Get the Scoop on Cat Litter

Cats are fairly low-maintenance pets. They don't need to be walked, sleep more than half the day, and (most) love staring out windows or snuggling on laps. Give them fresh water and food as needed, a few toys, and a clean litter box, and they'll love you for life.

Litter box maintenance is the most time-consuming (and least desirable) task for most cat owners. Choosing the right type of litter will not only make your cat happier and healthier, but it will make the task of cleaning the box that much less unpleasant.

A trip to the cat litter aisle used to mean one or two choices: Clumping or non-clumping? Unscented or scented? Now, there are litters made from all kinds of materials (clay, corn and paper among them) with various formulas: multi-cat, odor control, less trackable and even flushable.

The prices vary as much as the ingredients, so how do you know which one to choose? Below, we break down the most common types of litters to help you decide which is right for you and your feline.

Clay litter is the most common and most affordable litter on the market. Though natural litter enthusiasts are outspoken about the dangers of clay litter, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center says that health risks are low, except in houses where there might be a dog who enjoys "cleaning out" the litter box.  There are two types of clay litter: clumping and non-clumping.

Clumping clay litter is usually made from naturally-occurring bentonite clay, which is considered to be inert if ingested, and/or silica, another inert substance that is a primary component of sand. (Of note, California treats silica as a known carcinogen if inhaled.) Clumping litter works by absorbing liquid waste, transforming it into easily scoopable clumps. If scooped regularly (remove solid waste and clumps daily), it provides excellent odor control and only needs to be replaced once a month.

  • Not recommended for kittens, who are both prone to bouts of diarrhea (which is harder to clean up with clumping litter) and who are more likely to ingest litter.

  • Not recommended in homes with dogs who might eat litter.

  • Available in scented and unscented varieties, along with multi-cat formulas, which form harder clumps.

  • Less expensive than crystals or natural litters.

  • Cannot be flushed or composted; must be thrown in the garbage.

Non-clumping clay litter is made with various kind of natural clay, often with activated carbon to absorb odors. It works by absorbing liquid waste, but it does not form clumps so it is harder to scoop. Its odor control varies by brand and type, and it needs to be replaced weekly.

  • Recommended for kittens.

  • Available in scented, unscented and dust-free formulas.

  • Least expensive form of litter.

  • Cannot be flushed or composted; must be thrown in the garbage.

(Some people are concerned about the dust that comes from clay litters. It can be ingested when cats groom themselves and even inhaled by humans and pets. If that concerns you, choose a natural litter instead.)

Crystal litter is made from silica crystals or a blend of sand, which contains silica. This litter absorbs liquids easily but does not form easily removable clumps. Crystal litter boasts superior odor and wetness control and needs to be emptied and refilled once a week.

  • Contains silica, which can pose health issues if inhaled (though experts say risks are low).
  • Not recommended for homes with dogs who might eat litter.
  • Some brands can be flushed, but this litter cannot be composted.

Natural and biodegradable cat litters are increasingly available and appealing to green-minded cat owners. Made from agricultural and manufacturing by-products that otherwise would be wasted, most natural cat litters are scoopable, but not flushable. Many can be composted or sometimes used as mulch after the clumps and solid waste have been removed, though used/composted cat litter should never be used on edible plants intended for human consumption.

  • Made from pine, paper, wheat, corn and even walnut shells.

  • Available in clumping and non-clumping formulas.

  • Good for cats and humans with allergies to dust.

  • Wheat and walnut varieties are flushable.

  • Corn- and wheat-based can (rarely) attract bugs, and they are easily tracked outside the box.

  • Are pricier and harder to find than clay-based litters.

  • Some, such as the pine and paper varieties, require a wide-slotted scoop.

Want to see how various litters compare? We've rounded up the most popular varieties and compared their prices, convenience and other characteristics that could influence your purchase. Links direct to litters that can be purchased from

Be sure to "Pin" this graphic for future reference and keep reading for more detail.

In the end, remember that cats are fairly low-maintenance. Choose a litter that suits your budget and lifestyle, clean the box often, and you and your cat will be happy.

What Cats Prefer
Any talk of litter deserves a review of litter box basics. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cats prefer unscented litter with a fine texture. A depth of one to two inches is best, as are uncovered boxes. Cats feel vulnerable when in their litter boxes, so it's important that they be able to see their surroundings when they do their business. This also lets odors escape, which makes the box more appealing to cats. Avoid fancy gadgets like auto-cleaning cat boxes or those with doors, which can frighten cats and lead to accidents or not provide cats with adequate space. (Note: When switching brands of litter, gradually transition to avoid accidents outside the box.)

Scented or Unscented?
Cats have a keen sense of smell, and most are put off by the strong artificial aromas like those used in many scented litters. Experts at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine Indoor Pet Initiative discourage the use of both scented litter and air or room fresheners near the litter box. (For this same reason, avoid cleaning the litter box with bleach or other strong cleansers.) If you find the litter box's smell to be offensive, your cat likely will as well. Rather than mask the smell of your cat's box with scents, here are some tips for removing and preventing odors:

  • Use a thin layer of baking soda in the bottom of the box. And add more baking soda each time you scoop the box.

  • Scoop the box daily. This also will prevent "accidents" outside of the box.

  • Light a match and wave it around after scooping the box to help remove bad scents from the air.

  • Empty the box entirely, wash it out with mild soap and water, and refill with fresh litter as directed by your cat litter packaging.

  • The rule of thumb is one litter box per cat per household, plus one (though many cat owners have gotten by with less and suffered no adverse consequences).

  • If your litter is not flushable, keep a small, covered trashcan with plenty of plastic bags (like those from the grocery store) near the litter box. Each time you scoop the box, you can either remove the bag (and get a fresh bag ready for the next use) or close the lid and contain the smell.

  • If scooping the box grosses you out, do it more often. The mess will smell less and be more easily contained. Wear rubber gloves if you must, but don't make your cat suffer because you're avoiding the dirty box. (Think of it like this: Cats walk in their own "toilets" then climb all over you, so wouldn't you rather they walk in a clean toilet before cuddling?) 

This article has been reviewed and approved by Kristi Snyder, DVM.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, "Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling,", accessed on June 12, 2013.
The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, "Litter Boxes,", accessed on June 12, 2013.
ASPCA, "Cat Litter,", accessed on June 12, 2013.
California Office of Environmental Health Hazards, "Issuance of a Safe Use Determination for Crystalline Silica in Interior Flat Latex Paint,", accessed on June 12, 2013.
Green Star Natural Foods Market, "The Straight Poop on Kitty Litter,", accessed on June 12, 2013.