A Guide To Choosing The Right Cat Litter

Flushable cat litter, natural cat litter, crystal cat litter, clay cat litter — with so many types, you'll want our guide.

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For a litter to work, first and foremost, your cat must want to use it. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

Litter. It’s part of life with a cat, regardless of her age. Whether clay, natural fiber or crystals, the cat litter fills her little loo and gives her a soft, absorbent spot to do her business. It’s up to you as her caretaker to provide the right substrate for the job.

But which litter is right for you and your furry pal?

When my husband and I adopted our sweet calico, Cleo, we initially went with a natural-fiber litter — clumping wheat, to be exact — because we wanted to provide her a moisture-wicking, odor-controlling litter that was safe and environmentally sound.

Well, the little stinker wanted nothing to do with it.

She sniffed it, pawed it, even climbed inside the box with all fours — only to shotgun out and glare at us in disbelief. “What is this drivel? I’ll take my business elsewhere.” And she did. Right on my favorite rug.

After a frantic call to the adoption center where we found our little princess, we learned she does have a litter preference. Her previous owners reported she developed a penchant for fine-grain clay after her declaw surgery. Since then, she likes clumping clay and will settle for nothing else.

With all the choices available — along with the persnickety quirks that some cats have — it can be daunting to walk down the cat litter aisle. Fear not! In this article, I’ll describe the different cat litter types, give you some pros and cons on each, and highlight their special features. As a bonus, I’ll also throw in a quick primer on litter accoutrements: the litter box, scoops, pads and more.

Cat Litter Lingo

Cat litter has been around since the 1950s, but it wasn’t the fancy stuff we shop for today. Back then, cats like Cleo did their business outside or in a little plastic bin filled with dirt or dusty clay.

“Forty, fifty years ago, cat litter was basically dirt in a bag,” says Bob Vetere, president and chief executive officer of the American Pet Products Association, a pet industry organization based in Greenwich, Connecticut. “You put it in the box and your cat used it.”

Clumping clay litter came on the scene in the mid-80s and, about 15 years later, the floodgates opened. Litter makers offered newfangled materials like pelleted wood and paper, grains, corncobs, walnut husks and silica crystals, just to name a few. The innovative materials controlled odors while providing an alternative to clay.

“Between fragrances, clumping and scooping litters, alternative litters, corncobs and rice hulls and goodness knows what else, the litter has become something that doesn’t smell like litter anymore,” Vetere says. “It’s something you can keep within the confines of the house.”

Cat litter has certainly come a long way. Today, it comes in several general categories, including traditional and clumping clay, natural/recycled fiber, clumping natural fiber and silica crystal. As you’ll see, each one has its features and benefits.

Some of the alternative litters to traditional clay are (left to right): crystal litter, paper litter, pine litter and wheat litter. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

Some of the alternative litters to traditional clay are (left to right, enlarged to show detail): crystal litter, paper litter, pine litter and wheat litter. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

Types Of Cat Litter

1. Traditional Clay Litter, Clumping Clay Litter:

Clay remains the most popular cat litter substrate on the market, according to the American Pet Product Association’s 2013-2014 Pet Owners Survey. Its low cost and high effectiveness make it a traditional favorite for many cat owners, says Ray Brown, vice president of household research and development at Church & Dwight Co., Inc., the makers of Arm & Hammer Pet Care products in Princeton, New Jersey.

“Once mined, clay is dried and processed. When it comes in contact with water, it absorbs it,” he explains. “That’s why it’s useful as cat litter. There are also clumping clays, like sodium bentonite clay that, in addition to absorbing, actually form solids when they come into contact with water or urine so they’re easy to scoop out and dispose.”

Clay does have its drawbacks. It can be heavy. It can be dusty. It can’t be flushed. And it can get tracked all over the house, leaving behind a gritty mess. Mining it can be hard on the environment, too. But it has many positive features.

Traditional clay is inexpensive. You can buy it in bulk at your big-box pet retailer or stock up 25-pound sacks for less than $10 from most shopping outlets, like grocery stores and mass market retailers. Plus, clay does a good job at managing a cat’s waste, as long as you remove the solids a couple of times a day, add fresh clay layers as needed and perform a complete clean-out regularly.

Clumping clay has all the benefits of traditional clay — but this stuff forms easy-to-scoop clumps when it gets wet, making it much more convenient for you to rid the box of both liquid and solid waste. Many clumping clay brands also come laced with odor reducers, fragrances and other added features that cater to cat lovers.

2. Natural Fiber Litter, Clumping Natural Fiber Litter:

Unlike clay, plant-based and recycled litters, like wood pellets, corncobs, wheat and compressed newsprint, are renewable and come from the waste stream of human food and manufacturing markets. Rather than being discarded into landfills or left to degrade in the field, biodegradables like wood shavings, recycled paper and corncobs find new purpose in cat litter.

“All of these different natural litter types — wood, corncobs, paper, wheat and oat tailings — are all from the waste product line of some other value food or wood product that was used before,” Brown says. “If these materials weren’t used, they would just be thrown out into a landfill or left on the field. So we’re taking that waste stream and turning it to a secondary use for value in an area that’s needed.”

Wood pellets, for instance, begin as dust on sawmill floors. Litter makers gather the shavings, dry them out at high temperatures and compress them into tiny pellets. What remains is highly absorbent wood that soaks up cat urine — and can be used as mulch in your backyard flower bed and around shrubbery and trees, as long as the fecal matter is removed.

Though these recycled and all-natural cat litters cost more than clay or clumping clay, they’re absorbent, they naturally neutralize odors, they’re good for the environment, and they’re relatively safe if ingested by your furry friend (or her canine roommate). Some brands are even clumping and/or flushable, making them more appealing to cat owners.

3. Silica Crystal Litter:

Odor- and moisture-absorbing silica gel, commonly called crystal cat litter, is a synthetically produced litter made from silicon dioxide. It’s the same material found in the little absorbent packets inside shoeboxes and some types of diapers. The often-fragranced crystals work by soaking up urine, dehydrating feces and trapping odor in their pebble-sized rocks or pearls.

Some cats may balk at the litter’s texture. It’s not flushable or compostable. It’s also an expensive litter choice, but you won’t have to change it out or scoop as often as you would clay or biodegradable litters thanks to its powerful moisture-absorption capabilities. Because it does such a good job at managing odors, it’s often a good choice for those living in small spaces.

“It appeals to the convenience factor,” says Trevor Russwurm, national sales manager for Pestell Pet Products in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada. “Cat owners today are demanding more and more convenience, and they’re willing to pay for it. So that’s why we see demand for that product.”

Be sure to get a scoop that has the proper-sized holes for the type of litter you choose for your cat. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

Be sure to get a scoop that has the proper-sized holes for the type of litter you choose for your cat. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

Outside The Litter Box

Litter makes up only one part of the cat litter package. Cat owners also need a box to put it in — and enough of them. Terry Curtis, a veterinarian and clinical behaviorist at the University of Florida’s college of veterinary medicine in Gainesville, Florida, says that ideally, the number of boxes in the house should be the number of cats, plus one more.

“If there is more than one cat in the household, there should be more than one litter box so that there’s no waiting,” she says. “The boxes should not be in just one location. Try to put them in various places and put them where the cats tend to hang out, not up in the attic or down in the basement.”

Those litter boxes don’t have to be unsightly. In fact, cat owners can choose from a wide variety of pans, covered boxes and decorative pieces of furniture that conceal the litter box — and the odor.

Katherine Houpt, a veterinarian and behaviorist with the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Behavior Clinic in Ithaca, New York, says that cats prefer open pans to closed, but the most important thing is to keep the box clean and give the cat enough space to do her business.

“Start the cat on the right track by giving her a very clean, clumping litter in an open box,” she says. “That’s what they seem to like best. Adult cats should have two boxes: one for urination and one for defecation, or at least a large number of square inches.”

To choose the best litter box for their household, cat owners should look at their individual situation and select the one that best fits their needs, Brown says. If the litter box is in the laundry room or mudroom, an open pan may work just fine. If the box is in the family room or other centrally located spot, a closed or decorative box may be the right choice.

“It all depends on the individual owner and the cat’s behaviors and preferences,” Brown says. “But in general, the basic pan is inexpensive, provides easy access for cats, and is easy to scoop and clean. The covered pan keeps the odors somewhat contained, it provides privacy during use, and litter scatter and tracking is reduced.”

When it comes to cleaning the box, cat owners should choose the tools best suited for the litter type, Brown says. Scoops come in all shapes and sizes, and one designed for clumping clay, for instance, may not work for silica crystals.

“Scoops should be matched to the litter type to make that job as easy and effective as possible,” he says. “Clumping clay litters tend to be finer granules, so a scoop with many small openings will retain the most clumps and clump particles while allowing the good litter to sift through. Non-clumping clay and alternative litters tend to leave larger particles that require bigger slots in the scoop to allow the granules to sift through while retaining the feces or clumped litter.”

Cat owners may also consider accessories like a litter mat that traps tracked litter, waste buckets to contain the daily scoops, and enzyme-based cleaning and sanitizing products for those monthly scrub-downs of the litter box.

What’s Best For Your Household?

Now that you have all this litter know-how, what factors should you consider when choosing cat litter and its associated accoutrements for your feline friend? Curtis recommends keeping these points in mind:

Claw status:

Cats who have been declawed tend to have more sensitive paws, so she says they would probably prefer a softer-textured substrate, like clay.

Number of cats in the home:

A home with multiple cats needs a litter that will handle the waste and odor. If that describes your household, invest in a brand formulated for the job — and provide enough boxes for all cats.

Health issues:

Some cats have health issues that could lead to litter box aversion, spraying or problems urinating. Talk to your veterinarian if something is amiss, and ask her about cat litters that may help indicate illness.

Litter texture:

Cats (like my Cleo!) develop a preference to certain litters. If you adopted your cat, fill her box with the same litter she’s accustomed to using, and make any litter type changes gradually.


Choose a litter that fits within your budget.


If lifting heavy bags of litter is difficult for you, go with a lighter-weight litter.

Ultimately, the choice is yours — but your cat will let you know if she’s unhappy with your decision.

Article Categories:
Cats · Health and Care