Kitten in litter box

It’s time to let the cat out of the bag about the icky stuff in your cat’s litter box. (No, not that stuff.) If you’re using clay-based kitty litter, you could be making a mess of the environment — and your health.

Most conventional cat litter is made from natural clay, or sodium bentonite, which is formed into pellets and dried. The clay is strip mined from the earth in a destructive process that seems quite silly when you think about what happens to it once it hits the litter box: It is shat upon and then tossed in the landfill, where it will remain for a long, long time. In fact, over the average lifespan of a cat (15 years), you could be dumping almost 2,000 pounds of the stuff.


Swheat Scoop
$9.95 / 14 lbs.

But what’s potentially more distressing is that the dust generated when the sodium bentonite is disturbed — by a digging cat or a poop-scooping human — contains silicon particles that are a known carcinogen. Fortunately for both felines and their friends, there are an increasing number of clay-alternatives on pet-store shelves. They fall into several categories: wood-based (pine, cedar), plant-based (wheat, corn, grass fibers), and paper-based (newsprint, recycled newspaper). Unlike clay, most of these litters are biodegradable — especially if disposed of in a paper or corn-based bag — and flushable, though there is some debate as to whether this is advisable, especially in coastal areas.

But which of these alternative litters is the cat’s meow? Here’s the scoop.

Feline Pine
$2.99 / 4.1 lbs.
Ingredients: Renewable yellow pine and natural guar bean gum
Flushable: Yes
Biodegradable: Yes

My cat Bella prefers softer litter, so I got the scoopable version of Feline Pine instead of the large-pelleted original. That was my first mistake. The scoopable Feline Pine is essentially tiny flakes of pine — like sawdust, or the cedar shavings you might see in a gerbil tank. Because it’s so light and flaky, it doesn’t sift easily through a slotted litter spoon. It also sticks to cat fur, which means it slowly starts to appear everywhere — on my couch, on my pile of clean clothes, on my bathroom rug, anywhere the cat hangs out.

Swheat Scoop
$9.95 / 14 lbs.
Ingredients: Naturally processed wheat
Flushable: Yes
Biodegradable: Yes

The Swheat Scoop packaging claims that natural wheat enzymes help neutralize odor and clump with urine. I can attest to the former — the litter box maintained a pleasant-ish oatmeal scent — but as to the clumping power, I found that a lot of the urine clumps stuck to the bottom of the litter box, which proved a pain when cleaning.

World’s Best Cat Litter
$10.95 / 7 lbs.
Ingredients: Whole kernel corn
Flushable: Yes
Biodegradable: Yes

I like that these guys go ahead out on a limb and call this the “world’s best cat litter.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, but this stuff does clump well — it actually ends up looking like a Nutty Buddy (those ice-cream cones covered in peanuts) and scoops well. It doesn’t quite cover the poop though, and did end up smelling more than clay litters I’ve used.

Good Mews
$6.99 / 8 lbs.
Ingredients: Recycled paper fiber
Flushable: Yes
Biodegradable: Yes

These black pellets smell strongly of newsprint, and that is the first thing I noticed when I poured them into the litter box. I’m pretty sure Bella also took notice of this, as she refused to use the box and ended up pooping on my cushy comforter (probably the surface in my apartment most resembling a litter box) while I was away that day.

Fresh Step Crystals
$12.99 / 8 lbs.
Ingredients: Silica gel (sodium silicate)
Flushable: No
Biodegradable: No

After the Unfortunate Comforter Incident of ’08 (see above), I ran out to one of the few stores still open that night and grabbed the only non-clay litter I could find: these blindingly bright blue and white crystals. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this silica-based litter is readily inhaled by both humans and felines and has been linked to respiratory problems like lung cancer, bronchitis, and in some cats, a fatal form of tuberculosis. Good thing I wouldn’t have recommended it anyway — the crystals have a strong perfume-y smell and were quite noticeably crunchy (read: loud!) whenever Bella used the box.

Cat Country Elite (Finicky Feline Formula)
$5.95 / 8 lbs.
Ingredients: Organic wheatgrass fibers
Flushable: Yes
Biodegradable: Yes

The Cat Country Elite formula is supposedly a smaller-pelleted version of the more common Cat Country litter. Because this stuff is made from wheatgrass, I thought Bella would totally dig the smell — but it actually made her sneeze quite a bit when I first introduced it to the litter box. She did start using it though, and it seemed to perform just fine — but I’m not a fan of the intense farm-y smell.

Our tester Bella with her pick.

Photo: Sarah van Schagen

The bottom line: None of these cat litters are perfect. My top two picks are Swheat Scoop (good with odor, annoying cleanup) and World’s Best (good clumping, lost points for odor). But a once-monthly annoyance seems preferable to a smelly box all the time — plus Swheat Scoop is half the price of World’s Best (per pound). So for Bella and me, Swheat Scoop hits the sweet spot. Though perhaps the very best option is to combine two different types of litter.