A Look at Safest Cat Litter Debates: Which Is Best?

Updated June 1, 2022
kittens in front of litter box

Part of caring for your cat is being aware of dangers in their environment, including cat litter safety concerns related to additives and clumping agents. The safest cat litter choices for your feline companion, yourself, and the environment is a biodegradable material such as wheat or paper-based litters. However, even natural cat litter alternatives may carry some risk.

Concerns Surrounding Clay Cat Litter

Many owners express safety concerns surrounding traditional clay cat litters. Most clumping litters use sodium bentonite as their clumping ingredient. Sodium bentonite is natural clay that swells to 15 times its size when liquid is added, similar to expandable cement. Unfortunately, if ingested in large amounts, the expanded, gummy litter could cause an intestinal obstruction.

However, the likelihood that a cat will ingest enough litter while cleaning their paws and fur to cause harm is relatively slim. Curious kittens who may not understand that litter is not meant to be eaten are a bigger concern. For this reason, most experts recommend waiting until a kitten is at least 4 months old before introducing them to clumping cat litters. For cats who eat their own stool, or in households with dogs who get into the litter box, use caution with these litters.

The dust created by clay-based litters is a greater concern. Inhaling these dust particles may lead to respiratory problems in both humans and cats. Even clay litters touted as "dust-free" create some degree of dust. Most veterinarians advise owners of asthmatic cats or those with any other respiratory problems avoid clay cat litters entirely and elect for an alternative.

Finally, clay litter can have negative environmental consequences. It is sourced through strip mining and discarded clay litter is not biodegradable.

Safer Cat Litter Alternatives

While traditional clay cat litter has been a mainstay in feline households since the late 1940s, it's not the only option today. Many people feel that organic, biodegradable cat litter is the safest type of litter for cats, humans, and the environment. There are several cat litters of this type on the market made from various materials.

Corn Cat Litter

corn cat litter

Corn-based cat litters, such as World's Best Cat Litter, are made from whole corn kernels or corn cob fibers and have a fresh, clean scent. Most are free of chemicals, clays, silicas, perfumes, bentonite, or synthetic ingredients. They clump naturally when your cat urinates in the box, but the clumps fall apart if they are exposed to water, making this biodegradable litter safe to flush.

Despite the positive aspects of corn cat litters, there are still safety concerns. When exposed to moisture, corn litters can grow a deadly mycotoxin called aflatoxin. All commercially available litters are processed and quality-tested to ensure safety, but some owners still elect to avoid this type of litter. Reduce the risk of this toxin growing in your home by storing open bags in a cool, dry place and remaining diligent about regular litter box cleanings.

Wheat Cat Litter

Wheat is another natural material commonly used in cat litters, such as sWheat Scoop. These litters are lightweight, soft under your cat's feet, and have natural clumping abilities. Natural enzymes in the wheat help with odor control, although some owners or cats might not like the wheaty smell. Wheat is biodegradable, so you can successfully flush or compost used litter. It's also a top choice for nosey kittens who might try to eat their litter because the wheat material is edible. However, cats with a wheat allergy should not consume it.

Wood Cat Litter

wood cat litter

Wood-based cat litters are most commonly composed of pine or cedar and typically come in a pellet form. Most wood litters use recycled materials, create minimal dust, and are chemical, silica, and scent free. It's important to note these litters don't clump. Instead, they crumble when exposed to liquid. This can make litter box maintenance more complex than with other materials with clumping abilities. However, special sifting litter boxes are available to help with this chore.

Pine trees are a known toxin to cats, so is pine litter truly safe for them? Yes, pine-based litters are generally safe for your feline friend. Products manufactured specifically for cats are processed to remove the harmful oils and compounds like phenols. However, you should never use pine pellets intended for horse bedding or for a word-burning stove as cat litter, as these can be toxic to cats.

Paper Cat Litter

paper cat litter

Sustainable paper-based litters, have risen in popularity, and for good reason. This highly absorbent alternative is free of dust, clay, additives, and bentonite. They're also biodegradable. Many veterinarians recommend non-clumping paper litter for kittens, asthmatic cats, cats recovering from surgery with open wounds, or for regular use. Keep in mind, paper-based formulas that boast the ability to clump may contain additives, so non-clumping products are your safest bet.

Some owners express concern regarding the presence of ink from recycled newspaper used in some formulas. As stated by Purina, most modern publishers use organic or soy-based ink which is harmless to pets. Additionally, processing the paper "neutralizes these inks" to remove any residue from Yesterday's News that could affect your cat.

Eliminate Cat Litter by Toilet Training

If you want to completely eliminate any risks associated with cat litter, you could consider toilet training your cat. The concept may sound laughable, but many cat owners have found success with this training. However, the process certainly takes time, dedication, and patience. If you're up for the challenge, the end result could eliminate your need for cat litter altogether.

How to Introduce New Cat Litter

If you've found a safe cat litter material you'd like to use instead of your current litter, you don't want to make an abrupt switch. This can be stressful for sensitive cats and may lead to inappropriate eliminations. Instead, you'll need to transition them over a few weeks.

  • First, fill the bottom of the litter box (about 1/3 of the total litter volume) with the new litter. Then fill the remaining 2/3 with your old litter. This will allow your cat to feel comfortable when they step into the litter box because they'll smell and feel the old litter on top, but as they dig, they'll slowly introduce the new litter from the bottom into the mix.
  • The next time you refill the box, fill it with 50 percent new litter (on the bottom again), and 50 percent old litter. Your cat will gradually get used to the smell and texture of the new litter as they cover their business.
  • Next time, fill 2/3 with new litter, and top with 1/3 old litter.
  • Finally, fill the entire box with the new litter. By this time, your cat should be used to having the majority of the box filled with the new litter, so the transition shouldn't be a shock.

Will Cats Accept New Litter?

Studies suggest that some cats have a preference for clay litter over natural alternatives, but that doesn't mean they won't accept another type of litter. The key is to introduce the new litter slowly. A litter box attractant product can also help. These formulas are designed to promote urination and defecation within the box and can be sprinkled over any type of litter. However, if you notice your cat continuously going outside of the box during or after a litter transition, you may need to consider a different type of litter.

What Is the Safest Cat Litter?

Caring for your feline companions means you have the responsibility of keeping them safe and healthy. Each type of cat litter carries benefits as well as potential downsides. Use your best judgement when making the decision about which litter you feel is the safest for your pet or contact your veterinarian for a recommendation based on your cat's unique medical history.

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A Look at Safest Cat Litter Debates: Which Is Best?