The scoop on newfangled cat litter.

The scoop on newfangled cat litter.

The scoop on newfangled cat litter.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 9 2002 10:40 AM

Hello, Kitty

The scoop on newfangled cat litter.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

Litter boxes are like feline banks. They're places where cats make deposits that other people get stuck managing. "Cleaning up after your pet is just plain good manners," the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) declares in its literature on "Responsible Pet Ownership." I agree. But this means three to five times a day on average for a cat. Tending to the litter box happens to be the most odious, and often most odorous, task of my life. Unlike my dog's, my cat's waste actually resides not just in my own house but also in my own closet. (I refuse to keep it in my one bathroom or anywhere near my kitchen.)

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The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Kelly (SPCK) notes that Kelly is not the most diligent litter box cleaner. My cat, Isabella herself, weighed in on the lack of frequency in her own inimitable way; recently, she urinated onto one of my favorite black leather boots. Her obvious show of displeasure suggested that I needed to pay more attention to her toilet situation. Since Isabella doesn't usually display any signs of "cat anxiety" (oh, yes, it's real), I figured the best thing to do was a little cat litter comparative shopping. Basically, I wanted to find a kind that could withstand the occasional lapse in manicure without resulting in a fragrant boot.

I'd always heard that it is hazardous to both your carpet and your feline to mess with a cat's litter; in fact, the ASPCA suggests that an abrupt change in the type of litter used can actually make a cat anxious. The SPCK, though, was already in a state of high alert about its shoes, and so I decided to subject Izzy to a test anyway.

But first, a word from our sponsors: What is cat litter? The most common type of cat litter is made of clay, and it's dusty and pebbly. Within this category are two sub-types: non-clumping and clumping. Non-clumping cat litter has been around since about 1950; as the oldest type of commercial cat litter, it's also known as "traditional," and it works best if you're willing to scoop out the deposits every day and then refill the entire box in a month's time. Clumping litter, on the other hand, is more modern and more popular; when a cat urinates on it, the particles stick together to form scoopable clumps. Clumping is good because you need only replace the burgerlike patties rather than dump the entire litter box and start over again.

I'd always gone with clumping for Izzy because it seemed easier. But I was willing to open us both up to other possibilities, and I discovered that there is both deodorized and not. I learned, though, that this distinction doesn't mean much: Some cats don't like the deodorized kind—just as some people don't like perfumed toilet paper—but this doesn't affect the efficacy of the product. Two newer types of litter exist in addition to the standbys on the market: crystals, which are made of silica granules instead of clay, and organic cat litter, which can be made of corn or of various finely shaved woods such as cedar. Maybe one of these could save my shoes and Isabella's sanity.

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The Test
Participants: One woman, one cat, one clean litter box, four litters, and one husband laughing happily in the background, safe from litter duty for a month.

Litters: Scoop Away (clumping litter); Fresh Step Premium Clay Cat Litter (non-clumping); Clear Choice Cat Litter (crystals); World's Best Cat Litter (organic).

Process: I gave Izzy one week with each litter; on four consecutive Sundays, I cleaned and changed her box. In the interim, I followed the package directions (all of them suggest emptying the litter box of its waste at least once a day). They also warn against pregnant women and immune system-challenged folks performing this duty, as cat feces can cause a disorder known as toxoplasmosis.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

Week 1 Litter: Scoop Away (clumping)

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Cost: $10.99/28 pounds (39 cents/pound)

Directions: "Remove clumps and solids. Do not flush. The rest of the litter stays fresh. Add more as necessary to replace what you remove. Once a month, empty entire litter box. Dispose of contents in the trash."

Review: I thought it best to begin with the litter Izzy is most used to in her daily life. After I put some in the box, Izzy investigated it thoroughly by promenading around the box. She climbed in and did some business in less than one minute. The waste forms patties that are easy enough to remove and then toss. Izzy did not misbehave or complain. The litter box area remained fairly neat and tidy all around.

Smell: It was not until Day 7 that I began to get the faint odor of cat piss floating up from the bottom of my closet. And this wasn't bad because there were a couple of days in the middle there when I spaced and didn't remove the waste.

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Week 2
Litter: Fresh Step Premium Clay Cat Litter (non-clumping)

Cost: $6.57/21 pounds (31 cents/pound)

Directions: "Remove solid waste regularly between complete litter box changes and add more litter each time. Change the entire litter box once a week."

Review: Oh boy. Two minutes after I changed the litter, Izzy pranced into the box. She sniffed around, looked perplexed, and manically clawed the floor in front of the box for a few seconds. She did not use the box for two days. Instead, she furtively stalked my bedroom door in a way that convinced me of her intentions to piss on my comforter as a show of annoyance. Thankfully, that didn't happen. However, I saw her go into her box on at least two occasions and emerge without having eliminated any waste. During the whole week Izzy only went "No. 2" twice. The last of those times, she kicked out about two cups of the litter along with some choice deposits. I got the point.

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Smell: After three days and fewer deposits than usual, the litter box area stank to high heaven. This litter, though it claimed to have "new triple action odor control," was not nearly powerful enough for Izzy.

Week 3
Litter: Clear Choice (crystals)

Cost: $18/7.6 pounds ($2.37/pound)

Directions: "Pour entire bag of Clear Choice into litter box. Remove solid waste daily after it has dehydrated, and stir crystals occasionally to extend life. When the dark blue crystals have faded, the litter should be replaced."

Review: Clear Choice has very attractive packaging in a clear, soft bluish-green bag; it's so fancy that the directions are printed in English and French. (In its defense, it's made in Ontario, Canada.) The crystals themselves are pretty nice looking, too: like big pieces of kosher salt. Though she went to check out the stuff immediately, Izzy was very hesitant at first about using this litter. It took one day for her to make a deposit, but after that it was smooth sailing, and she seemed to go back to her regular schedule. A few crystals began discoloring, as promised, but she kicked none of them out of the box.

Smell: No smell at all; it was amazing. The cat box was literally devoid of odor.

Week 4
Litter: World's Best Cat Litter (organic)

Cost: $9.20/7 pounds ($1.31/pound)

Directions: "After your cat has used the litter box, just scoop the clump and flush. For good hygiene, you should remove all clumps and solid waste daily. Guarantee odor control and cleanliness by changing all of the litter once a month."

Review: It's nice to feel good about products like this one, made of whole corn kernels and resembling unpopped brown and yellow pieces of popcorn. The cat can even safely eat it if she wants to. A person can flush it down the toilet with no problem because it's biodegradable. (But I can't because I once knew someone whose upstairs neighbor ended up flooding an entire floor of an apartment building by flushing cat litter down the toilet; I have a mental block against doing so and not enough insurance.) This litter had a softer texture than the others did and smelled somewhat different—a faint outdoorsy whiff—but it wasn't unpleasant. Izzy checked it out right away but seemed a little confused. It took her a couple of days to "make," and when she finally did, she kicked a little of it out of the box. It was probably too different from her regular type; her week's output was pretty sparse.

Smell: Nothing extraordinary after a week, even with a couple of lapses in daily maintenance.

Verdict
If cat litter were compared to toilet tissue, I'd liken the clumping kind to Charmin, the non-clumping kind to one-ply sheets, the crystals to a plush towel, and the organic to recycled toilet paper. For Izzy, I'm sticking with the clumping kind because it is the overall best combination of price and convenience. While the crystals are awfully tempting and very easy to deal with, I'm put off by the price. It just shouldn't cost that much for a cat to use the bathroom unless the litter literally cleans up after itself. I now believe that the initial cause of Izzy's boot-related outrage was the type of care her litter was getting, not the litter itself. She performed beautifully with her original, obviously hated the non-clumping kind, and was generally indifferent to both the crystals and the organic. (She seemed to prefer the former to the latter even after I explained the environmental benefits.) She also seems to feel that the experiment had only one negative effect: Right now she's busy trying to remove the tiny bell I put around her neck so that I could better track her movements during this process. Ah, the things we do for love.