words, silica dust particles gum up the lungs. The lungs then become congested, filling with fluid, and eventually producing fibrosis and inflammation. The final result is chronic lung problems such as bronchitis (note, any disease ending in “itis” denotes that it is an inflammatory illness), asthma, and lung tumors.

It’s not just harmless dust….

When you pour clay litter (clumping or regular) into a litter pan a puff of dust floats up towards you and streams throughout the room. You are inhaling these particles directly through your nose. The residual litter dust is inhaled indirectly as it travels throughout the room and around your home. However, your cat is under constant exposure to silica dust since each time he uses the box he inhales these particles directly into his lungs. Plus he is also inhaling the indirect dust floating in the home atmosphere.

Clay is a mineral that is very difficult for the body to eliminate. Exposure to clay dust puts people and animals at risk for such diseases called “Farmer’s Lung” and Mesothelioma Lung Cancer. The research is very clear that cats who are already suffering from lung problems have difficulty clearing clay dust from their lungs. It is the clay litter alone that causes these lung problems. Please click on this link for a full report (including images) of this disease:

As responsible pet owners and health conscious people we need to think twice about bringing any clay litter into our homes. Let’s not expose our cats and families to this potential hazard.

The natural alternatives to clay litter are growing.

The alternatives are a natural litter made from wheat, corn or paper. The only clumping ones are made from wheat and corn. These materials are safe for cats of all ages. They are free from perfumes and dyes. And they are safe for the environment. Below you will find a sampling of various clumping products—alternative and traditional clay—along with my personal test results.

Fresh Step clumping clay litter uses perfumes that increase the chance of health risks in cats. Many cats have chronic eye problems due to allergic reaction to scented litter. For humans who are chemical sensitive these heavily scented products only aggravate their condition. In addition, perfumes can produce allergic reactions in humans.
Cost: $
Performance: **
Health: *

Tidy Cats Scoop Multiple Cats formula contains an odor controlling formula plus perfumes. These chemicals irritate the sensitive lining of a cat’s nostrils. This can further aggravate any allergy problems the cat may have. Furthermore the cat can ingest these chemicals into their system when cleaning their paws. Reviews on this product appear to be good but my personal experience with Tidy Cats was not satisfactory. The heavy scent was annoying, not to mention unhealthy.

Cost: $$
Health: *

Kittens often eat clumping litter. Once the litter is ingested it begins to swell in the stomach causing intestinal blockage and death. For this reason kittens should never have access to clumping litter. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Swheat Scoop (made from wheat) offers an alternative to traditional clumping litter. In my test trial it did not produce firm clumps and in a multiple cat home this can pose a problem with crumbling. Regardless of its “low dust” claims this product created more dust than the clay clumping litter. One of the other problems with this product was its tendency to stick to the bottom of the litter pan. The Swheat Scoop people have now introduced a multiple cat version. This was not tested and it is possible that this produces harder clumps.
Cost: $$$
Performance: **
Health: ****

World's Best Cat Litter - PetSmart
By far the superior alternative is World’s Best Cat Litter made from corn. True to its name it is the best I have ever used. It is expensive but a little goes a long way. The multiple cat version clumps up nice and firm (it can even be used in automatic cat litter machines). Best of all it does not stick to the bottom of the litter pan. It naturally eliminates odors. This product does not claim to be “low dust” but it produces far less dust than Swheat Scoop and only a little more than clay clumping litter. With this product my cats and I are safe from harmful silica dust, perfumes and dyes.
Cost: $$$$
Performance: ****
Health: ****