New and Better Options in Cat Litter

Updated: November 02, 2016
Published: January 08, 2014
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I have a love-hate relationship with cat litter. I love the fact that a good-quality litter allows my cat to do her “business” while allowing the rest of our family to enjoy our home without having to resort to the use of gas masks. On the other hand, I’m not all that keen on the money I spend providing her with a place to poop and pee or the fact that I’m adding countless pounds of kitty litter to the local landfill every year.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), every year we use 1.18 million tons of cat litter. Clumping litters made from sodium bentonite clay dominate the market. They are practical and relatively inexpensive but are not biodegradable and the clay has to be mined specifically to produce litter for our cats (as well as for other uses).

Wouldn’t it be better if we could use something biodegradable that we already have laying around to fill the nation’s cat boxes? The USDA ARS may have found just such a product. According to a recent press release:

Kitty litter that's nearly 100 percent biodegradable can be made by processing spent grains left over from corn ethanol production. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant physiologist Steven F. Vaughn and his colleagues have shown that litter made with these grains as the starting material may prove to be more environmentally friendly than popular but nonbiodegradable clay-based litters.

Spent grains are also known as DDGs, short for "dried distiller's grains." A DDGs-based litter may provide a new and perhaps higher-value market for the tons of DDGs that corn ethanol refineries now primarily market as a cattle feed ingredient.

In preliminary studies, Vaughn's group tested "x-DDGs." These are DDGs that, after being used for ethanol production, are treated with one or more solvents to extract any remaining, potentially useful natural compounds.

The team's laboratory experiments yielded a suggested formulation composed of the x-DDGs and three other compounds: glycerol, to prevent the litter from forming dust particles when poured or pawed; guar gum, to help the litter clump easily when wet; and a very small amount of copper sulfate, for odor control.

The resulting litter is highly absorbent, forms strong clumps that don't crumble when scooped from the litter box, and provides significant odor control, according to Vaughn. 

I’d give a cat litter based around x-DDGs a try as long as it was not prohibitively expensive; how about you? I doubt this product will be on the market any time soon, so I’d love to hear what you all have found to be the “perfect” cat litter. My criteria are:

  • good odor control without an “perfumey” smell
  • strong clumping action
  • low dust production and trackability
  • high cat acceptance
  • reasonable price

Got any recommendations?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Thinkstock