Cat Litter | Clump, Dust and Hidden Deaths
From Lowe to Landfills
All that you ever wanted to know about cat litter: history, evolution, use and abuse. The wrong cat litter can kill your cat and there are plenty of those around. This site was created as a source of information for cat lovers to help them choose the right litter to keep their fur babies (and themselves) safe.
A long read, this, so here’s a table of content, first.
- Creators of Clumping Clay Cat Litter
- Kitty Litter & Rise of the Indoor-Only Cat
- Ed Lowe & the Kitty Litter Story
- Kitty Litter vs Clumping Clay Cat Litter
- What Litter do Cats Prefer?
- What is the Best Cat Litter like?
- Cat Litter Reviews
- Automatic Litter Boxes
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We’ve heard of Edward Lowe, the inventor of cat litter – or Kitty Litter, as he named it.
See if these names ring a bell as well: Thomas Nelson, William Mallow…. No? Well, Nelson created the first version of the clumping cat litter from sodium bentonite in 1984. Mallow perfected the clumping formula.
If you knew that already, congratulations, you are a true Litterbuff !
There is a huge difference, however, between Lowe’s Kitty Litter and what Nelson and Mallow created (the clumping clay litter that you buy today).
In all fairness, they were both trying to create a better litter, the best cat litter they could think of, and probably had no idea at the time that clumping clay cat litter could kill cats.
More on that later (but if you are feeling impatient, click here to open a new tab and read a detailed review of this particular cat litter).
Originally, Lowe had intended to sell a special type of clay to local farmers for nesting chicken.
The farmers were not interested. When a local woman named Kay Draper came along looking for sand for her cat’s litter box (she had brought the cat in from the January cold), Lowe offered her some of the unsold clay. (Source)
Cliched or not, ‘and the rest is history’ is apt in this context. Thus it all began in 1947.
Incidentally, Bloomberg Businessweek, in its anniversary issue (December 2014), mentions Kitty Litter or, more precisely, the birth of Tidy Cat litter in 1954 as one of the 85 most disruptive ideas in our history.
A disruptive idea is one that displaces an existing market and creates a new market with completely different networking. systems. This could be a technology or an idea or an invention, but it must lead to a change that is unexpected, and create an irreversible impact.
Creators of Clumping Clay Cat Litter
Thomas Nelson was a biochemist and a Professor of Medicine in Houston’s Baylor College. He had a passion for breeding Persian cats and in looking for a viable alternative to existing cat litter, accidentally came upon a formula that clumped better than what was available during that time (Source).
(An email to the Department of Records, Baylor College of Medicine, requesting information about Professor Nelson never received a reply, unfortunately).
William A. Mallow was a polymer chemist who was also a prolific inventor. He refined (just as he refined and improved upon Professor Nelson’s clumping formula) inventor Bette Nesmith Graham‘s typewriter correction fluid known as Liquid Paper, at her request. He also figured out how to clean the molds of peanut butter at M&M factories, improved upon the lifelike skin covering of the dinosaurs at Animal Kingdom (Disney World, Orlando), worked on tiles for space shuttles and even found a way to artificially age Scotch Whisky.
While it is certain that Mallow did refine the clumping formula, not much else is known. Unsubstantiated sources indicate that he perfected his formula in 1997 which resulted in the creation of a cat litter called Scoop Away Clean. Arms & Hammer may have been the first company that began production of Scoop Away Clean based on Mallow’s formula.
Currently, Clorox owns a brand called Scoop Away (acquired from Arms & Hammer) but does not mention Mallow’s role in the original clumping formulation. Any contribution from our readers in this area (or, indeed, upon anything else on our site) would be most welcome.
Mallow died of Leukemia at the age of 72 in August 2002. (Source)
Kitty Litter and rise of the indoor-only pet cat
Cats were loved and fed by humans before Kitty Litter came to be but having cats at home was not nearly as much of a commonplace as it is today. Cats cannot be put on a leash like dogs and taken out to relieve themselves at specific times of the day. Consequently, there must be a litter box at home.
Pre-Kitty Litter boxes contained ash, dirt, sawdust or sand for litter which could not effectively mask the noxious odor of cat urine. Add to that paw prints covered in wet ash or dirt all over the floor and the bed, or sand tracking all over the house and you had a full-time cleaning job with even a single cat for pet. If you were late with the cleaning of the litter box, urine would pool at the bottom or even leak out of it.
With Kitty Litter, there was finally something super-absorbent compared to all previous litter materials. It was a whole lot better at masking odor as well. At the time, it was the best cat litter available (indeed, the only thing that was sold officially as cat litter).
Edward Lowe’s discovery effectively made way for cats as indoor-only domestic animals. Today there are more pet cats than dogs in the US and the difference is in millions.
Edward Lowe and the Kitty Litter Story
Born in 1920 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lowe grew up in Cass County, Michigan. After serving in the Navy, he joined his father’s company, which sold various commodities including industrial absorbents. Among these absorbents was a type of clay granule made from fuller’s earth.
In 1947 Lowe saw a new opportunity for these granules when a neighbor by the name of Kay Draper asked him for some sand to use in her cat’s litter box. Because of the cold weather, she had brought her pet indoors — a rare privilege for cats at the time. Unfortunately, the ashes she was using in the cat’s litter box resulted in sooty paw prints all over the house.
Instead of sand, Lowe gave her a package of fuller’s earth granules. After rave reviews from her and other neighbors, Lowe began marketing the material as Kitty Litter at pet shops and cat shows.
Two years later, he left his father’s business and devoted himself to building demand for Kitty Litter. By the time he sold the clay division of Edward Lowe Industries (ELI) in 1990, the company had grown to about 600 employees and $165 million in annual sales…
…Lowe launched a new brand, Tidy Cat, in 1954 to sell in supermarkets, while he positioned Kitty Litter as a boutique brand for pet stores and veterinarians…
… Among the many improvements that ELI introduced were dust-free versions of Tidy Cat and Kitty Litter in 1985. Four years later, the American Veterinary Medical Association honored Lowe for promoting cat health with his dust-free products.
Difference between Kitty Litter and Clumping Clay Cat Litter
What Edward Lowe used for his brand of Kitty Litter and later, Tidy Cat, was basically kiln-dried clay also called Fuller’s earth. Fuller’s earth has many therapeutic applications. Even though it is highly absorbent and very effective as litter material, in the presence of excess water its granules turn into mud.
Fuller’s earth does NOT form a solid clump which is the trademark quality of clumping (sodium bentonite) clay cat litter. Even today you can buy litter made from Fuller’s earth.
Thomas Nelson found that sodium bentonite, when dried instead of baked acquires a significant clumping property. He mixed quartz with it to further enhance the clumping.
Previously, calcium bentonite would be used in cat litter preparation, and it is often used even today in holistic therapies. In fact, when you buy ‘food grade bentonite clay’, it is calcium bentonite. As an aside albeit an important one, click here to read about warnings issued by UK Food Standards Agency in August 2012 due to possible contaminants . Sodium Bentonite also has therapeutic properties and is used externally for cosmetic purposes.
The clumping property of the new formula using dried sodium bentonite clay was markedly different and more powerful than that of Kitty Litter or Tidy Cat. Naturally, it became extremely popular among cat owners and in absence of proper information, is often considered the best cat litter available.
What litter does your cat prefer?
A study conducted in 1990 by Peter L. Borchelt, Ph.D, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Animal Behavior Consultant for A&M Products Inc. titled “Preferences of cats for different types of litter materials” seems to prove that cats prefer fine granulated clay over every other litter.
A & M has different types of litter. Some are plant based while others (the variety that clumps ‘hard as rock’) contain sodium bentonite. A & M Essentials Natural Clumping Litter contains, according to their official description, ‘100% natural corn fibers’.
We do not recommend cat litter made out of sodium bentonite, but if you believe such litter is safe for your cat, feel free to go ahead. We have our reasons to not trust sodium bentonite clumping clay cat litter, and here’s a comprehensive post on why that is so.
Our experience regarding cats and cat litter
We did not conduct any actual study with cats at our shelter or elsewhere. However, we have noticed over the years that cats are more comfortable when digging is easier on their paws.
They seem to like only sand, sand-garden soil mix, sand-garden soil-sawdust mix and sand-garden soil-sawdust-wheat chaff mix in no particular order of preference.
Okay, maybe they have shown a bit of a preference for the last one in the list and a wee bit of aversion to only sand litter, but nothing very definitive. When you gotta go you gotta go seems to have been their motto!
Our cats have access to an enclosed outdoor area and they can choose any spot, and they do (usually behind shrubs – privacy seekers?) but not with any significant degree of frequency. Most of them seem to understand that the loose material in the shallow trench is there for a purpose.
They also have a propensity to either play with newspaper or use the paper as litter, or both. In extreme cases, a particular spot on the floor or even the sofa and, very, very rarely, the bed have figured in their list of preferences (much to our distress, as may be imagined).
What is the best cat litter?
One popular way of classifying types of cat litter is to separate them into clumping and organic varieties. However, clumping cat litter is usually made from clay, and clay is organic as well. When people talk about organic or natural cat litter, they mostly think of litter that is not made from anything that would harm the cat or the cat owner. In other words, organic equals safe.
It is not surprising that users do not much care for technicalities. They tend to classify cat litter on the basis of the dominant quality they expect from it. Among the most popular queries are: best cat litter (which is a bit vague, admittedly), flushable cat litter, dust free cat litter, best clumping cat litter and best cat litter for odor control.
And then there are brand and review based queries from general to specific: cat litter reviews, cat litter brands, arm and hammer cat litter, blue buffalo cat litter, Dr. Elsy’s cat litter and so on.
But how do you define ‘best cat litter’?
Well, that depends on how informed you are and how much you care about what.
- Ideally, the best cat litter should absorb or adsorb the excrement as completely as possible and get rid of the odor in the process.
- It should control odor without any artificial scent because cats don’t really like scented litter.
- It should be as less dusty as possible because breathing in dust is not good for either cats or humans.
- The best cat litter should also be economical. It should also track as less as possible.
- Where flushing of used litter is allowed, the best cat litter is one which would never block the plumbing.
- Goes without saying, it should be safe for cats (and other household creatures, like dogs) if ingested.
- It should be manufactured without harming the environment and be biodegradable as well.
Cat Litter Reviews
This post, long as it may be, is still an overview. Please click the links where available to read more about each topic. For our reviews we are going to talk about properties most frequently demanded by cat owners as discussed previously.
We have mentioned this in all of the mini reviews below but in case you are in a hurry, please head over to our list of best cat litters that are flushable and take a look at the comparison table. It should help you choose a litter that has most of the properties that go to make the best and the safest cat litter.
The only reason we have not put it here for download or viewing is that convenient as it is, it is still just a comparison chart. We would rather you go through the post to know the details. It may not be in your best interest to refer only to the chart and assume that all the information in it is perfectly reliable (it is, but still…).
Flushable Cat Litter
It is interesting that in terms of monthly search volume, ‘flushable cat litter’ exceeds ‘dust free cat litter’, ‘best clumping cat litter’ and ‘best cat litter for odor control’. It is possible that even those who are otherwise satisfied with their preferred brand(s) of cat litter are looking for an easy method of disposal. And flushing it down the toilet certainly sounds simple.
However, there’s a caveat (isn’t there always?). Cat poop may carry toxoplasma gondii, a parasite responsible for killing marine life. In fact, the state of California explicitly forbids flushing cat litter down the toilet.
If you are not living near the sea flushing is always better than disposing of used litter in plastic bags to add to landfills. Problem is, unless you choose your litter wisely you could end up with backed up pipes, clogged plumbing and a not so good to smell house.
Please refer to our extended post on the best Flushable Cat Litter brands currently available in the market. Each one is manufactured from renewable resources and is biodegradable and safe for both cats and humans. There’s a handy comparison table for the top 9 brands and you can also download the entire post (or just the chart) in pdf format for quick reference.
Dust Free Cat Litter
Dust is never a good thing to inhale and cats, especially, have a very sensitive respiratory system. In fact, it is possible to induce lung infections if you make a mistake while force-feeding them (which is sometimes a necessity when they fall sick).
if you have been using litter that leaves a coating of dust (I just learned this new word: pulverulant, meaning ‘covered with dust’ – funny coincidence!) over your house, you should probably look for a different brand. That same coat of dust is in all likelihood inside your cat’s lungs as well and that is definitely not good news.
The commonest reasons people continue using a dusty litter are:
- they believe all litters are dusty
- they like the particular brand of litter and choose to ignore the dust
- because they are not aware that the dust could make their cat sick
We do not currently have a post exclusively on cat litter that has minimal dust (that’s as close you get to ‘dust free’) but the comparison table in the Flushable Litter post ought to point you to some good brands. We took the dust factor into account while comparing the flushable litters.
Cat Litter with Minimal Tracking
This is difficult to find since some of the litter will invariably get into the cat’s paws, but as with dust, the point is to get a litter that will track the least.
Tracking is not a matter just of inconvenience. If you have litter granules all over the house you probably also have cat excreta all over the place, any place where your cat has been. And as we all know, our fur babies are always welcome just about anywhere.
Yes, you guessed it, please refer to the Comparison Table to find a natural litter with minimal tracking!
The Best Clumping Cat Litter
Clumping is a welcome property in any cat litter because it makes scooping out used litter easier and that, in turn, makes the litter economical to use. When litters do not clump well or at all, you end up disposing of extra litter when cleaning the litter box or tray.
Unfortunately, a lot of cat owners prioritize the clumping without realizing that the best clumping litter is not always the safest for their cats or kittens. The best clumping litter is invariably made of sodium bentonite. And it can kill your cat.
We have already talked about this issue earlier in this article. Please do read our post on the dangers of sodium bentonite clumping clay litter.
If you are willing to settle for less than the best clumping litter, you can easily find alternatives that form really good clumps, pose no risk to the cat or the environment, and in some cases, can be flushed as well.
Again, we would ask you to take a look at the comparison chart in the Flushable Cat Litter post.
Best Cat Litter for Odor Control
This is an elusive quality. Not many litters control both pee and poop odors well. Thankfully, there are quite a few that do. Can’t help it if you feel we are getting repetitive, but the chart we mentioned couple of times earlier ought to give you some ideas about getting a litter that lets you sniff in peace.
The most important thing to do while looking for a litter that makes your home smell good (or not smell of anything at all) is to avoid Silica Gel Cat Litter. Silica crystals are extremely adsorbent and will deodorize cat poop and pee almost immediately upon excretion. Unfortunately, that hardly makes them safe for your or your cat.
We have dedicated a long article with case studies to show you exactly how harmful this type of litter can be. Even if you’ve been using silica crystals, please do take a look at the evidence and reconsider.
Automatic Litter Boxes
There are a number of cat litter boxes available in the market. Some of them are as simple as a tray, some of them are Automatic Litter Boxes, also called Self-Cleaning Litter Boxes.
The difference between simple litter boxes and automatic litter boxes is that in the former, you have to dispose of the soiled litter manually, and in the latter, the box does it for you.
Even though it is not that simple (it never is!), automatic litter boxes like Cat Genie andLitter Maid do make life more comfortable than most other cat litter boxes.
Litter Maid is a very effective Automatic Litter Box, but has two default options for cat litter which may harm your cat. Apart from that, from what we have seen, it is definitely worth a look.
Read more about it in this post.
Cat Genie, one of the most popular Automatic Litter Boxes, uses a system that is expensive but effective. It does not use cat litter per se, but a certain type of washable granules. The waste pipe from the litter box has to be connected to the toilet and you have to manually flush the waste.
You might find the new Cat Genie 120 Automatic Litter Boxes extremely effective. However, please consider not buying them if the flushed waste is likely to get into the ocean.
Our original review of Cat Genie was done in 2011. Recently, we have posted an update. Please read that at least, if not the entire article. Might help you make a more informed decision in case you are thinking about getting one of those for yourself.
Solutions to Problems of Cat Litter and Automatic Litter Boxes
There are simple solutions to automatic litter boxes and litter. People who come to our shelter for advice especially regarding Cat Genie or Litter Maid and in general on Automatic Litter Boxes and organic litter, have implemented them with success. If you go through the respective articles we would love to have you share your personal experiences with us.
Thank you for reading this rather long overview. We hope you find our site useful.