Often when a cat stops using his litter box, the first thing an owner does—after cleaning up the mess—is to run to his computer to search “best cat litter,” where he’ll find himself confronted with every scent, texture, and color known to modern science. Laced with cryptic additives in pressure-sensitive and moisture-activated granules, scented with pine oil, baby powder, or mint, modern cat litter is more than just dirt in a bag.
Whether you’re in need of something eco-friendly and nonchemical, something with maximum odor-fighting capabilities, or just your basic, run-of-the-mill cat litter, you’ll find it all on the Internet, supplemented by passionate online reviews from cat owners just like you.
With dozens and dozens of brands to choose from, America’s forty-three-million-plus cat owners sift their way through millions of tons of litter every year, contributing to an industry worth more than two billion dollars. After dragging the litter out every week and checking it for lumps every day, the loving cat owner must finally dispose of this mess in the garbage, where it’s inevitably headed for the nearest open landfill. All for an animal that rarely expresses much gratitude.
When did this madness begin? In 1948, on a cold January morning in Cassopolis, Michigan, when Kay Draper discovered that the sandpile she used to fill her cat’s litter box had frozen solid. According to legend, Mrs. Draper went to see her neighbor, Edward Lowe. Did he have anything she could use to fill her cat’s box?
Scratching his chin, Lowe searched through the trunk of his 1943 Chevy and came up with a bag of granulated clay that he had been trying to sell as nesting material to local chicken farmers.
She tried it, came back for another bag, and soon had every cat owner in town calling for more. Within a few weeks, Lowe was making regular deliveries of granulated clay packed in little brown bags, which he called “Kitty Litter.” His business skyrocketed, and soon Lowe had expanded from humble hand-delivered brown bags to nationwide distribution of a product refined in secret laboratories.
What’s Really in Cat Litter?
In the years since, manufacturers have been lured by the low costs and high profits associated with cat litter, using every conceivable absorbent material—including oat flakes, alfalfa chaff, corn cobs, and orange peels—to make what cats do in their boxes as pleasant and odor-free as possible.
Yet of all known materials, one of the most common materials in commercial cat litter is fuller’s earth, a highly porous calcium-based clay that attracts and absorbs virtually any liquid that flows in its direction. Used for more than seven thousand years, longer than any other mineral except flint, fuller’s earth has a variety of industrial, medicinal, and cosmetic uses. And it’s totally natural—the largest known deposit of fuller’s earth formed more than two hundred million years ago, when Africa separated from North America, and today it is mined all over the world. But other ingredients in cat litter are often the furthest thing from natural.
Indeed, determining the precise ingredients of any cat litter is difficult, if not impossible, in part because the materials that litter makers purchase from chemical specialty firms and fragrance houses are themselves secret.
Since cats routinely ingest these chemicals every time they use the litter box—dissolving the starch-covered capsules with their urine, hiding the spot, then licking their paws afterward—many cat owners and veterinarians question whether something strong enough to subdue the odor of a pound of sodden feces-laden litter isn’t also strong enough to subdue the cat.
According to Bill McCormick III, formerly chief toxicologist and now a research fellow at the Clorox Company, thousands of man-hours have been spent on palatability studies for one of the company’s top sellers, Fresh Step (the brand that “freshens with every step”). Even though the package clearly states that Fresh Step has been tested by independent laboratories, those tests refer to acute reactions of humans exposed to Fresh Step in the factory, not chronic effects on cats.
“To my knowledge, no manufacturer has ever released safety data on the chronic effect of litter on the cats that use it,” says McCormick.
The most common way that foreign substances invade a cat’s body is by inhalation—the cat using its supersensitive nose where perhaps it shouldn’t. Additionally, because of their fastidious nature, cats are likely to swallow anything that gets onto their fur or paws, passing it through the stomach and intestines, where the fat-soluble additives in litter enter the bloodstream and lodge themselves in the cat’s fatty tissue. In this way, a large yet unknown variety of agents can build up year after year, slowly attacking the cat’s vital organs while debilitating his nervous system.
Is Cat Litter Bad for Your Cat?
Legally, manufacturers that sell products meant for use by animals are not required to publish the same health and safety data that the Food and Drug Administration requires for products intended for human consumption. Therefore, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the true effect of cat litter on feline health.
Faced with hundreds of brightly wrapped products packed full of promises each making miraculous claims, most cat owners assume (or at least hope) that phrases like “safety tested by independent laboratories” means that the product is “safe.” Yet researchers and veterinarians specializing in the science of immunotoxicology—the long-term effects of exposure to low-grade toxins, poisons, and environmental pollutants—believe many common substances can slowly undermine a cat’s urinary, nervous, and immune systems when potent dosages are administered in tiny amounts over a long period of time.
“As the cat’s condition worsens,” notes Debra Pirotin, a retired veterinarian and author of No Naughty Cats, “it is sometimes difficult to see that the cat is really ill. Often the only indications of systemic poisoning are gradual weight loss with secretions from the eye and nose and general listlessness.” With their defenses impaired, many cats quickly succumb to the first opportunistic infection, says Dr. Pirotin. These include FCV (feline calicivirus) and FVR (feline viral rhinotracheitis), viruses that were once rare but are now quite common.
The role of chemical contamination in this situation is still uncertain. Nonetheless, cat owners have begun to turn away from chemically treated litter, leading to the rise of nontoxic, organic, and natural litters.
Now that you are familiar with the reasons why your cat should not be using a litter box, try to read all of chapter 4 before starting the 21-Day Program.