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My 16-Year Quest to Find the Best Cat Litter

I've finally found the best litter. It's called -- wait, read the story!

 |  Aug 15th 2012  |   79 Contributions


Back in 1996, when I first adopted my darling cats, Sinéad and Siouxsie, as tiny, featherweight bundles of kitten fluff, I had no idea that I was launching myself into a lifelong quest for the perfect kitty litter.

I took a lot for granted back then. I knew I wanted to feed them good food, so that’s what I did. But kitty litter? The one thing I was sure about was that I did not want my house to smell like a litter box!

I was really excited that there was this new clumping cat litter on the market, because I remembered all too well how quickly the old-style stuff developed a nose-hair-curling nastiness. At least the smell of poo dissipates after a while, but pee … not so much.

So I went on my way, using clumping clay litter for many years. Then I heard a story about how clumping cat litter, which is made of sodium bentonite, had caused obstructions in kittens’ intestines and killed them. Theoretically this had happened because the kittens cleaned their paws and the clay sludge built up in their guts. I was alarmed and decided to stop using clay litter immediately.

But … but … which litter to choose? There were so many options!

I figured I’d start with environmentally friendly cat litters, and my first choice was pine pellets. The stuff smelled great, and as a bonus, a bag of pine pellet litter was much lighter than the 40-pound bags of clumping clay litter I’d been hauling up the stairs.

Siouxsie didn’t mind the pellets. Sinéad, on the other hand, decided that although she didn’t mind peeing in the pellets, she would not do No. 2 in the box. After all, the shower was much more comfortable.

So much for the pine pellets.

“Okay, what next?” I wondered. A friend swore by the cat litter made of cedar shavings. I could buy bags of it at my local supermarket. Good smell? Check. Convenience? Check. Cats like it? Check. Stops odor? Umm … not so much.

Once again, it was back to the kitty litter drawing board.

I tried the wheat cat litter. Although it’s supposed to be scoopable, it never scooped all that well for me. The cats liked digging in it, but I didn’t like smelling fermenting cat pee after two days.

“All right, since I can’t seem to find an eco-friendly litter that my cats like and that doesn’t leave my house reeking, I guess I’ll have to try something else!” I said.

I went back to the pet store and found silica “litter pearls.” The silica absorbed the urine before it even had a chance to smell, and it was easy to scoop the poop out and leave the little pearls behind. You could leave the stuff in your litterbox for a month before replacing it, which appealed to my lazybones instinct.

The cats loved it. I loved it. All was wonderful in the Palace of the Pampered Pussycats.

But when they say the litter will last 30 days before it needs to be replaced, by God they mean 30 days and not an hour longer! I woke up on day 31 to find myself enveloped in a reeking cloud of a month’s worth of ammonia and distilled kidney-grunge.

Then finally I found it: the Holy Grail of cat litters -– clumping corn! I used it for years. The cats loved it, I loved it, the odor control was great, and all was well … until Thomas developed a severe grain allergy. The poor guy couldn’t even lick the stuff off his paws without suffering from digestive-system mayhem, so it was time to change litters once again.

A trip to the pet store revealed that pine litter had evolved in the 10 years or so since I’d experimented with the pellets. Now a clumping pine litter with a consistency similar to the corn litter was available. I tried it and it was a winner. It wasn’t as dusty as the corn-based litter, the odor control and clumping was fantastic, and the off-brand sold at pet supply warehouses cost half as much as the major brand, and was just as effective.

The only problem was that it tracked everywhere. I was always having to vacuum and sweep pine sawdust off the floor, and the carpets, and everywhere else.

Early this year, my pet store started carrying 4-pound bags of the walnut-shell-based clumping cat litter I’d been reading about for quite a while. I wanted to try it, so I bought a bag and filled one of my three litterboxes with it.

The cats loved it. I really loved it because it clumps like concrete -- seriously, if you want clumping litter that’s eco-friendly and actually forms firm clumps, this is the stuff. Although the cats do track it a little bit, it’s much easier to clean: A broom does the job just fine.

It’s not nearly as dusty as the corn, pine, or wheat kinds. Yes, it smells a little weird when you first pour it out of the bag (walnut shells have a lot of tannic acid in them), but the pee odor control is amazing, and the tannic smell dissipates after a day or so.

I think I’ve finally achieved cat litter nirvana.

Nirvana at Chez Kelley: cats love my lap, I love lap cats. Photo by JaneA Kelley

A final note about the clay litter scare: I later found out that no scientific studies have been done about the dangers of sodium bentonite and the evidence for the harm it causes to cats is largely anecdotal. Even so, I’m not running out to buy clumping clay litter any time soon.

I should also note that all this cat litter testing took place over a period of 16 years. You shouldn’t change cat litters suddenly or frequently because that may cause litterbox avoidance issues.

What litters have you tried with your cats? Let us know in the comments. 

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