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Cat Litter - To Scoop or Not to Scoop

The Rise and Fall of Clumping Clay Litter

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In the "olden days," litter boxes were homemade affairs, and the substrate used was anything at hand that the cat might dig into and use. Sand was popular if it could be easily sourced; garden dirt was a natural - after all, most cats were indoors-outdoors, and that is where they usually "did their business. Shredded newspaper was another.

Then, in the late 1940s, Edward Lowe, a young man who worked in his dad's company, which sold industrial absorbents, gave a neighbor a supply of an absorbent called Fuller's Earth to replace the ashes she was using in her cat's litter box. She was so "sold" on the clay that Lowe started marketing it as "Kitty Litter," first through pet stores, then by going to cat shows and cleaning cat boxes in exchange for a booth to market his product. "Kitty Litter" became immensely popular and a new industry was born.

Forty years later, "scoopable" clay litters containing sodium bentonite came on the market, and were an instant success. Traditional clay litters had to be replaced frequently; with scoopable litter, one had only to scoop out the solids and the clumps of urine, and add a small amount of fresh litter. The box would last up to a month without completely replacing the used litter.

Six or seven years later, it began to appear that these scoopable clay litters  might have a downside. The arguments for potential hazards to pets of using clumping clay with sodium bentonite certainly sound logical:

  • Cats inhale dust from clay litter, or ingest it while cleaning their feet. Kittens, being curious creatures, sometimes eat litter.
  • The powerful clumping abilities of sodium betonite cause the ingested clay dust and particles which, when combined with natural and ingested liquid form a solid mass. (When liquid is added, bentonite swells to approximately 15 times its original volume, as quoted from Cat Fancy magazine in the McInnis article.)
  • Inhaled particles could cause similar problems in the moist climate of the lungs. (The dust in clay is silica dust, which is not particularly friendly to either human or feline lungs.) 
  • The "clumping activity" in the intestines could draw fluid out of the body, causing dehydration, and possibly consequential urinary tract problems.
  •  The clumping substance coats the digestive tract,"attracting the collection of old fecal material, increasing toxicity, bacteria growth and prohibiting proper assimilation of digested food. This can lead to stress on the immune system, leaving the animal susceptible to viral, bacterial, parasitic and yeast infections." (From an article by Lisa Newman.)
  • The problems can also extend to dogs, who sometimes are inexplicably drawn to "litter box snacks." 

Absent any scientific studies or documented cases, it is hard to make an objective decision about the use of clumping clay litters for our cats. However, since there are a number of alternative litters that do not use sodium bentonite, the prudent cat caregiver would consider using one of those as an alternative. I would suggest that those consumers who are happy with their choice of scoopable clay litters follow a couple of guidelines:

  1. Do not use them for kittens. Since the curious little tykes investigate everything first with their mouths, why take chances on their ingesting something that is potentiall harmful?
  2. If you see an older cat eating litter, get him to the veterinarian. Eating mineral substances such as clay is a sign of pica, which can indicate a nutritional imbalance.
  3. If your cat develops sudden stomach problems, constipation, diarhhea, coughing, or discomfort during urination, mention to your veterinarian that you are using a clumping clay litter.

One thing is certain: Ed Lowe certainly was unaware of the can of worms that would open over 50 years after he invented kitty litter. He died in 1995, shortly before the first rumors erupted about the hazards of clumping clay litter. And the controversy continues.

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