When it comes to kitty litter, there are lots of choices: clay, clumping, wheat, recycled paper, crystals, sawdust, etc. So what type should you use? Basically, it all comes down to personal preference — for both you and your cat(s).

Years ago, while living with my vet school housemate, I asked her why she used clay ("Hellooo! Old school!"). She said it was what she had always used (my roomie was from the '60s generation, when clay was hip). After being fed up with the smell and mess, I decided to change her litter to clumping one day. She was wowed, dumbfounded, an instant convert, and she hasn’t gone back since. Her cat thanked me too.

Clay litter was first introduced in the '40s by Edward Lowe, who used to sell clay to garage owners to soak up oil and gasoline spills. When he realized it worked well in kitty litter boxes, it became an instant success. Since then, kitty litter has become a multimillion dollar business. (Why didn’t I think of this first?)

Clay is still a great absorber, and cheap as dirt (well, clay), too, but it’s more environmentally unfriendly, since you have to dump out the whole litter box once it’s full (in other words, once a week). As its name suggests, clay doesn’t clump, so you can’t just scoop out nice, neat clumps of urine to clean the box. Notice how those large forty-pound bags of clay litter are cheaper than the twenty-five pound bucket of clumping litter? You get what you pay for.

Thankfully, technology has improved. In the early 1980s, Thomas Nelson discovered that a certain type of clay, bentonite, formed clumps in the presence of moisture, and voilà … clumping kitty litter. Because bentonite can absorb up to ten times its own weight, it is able to bind and hold water (or urine) firmly in place, resulting in that tight clump. Bentonite is dug up from the ground and processed into either granules or a powder form, and apparently we cat lovers are using a lot of it. According to a U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 987,000 metric tons of this clumping clay was mined in 2003 for cat litter. Popular stuff, right?

Behaviorists, veterinarians, and many cat owners can attest that clumping beats clay any day. First of all, clumping is more pet owner friendly — it’s less cleaning and work than clay litter.  Second, clumping litter is more environmentally friendly than clay. With clumping litter, you don’t have to completely dump out the whole litter box of clumping litter (ever); just lift out the nice, scoopable urine and fecal ball clumps, and voilà — all done.

I know I’m harping on litter boxes this month, but it’s because I’ve seen many a cat owner jeopardize their cat’s health due to poor kitty litter box care. Often, cat owners are bringing their cat to the ER for urinary problems, only to have me quiz them on their kitty litter habits. That’s when I learn that most cat owners don’t really know about kitty litter husbandry — in other words, how to take care of their kitty litter box in the easiest, most efficient, most environmentally-friendly, and least dirty way.

Some clients tell me they dump out the whole litter box (and all that clumping litter) every week. Yikes — no need folks! You and your cat’s carbon footprints are contributing to the overfilled landfills and making Al Gore very angry. While we animal lovers would love to blame human babies and their disposable, environmentally unfriendly diaper waste, I’m afraid we can’t — it turns out that kitty litter takes up a massive amount of our landfills.

Remarkably, the Bureau of Waste Management estimates that approximately 8 billion pounds of kitty litter goes into our landfills each year. Dumping a whole litter box is not only very expensive, but it’s really wasteful.

If you really want to know, I only completely empty and bleach out the litter box a few times year or so. OK, maybe once or twice a year. Seriously.

My other environmental trick of the trade is to leave a covered, empty kitty litter bucket lined with a plastic bag right next to the kitty litter box. It’s a perfect container to scoop and store stuff in until it’s full of clumps and crap. I dump it once a week, and it makes it oh-so-easy to scoop, contains the smell in the empty bucket, and saves a few plastic bags in the process.

So, heed my medical advice and scoop. And then scoop again …

Have any tricks that you use to keep your box cleaner? Share away!

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Classic Tabby Scottish Fold by Tom Thai