There’s no way around it: owning a pet isn’t cheap. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), new dog owners spend spend around $1,300 to $1,850 the first year, while cat owners typically spend more than $1,000.
Cat litter accounts for a surprisingly large chunk of that total cost – about $165 a year. In fact, the average cat owner actually spends more on litter than on food.
Faced with that cost, it’s tempting for cat owners to grab the cheapest cat litter on the shelf – most likely a clumping clay litter. However, the cheapest litter isn’t necessarily the best bargain. Natural cat litters, made from plant-based materials such as corn and wheat, offer more options for disposal, and there’s some evidence that they’re also safer, particularly for kittens. And best of all, for some owners, a natural cat litter can actually cost less in the long run.
Components of Ideal Cat Litter
Cat owners don’t all agree on what’s most important in a cat litter, but some qualities are important to nearly all of them. The consumer-review site ConsumerSearch names several features cat owners want, and the guide to cat litter from the pet superstore Petco lists several more.
The most important features include:
- Odor Control. Keeping the smell of cat waste under control is at the top of any cat owner’s wish list. It’s important for cats as well, as according to the ASPCA, uncontrolled odor is one of the top reasons cats refuse to use their litter boxes. However, artificially scented litters aren’t the solution, as cats often reject litters with strong scents.
- Good Clumping. Many cat owners prefer clumping litters, which combine with cat urine to form hard lumps that can be scooped out. Clumping litters generally control odor better than non-clumping ones, and the stronger their clumping power, the less odor there is. Clumping litters also require less work, since scooping a litter box daily is easier than dumping out and replacing the contents every week. As long as you keep adding fresh litter to replace what you remove, a good clumping litter can keep odor under control for a month or longer.
- Low Dust. One disadvantage of clumping clay litter is that it can produce a lot of dust, which is an irritant for both cats and the humans who scoop the box. Dust also creates a mess, as cats can pick it up on their paws and track it around the house. Some types of natural litter are also dust-heavy, while other natural litters and new crystal litters produce little or no dust.
- Granule Size. This is a tricky one, as both coarse and fine litters have their advantages. Cats tend to prefer fine-textured litter, which feels softer on their paws, but coarse litter is less likely to get tracked around the house. Coarser litters are also safer for kittens under three months old, who may inhale or swallow finer-grained litters.
- Reasonable Cost. The main reason clumping clay litters are so popular is that they’re usually much cheaper than other types. However, the overall cost of a litter is more than its price per pound – it’s also a question of how much you use. A cheap litter that you have to change every week can end up costing you more in the long run than a pricier litter that keeps working for a month or more.
Pros & Cons of Natural Cat Litter
According to Petco’s cat litter guide, natural cat litters are better than any other type at checking off all the boxes on a cat owner’s wish list. They come in both clumping and non-clumping varieties, their odor control is moderate to good, and many of them are low-dust.
In addition, some users prefer natural cat litter over clay litter for safety reasons. The ASPCA notes that kittens sometimes eat cat litter when they’re first introduced to it, and consuming a large amount of clumping clay litter can cause digestive problems – possibly even an intestinal blockage.
Older cats don’t usually eat litter, but they can still consume clay dust by licking it off their paws. Although there are no scientific studies to show that clumping clay litter is actually dangerous, the ASPCA still suggests avoiding it for kittens younger than three to four months.
Cat owners may also prefer natural cat litter for environmental reasons. Natural litters are made from renewable materials such as corn, wheat, and pine. Some of them even use recycled waste products, such as newspaper or walnut shells. And, because they’re biodegradable, it’s possible to flush them down the toilet or compost the clumps, rather than bagging them up and sending them to a landfill.
The biggest downside of natural litters is their cost. Prices for clay litter at PetSmart range from $0.24 to $0.76 per pound, while natural litters cost $0.37 to $1.40 per pound. However, these cost differences disappear if a natural litter lasts twice as long between changes than clay.
To Flush or Not to Flush
Flushability is probably the most controversial benefit of natural cat litter. Many cat owners like the convenience of being able to scoop cat waste directly into the toilet and flush it away, instead of having to bag up the litter and put it out with the trash. However, many experts advise owners not to flush cat litter, because some cats carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii and can transmit it through their poop. Sewage treatment can’t kill T. gondii, so it makes its way into the oceans, where it can pose a deadly threat to sea otters.
Because of these risks, the Sea Otter Alliance urges cat owners never to flush cat litter down the toilet. However, as the ASPCA explains in its toxoplasmosis fact sheet, not all cats are carriers of T. gondii.
In most cases, cats become infected by hunting and eating wild animals. Indoor cats can also catch the parasite from eating raw or undercooked meat. The ASPCA also points out that even if a cat is infected, the organism passes out of its body within two weeks.
The bottom line is that as long as a cat has been kept indoors and has not been fed raw meat for at least two weeks, it should be free of T. gondii, and its litter should be safe to flush. However, if you let your cats hunt outside or feed them raw meat, then there is a chance they could be infected – and you can’t tell if they are by looking, because most cats with the parasite show no symptoms. So, to be safe, it’s best to avoid flushing their litter.
Types of Natural Cat Litter
The most common types of natural litter are corn, wheat, pine, walnut, and paper. There’s a lot of variation between the different types – and between different brands of the same type – in terms of cost and performance. No one type exactly matches the description of the ideal cat litter; instead, each type has specific strong and weak points.
The best-known brand of corn litter is World’s Best Cat Litter, and a lot of owners apparently think it deserves the name. ConsumerSearch names this brand the best biodegradable cat litter on account of its strong reviews, both from experts and from cat owners at Amazon.com and PetSmart. However, some users – including me and my husband – have serious complaints about this litter.
- Granule Size. Like most natural litters, World’s Best has fairly large pellets. This makes it safer for kittens, but not as comfortable against cats’ paws. ConsumerSearch warns that some cats refuse to use their litter boxes because they don’t care for the texture.
- Clumping. Owners consistently agree that World’s Best forms excellent, tight clumps. When my husband and I first tried it, we were very impressed with its superior clumping and how much easier it made the job of scooping the cat box. It also didn’t stick to the sides and bottom of the box like the litter we used previously.
- Odor Control. Reviews on this point are more mixed. While most owners find it controls odors well, a small but vocal minority of users complain that their cat box smells worse than ever. When we tried it, we found that we had to change the litter every week to keep the smell under control, while our old litter used to keep working for months. Moreover, some owners dislike the smell of the litter itself, even before the cats add their contribution to it.
- Dust. This is a weak point for World’s Best. Although the manufacturer boasts that it’s “99% Dust Free,” ConsumerSearch reports that owners complain a lot about dust, and vets advise against using the litter for cats with asthma. Owners also complain that the litter, despite its coarse texture, tends to track all over the house.
- Flushability. World’s Best doesn’t say “flushable” on the bag, but the brand’s FAQ says it is safe to flush – with the caveat that this practice is discouraged in California. Owners report no problems flushing away the clumps.
- Cost. World’s Best is one of the priciest cat litters on the market. At PetSmart, a 28-pound bag sells for $32.99, which works out to $1.18 per pound. For us, the value was even worse than the price implies because we had to change the litter so often.
The leading brand of wheat cat litter is Swheat Scoop. It’s made from “secondary wheat” – grain that isn’t high-quality enough to be used for food.
The ConsumerSearch report notes that this brand “scores some recommendations” from cat owners and experts, but doesn’t name it as a top pick because its reviews aren’t “uniformly high.” My husband and I were loyal users of Swheat Scoop for several years, but we switched away in 2012 when its performance suffered a sudden decline.
- Granule Size. The FAQ on Swheat Scoop’s website says this product “looks and feels like regular scoopable liter” – the clay kind, that is. It’s neither particularly coarse, nor particularly fine. Reviews say even picky cats use it without complaint.
- Clumping. Reviews on this are mixed. Many users praise the wheat litter’s clumping ability, but others say it doesn’t clump well at all. Newer reviews are more likely to complain about clumping, which fits in with our personal experience: The litter clumped well when we first started using it, but in 2012, it suddenly became a lot less powerful. Instead of firm clumps, it formed loose, soft masses that fell apart when the scoop hit them, making scooping out the litter box a 15-minute chore. Even when it worked well, it had a tendency to stick to the box, forming lumps that were hard to scrape off.
- Odor Control. Here again, reviews are mixed, though more positive than negative. We found that when it stopped clumping well, it also became weaker at controlling odors, needing a change after one to two weeks instead of one to two months.
- Dust. Reviews on this point are most inconsistent of all. Some users rave that Swheat Scoop produces no dust at all, while others complain that it sends up clouds of dust everywhere. Owners are more consistent in agreeing that tracking is a problem. When we used it, we got used to sweeping our floors more often to clear away the dust and wheat particles that spread throughout the house.
- Flushability. Swheat Scoop brags that it’s “the only litter on the market certified flushable with sewer or septic systems,” but goes on to warn that to flush it safely, you need to break up the large clumps into smaller ones, let them soak for about 20 minutes to soften before flushing them, and avoid overloading the toilet. Our experience was that it’s important to follow these instructions to the letter – we had occasional problems with toilet clogs when flushing a large load.
- Cost. PetSmart charges $31.99 for a 40-pound bag of Swheat Scoop, or about $0.80 a pound. We considered this a good deal when it was working well, because one bag would last us several months. However, once its clumping and odor-blocking powers went downhill, so did its value, because it needed to be changed too often. We eventually switched to PetSmart’s store brand, ExquisiCat, which performed about as well as the old Swheat Scoop and cost slightly less.
One final problem with wheat cat litter is that several users complain about their litter being infested by bugs, such as weevils and roaches. We never encountered this problem, perhaps because we stored our unused litter in an air-tight container. This is probably a good idea for anyone using any kind of grain-based cat litter.
Pine litter is made from sawdust, a waste product from lumber mills. The leading pine litter is Feline Pine, which earns the title of best cat litter at ConsumerSearch – not just among natural litters, but overall. The editors say it earns praise from both experts and cat owners for its effectiveness and value, though reviewers at PetSmart actually give it a lower overall rating than World’s Best.
- Granule Size. The original version of Feline Pine is a pellet litter, made from compressed sawdust. Some cats don’t care for these large pellets, and some owners find them difficult to scoop. Feline Pine also comes in a newer clumping version with finer granules, but it’s not covered in the ConsumerSearch review, and I couldn’t find it on the PetSmart website.
- Clumping. Original Feline Pine is unusual because it doesn’t form clumps at all. Instead, the pellets break apart into sawdust as soon as liquid touches them. Users have to scoop out the solid waste, then shake the box so the sawdust filters down to the bottom and the intact pellets stay on top. The product FAQ says to change the litter when it’s about 90% sawdust.
- Odor Control. Even though it doesn’t clump, most reviewers say Feline Pine does a great job controlling odor. However, some complain that while it controls urine odor well, it does little or nothing to cover up the smell of poop. Most cat owners like the woodsy smell of the pine litter itself, but some find it too strong.
- Dust. This is where Feline Pine really stands out. Because of its large pellet size, it produces virtually no dust when it’s poured. However, tracking can still be a bit of a problem once the pellets break down into sawdust.
- Flushability. Since there are no clumps to scoop, only the poop itself has to be flushed, putting less strain on the plumbing. However, the used sawdust eventually needs to go into the trash, so Feline Pine produces more waste for the landfill than other natural litters.
- Cost. Feline Pine is much cheaper than most natural litters: $10.99 for a 20-pound bag, or $0.55 per pound. On top of that, it lasts a pretty long time: The FAQ says seven pounds will last one month, and users at PetSmart appear to agree. PetSmart’s Exquisicat pine litter is even cheaper – just $0.34 per pound – but reviews for it aren’t nearly as good.
Walnut-based cat litter is made from the shells of walnuts, a product that would normally go to waste. The leading brand of walnut litter is BLUE Naturally Fresh. It’s not covered in the ConsumerSearch report, but it’s the top-selling natural litter at PetSmart, and it’s also the brand my husband and I use now.
- Granule Size. Naturally Fresh comes in several varieties. The Quick-Clumping litter, which comes in a green bag, has a finer texture, while the Quick-Clumping Multi-Cat formula, in the red bag, is coarser. Some cats dislike the coarser formula, but owners give it higher ratings overall. There’s also a pellet formula like Feline Pine’s.
- Clumping. My husband and I find the Naturally Fresh Multi-Cat litter clumps very well, and most owners at PetSmart agree with us. There are still some complaints about poor clumping, but not as many as we saw for the green-bag version.
- Odor Control. In general, the Multi-Cat litter gives us good odor control, though the smell is sometimes noticeable right after the cats use the box. At PetSmart, this litter gets the usual mix of comments about odor control, but the compliments outnumber the complaints. There are more complaints about odor for the green-bag version, which makes sense, since users say it doesn’t clump as well.
- Dust. My husband and I switched to Naturally Fresh because the wheat litter we had been using seemed to be making our cats sneeze a lot. With the walnut litter, this is less of a problem. However, owners at PetSmart don’t all agree with us on this point – some say there is virtually no dust, while others complain that the dust gets everywhere. Surprisingly, the finer-textured litter in the green bag gets fewer complaints about both dust and tracking.
- Flushability. The walnut-based litter is safe to flush, and we’ve had no trouble with clogs. However, since we started using it, the inside of our white toilet has become discolored. Even with weekly scrubbing, the stain never quite disappears. A few other users complain about the same problem.
- Cost. The regular price of Naturally Fresh Multi-Cat litter at PetSmart is $25.99 for a 26-pound bag, or $1.00 a pound. The regular Quick-Clumping litter is slightly cheaper, at about $0.96 per pound. However, this brand goes on sale frequently, so we typically pay closer to $0.80 per pound.
The first type of natural litter I ever tried was Yesterday’s News, which is made from recycled paper. I loved the idea of a cat litter made from recycled materials, but its actual performance was a big disappointment. However, many reviewers at PetSmart – including owners of rabbits and guinea pigs as well as cats – give it a thumbs-up.
- Granule Size. The version of Yesterday’s News that we tried (and the version that’s reviewed by ConsumerSearch) is a pellet litter. Vets sometimes recommend it for cats that have recently had surgery because it can’t contaminate their stitches like finer-grained litters, as well as for declawed cats. However, some cats dislike the pellets and flatly refuse to use them. Yesterday’s News is also available in a softer texture that’s more like clay cat litter, but there are no reviews for this type at PetSmart.
- Clumping. Because it’s a pellet litter, Yesterday’s News doesn’t clump. As a result, many cat owners find it a hassle to scoop. Other owners say they don’t even bother to scoop it – they just change the box regularly. However, using the litter this way makes it a lot more expensive.
- Odor Control. My husband and I quit using Yesterday’s News after just a few days because the cat box odor was dreadful. Some users at PetSmart had similar experiences, but others report no odor problems at all. Results appear to vary from cat to cat.
- Dust. One thing cat owners really like about Yesterday’s News is that it produces practically no dust. Several owners say it’s very helpful for cats that suffer from respiratory, eye, or urinary tract infections. Also, tracking is not a problem with the large pellets.
- Flushability. Unlike most natural litters, Yesterday’s News is not flushable. The instructions on the brand’s website specifically say not to flush the litter or compost it for garden use.
- Cost. At $19.49 for 30 pounds, or $0.65 per pound, Yesterday’s news is cheaper than most natural litters. However, if you change the entire box every other day rather than scooping, as some reviewers do, that 30 pounds goes pretty quickly.
It’s pretty clear that there is no such thing as the perfect natural cat litter. Pellet-type litters are low-dust, but harder to scoop than clumping litters; coarse litters are safer for kittens, but unacceptable for some older cats. Moreover, a cat litter that is completely smell-free for one owner may be unbearable for another.
To find your ideal cat litter, first you need to decide which features matter most to you. Then, choose a litter that gets good reviews on those points and try it out.
But remember, each user’s experience is different, so don’t assume the litter that works for others will also work for you. Start by buying a small bag, put it to the test, and be prepared to switch if necessary.
Which cat litter do you prefer? What do you like best about it?