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Cat Litter: What's the scoop?

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What is the "right'' cat litter to buy? As many cat owners have learned the hard way, choosing a good cat litter is more than a matter of aesthetics and cost. As important as cat litter is for odor control, choosing the wrong litter can have more serious consequences for owner and cat than the occasional unpleasant odor.

Should you buy the one with the fragrant, fruity scent? Or the one with green, chlorophyll-scented granules? Or should you go high-tech and opt for one with odor-killing additives like carbon or baking soda? Or should you just save your money and go with the cheapest, tried-and-true store brand?

More than just aesthetics

In a presentation at the annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association in New Orleans, Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB, a veterinary behavior specialist, cited some surprising statistics about the problem of house soiling by cats who, for one reason or another, do not consistently use their litter boxes.

Neilson cited one survey that found that of 1,200 cats who were adopted from shelters, 19 percent were returned to the shelter because of soiling problems. Because there are not enough adoptive homes for shelter cats, many of those returned because of this problem will be euthanized.

In a minority of cases, the cat is suffering from medical problems, such as cystitis or a urinary tract infection, both of which can interfere with the ability to control the urge to urinate. In these cases, treating the condition solves the problem.

However, in most cases, the problem is not the cat; it's the cat litter. If a cat does not like its toilet facilities, it is more likely to relieve itself elsewhere. But what makes a cat like or dislike its litter?

There are four main factors that seem to affect a cat's preference for one litter over another:

  • the material the litter is made of
  • consistency and clumping
  • scent
  • odor control

Various materials are used in cat litters, but the most commonly used material is clay. Different clay litter brands vary in the size and "clumpiness'' of the clay grains, and in the additives that manufacturers use to distinguish their brands from other brands. Common additives in litter include fragrance, odor control substances, and absorption additives.

In a study comparing cats with and without elimination problems, Neilson observed that cats use a litter box in five stages: digging, eliminating,  sniffing, pawing, and covering. Neilson observed that "problem'' cats spend less time pawing and covering, suggesting that there was something about the litter that they didn't like.

Let's get specific

Further observations and studies suggest the following specific steps you can take to eliminate litter box aversion:

  • Switch from scented to unscented litter material; if you feel that you must use a scented litter, try one with a cedar scent rather than a citrus scent.
  • Use a clay litter material that clumps well.
  • Use a fine-grained litter rather than a coarse or pellet-type litter.
  • Select a dust-free litter so that your cat does not inhale the litter material; this can be especially important for kittens.
  • Look for a clay litter with activated carbon (or charcoal) added. According to Neilson, this is the most effective odor control additive.
  • Scoop and discard solid waste often; cats will avoid foul-smelling litter boxes.
  • Keep in mind that cats seem to prefer larger litter boxes to smaller ones.
  • Consider having two or more litter boxes in different locations; this is especially important if you have more than one cat or live in a large house.

A problem with a solution

If your cat has an elimination problem, a trip to the vet can rule out a medical cause. Once you have done that, you can usually solve the problem with the approach outlined above.  And a problem solved means fewer cats given up to shelters.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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