Cat litter is a controversial topic.
In 2012, 2.4 million tons of clay were mined in the US just for cat litter so that up to 96 million American kitties can drench it in pee and poop to dump a total of 4.5 million tons of waste back into the environment and landfills every year. Flushing the flushable kind causes plumbing problems and is being blamed for the death of marine life. Potentially brain-damaging Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted through the feces of infected cats which can harm wildlife and our food supply through contaminated meat and water. Plus, the dust that gets kicked up when cats cover their business or when we clean the litter, be it clay or silica-based, can cause illness for both cats and humans when inhaled.
None uf us means to impact the environment in such monumental ways, especially when so many of us are just trying to make life easier for homeless cats due to their overpopulation.
So what can we responsible pet guardians do to lessen our footprint on the environment while taking the best care of our cats? I’ve got ten do’s and don’ts below in dealing with cat litter that will help you, your cats, and the environment be happier and healthier.
1. Don’t shake the scoop. I made a fun video about this tip here:
I have always used a clay-based clumping litter. I tried to switch to a different environmentally-friendly one with two previous cats I cared for but was unsuccessful in getting them to switch. That doesn’t mean I won’t try a biodegradable litter or other alternative, especially after researching for this article. Thankfully, Kodi doesn’t kick up much dust at all when he’s using it, and Shorty, well, as you can see in the video above, Shorty doesn’t even touch the litter after she goes.
But an easy way to reduce the amount of clay-based litter you use, to keep dust particles at bay, and to keep odours under control is to simply not shake the litter scoop while removing waste from the litter. When we shake the scoop, we think we’re just releasing the non-clumped litter back into the box, thereby saving litter, but some of the clumped litter inevitably gets loose as well which is no longer effective at clumping or absorbing odours. This means that to keep it from smelling bad, you’ll have to change the whole litter box much more frequently which is a pain, and indeed the dustiest part of the litter process. So, to extend the life of the litter and to keep it smelling fresh don’t shake the scoop at all and throw out the bit of excess that remains on the scoop. This way you won’t need to change and wash the litterbox nearly as often which makes your life easier, saves on litter, and reduces the environmental impact.
2. Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands well after cleaning the cat litter. A disease called Toxoplasmosis, primarily a foodborne illness like Salmonella, is a zoonotic disease whose parasite can only reproduce in infected cats who then shed the parasite through their feces. Healthy people have little reason to worry, but women who are pregnant and those with weakened immune systems should either try to get someone else to clean the litter box, or wear gloves while doing so, though this mainly applies to cats who are let outdoors where they can feed on infected rodents and birds, and pass the parasite to other animals or to our drinking water. For a thorough investigation into Toxoplasmosis, see this article.
Now, before you all run out and get a hazmat suit and a 10-foot pole just to clean up after kitty, the CDC estimates that over 60 million people in the US may currently be infected with the Toxoplasma parasite, yet most show no symptoms at all because a healthy immune system can prevent you from getting sick. Exposure is very common in areas where undercooked meat is often eaten, like in France where monthly prenatal screening for the Toxoplasma parasite was introduced in 1992. Plus, infected cats will only shed the parasite in their feces for a few weeks, not their entire lifetime, so unless you are directly handling the feces of an outdoor cat who recently ate an infected host, it is extremely unlikely that your cat is any threat. You are much more likely to contract it through ingesting infected meat or contaminated water. If you have questions about you or your cat, read this article and see your health care provider and/or veterinarian.
I confess I’ve never worn gloves while cleaning the cat litter, and simply wash my hands well afterwards. And my friend who is a single mom always changed the litter herself while pregnant and stuck with a good hand-washing as well. I’m not suggesting you not take precautions, but as with anything that could affect your health, understand the risks involved, talk to your doctor and veterinarian, do lots of research yourself, and decide what’s best for you.
3. Dispose of the litter daily. In addition to keeping your house from smelling like a bad episode of Hoarders, daily removal of waste helps to keep your cats’ sensitive sniffers happy and prevents them from tracking dirty litter all over the house. And according to the CDC, “[t]he Toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat’s feces,” so if your cat is allowed outdoors or has a chance of becoming infected, an easy safeguard against Toxoplasmosis is daily cleaning. Keep the litter box filled with about 2 inches of clean litter; more and the cats may not use it, less and it won’t be effective in absorbing the waste, so be sure to replace litter as needed. Always bag the litter and throw it in the garbage can. You may want to use biodegradable or compostable bags if you know your litter is heading to landfill, but refer to your city’s disposal guidelines. Depending on how many cats you have and their size, you may want to fully wash the box in hot soap and mild detergent every few weeks and replace with brand new litter.
But you don’t have to take the garbage out every day to avoid that “litter smell” in the house! You can get a disposal unit specially designed to hold in cat litter odours. I reviewed the Litter Champ here:
4. Have at least one litter box per cat. Some experts suggest that you should have one box per cat plus one, especially if you are having issues with very territorial cats. Keep the boxes in different parts of your house as cats are very sensitive to smells and may only go where their own scent is familiar. (Shorty and Kodi only have one box each right beside each other and don’t have a problem sharing, so do what’s best for your cats.)
5. Avoid scented litters. These might make things smell a bit better to you but can be overpowering for your cat’s strong sense of smell and even act as a deterrent to the litter box. They also often contain chemicals harmful to the environment. If you need to control odours, try sprinkling a layer of baking soda on top of the litter, lightly mixing it into the surface, every time you clean the litter box.
6. Don’t enclose the litter box. Speaking of odours, if you can smell it, multiply that by fourteen, and that’s how strong it is to a cat. It might be nice for you to enclose all that bad odour inside a plastic case, but terrible for kitty. Keep it open, easily accessible, and big enough for the size of your cat. Shorty can’t even figure out how to get out of the ones with a plastic window:
7. Try non-clumping litter. These litters are often less expensive than clumping and can last longer. You would still need to remove feces daily, but I have a friend with a small cat who only cleans her non-clumped litter once a month by simply lifting the box liner out, replacing it, and refilling with litter. Not that I recommend only once-a-month cleaning (or liners as claws can get stuck in them rendering them useless and possibly deter your cats), but she swears by it because she “can’t deal with cleaning clumping litter every day.” These litters are available in clay and plant-based alternatives.
8. Never flush the litter. Even if it says you can flush it, don’t. A study in California found that “42 percent of live otters and 62 percent of dead otters were infected with Toxoplasma gondii … that can cause fatal brain inflammation in California sea otters.” Even if you don’t live on the coast, this parasite can’t be treated or filtered out in water treatment systems so it makes its way into our groundwater, lakes, rivers and oceans where it can be harmful to all wildlife. So don’t flush it and don’t leave it outside where it can get into sewer drains.
9. Composting. Thankfully, there are green bin programs like in Toronto that are able to compost cat litter and other waste products. Toronto does this through a process called anaerobic composting, a closed system, as opposed to aerobic composting, or by using air. Check with your city’s disposal guidelines to see if they compost cat litter, and whether they prefer biodegradable or plastic bags, depending on their recycling and handling procedures.
As for composting on your own, some people will say that you can, with important rules like not using clay or crystal-based litters, keeping the compost far away from your vegetable garden, and waiting 18 months before using it as a plant food. And some say that it’s not worth the risk. It may be best to leave this to your city’s disposal, but urge them to adapt composting pet waste practices if they don’t already.
As for throwing it all in the landfills, there is a chance that litter with silica crystals can help remediate polluted soil and reduce acidity, so cat litter might actually end up helping landfills by reducing toxicity (though I have found no solid research to back this claim, just opinions of other writers. If you come across scientific studies into this, please let me know).
10. Experiment with different litters. There are a wide range of biodegradable litter alternatives you can consider that don’t rely on strip mining earth’s minerals. A product called Feline Pine purports to be long-lasting and all-natural, using sawdust byproduct from lumber mills. World’s Best Cat Litter is corn-based with no synthetic additives, though their website is, er, littered with the phrase, “concentrated power of corn” which makes me think of that Simpson’s episode where Homer’s power bars are made with the “awesome power of apples.” Swheat Scoop harnesses the wonder of wheat. I haven’t tried any of these and have no affiliation with them; they just appear to be popular brands that I’ve come across online. And a new company, Pretty Litter, just sent me a sample of their litter to try that is said to detect potential health issues by changing colour in reaction to abnormal levels of acidity and blood in your cat’s waste. I haven’t tried it yet either.
If you’re like me and are still using clay-based litter, do some investigating and see what’s available in your local stores. Many of our cats love the clay-based litter but that doesn’t mean they can’t love another, and that we can’t take some extra time to make educated, responsible decisions that are in the best interest of our pets, the environment, and ourselves. If you are trying a new litter, add just a little bit at a time to your existing litter so your cat has time to get used to it. They may not like it at all, so be prepared to experiment.
Please comment below with your stories, suggestions, or questions.