The safety of certain cat litters has given rise to heated debates on message boards and pet forums. Many people have said that the clumping clay litters that have been around for decades may be contributing to various ailments in cats.
Ed Lowe probably had no idea of the controversy that would ensue years later when he developed the first clumping cat litter. Until his invention, most cats relieved themselves outdoors or frequented litter boxes filled with ashes or sand -- easy materials for the average homeowner to keep on hand. But ashes and sand each had their flaws. Neither were very absorbent nor did they mask odors well. Cats could also track sand and ashes around the house rather easily, leaving a mess in their wake. Furthermore, litter boxes filled with sand or ashes had to be changed quite frequently to reduce odor.
In the 1940s, Lowe, a former sailor, suggested to a neighbor who had a cat to try absorbent clay as an alternative to ashes or sand. The clay material was made by Lowe's father's firm and was frequently used to clean up industrial spills located in factories. Absorbent clay proved to offer a marked improvement over other litter materials because it contained odors and allowing solid waste to be more easily scooped out of the litter box. This also reduced the frequency of cleanings and how often the box needed to be refilled. Lowe marketed his product as "Kitty Litter."
Over the years, scoopable clay litter was refined and developed into a product that offered super absorbency and odor control. This new product used clays that were very absorbent and would clump when the cat urinated on them thanks to sodium bentonite, the primary ingredient, enabling the removal of the clump. Later, silica, another desiccant, was added to the litter to make it even more absorbent. Today's litters are manufactured to be especially absorbent. But is a cat's health in jeopardy at the expense of efficient cat litter?
The same clumping abilities that make scoopable litter so effective at containing waste may also pose a health risk to cats.
The safety of clumping litter if ingested has been questioned in the past. When sodium bentonite comes in contact with liquid, it swells to approximately 15 times its original volume. Individuals state that it makes sense that, when the clay material makes contact with natural digestive liquids, it can form a clump inside of the stomach or digestive tract. Clumping in the stomach mixed with the drying potential of silica causes dehydration.
The same can be said if small particles of clay are inhaled. They could mix with mucus in the lungs and cause respiratory distress.
Others have surmised that clumping in the intestines may aid the collection of old fecal material, which could inhibit natural digestion and lead to the proliferation of toxic bacteria growth.
However, the ASPCA asserts there has been no formal clinical evidence to link clumping litter to serious health implications. According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, cats who ingest small amounts of the litter may only develop mild gastrointestinal upset, if any signs at all. Further, silica and bentonite clay are naturally occurring, inert materials that are not toxic. Silica is frequently found in regular sand -- a material that was formerly used as litter.
ASPCA guidelines state that pet owners to kittens may want to avoid clumping litters until the animals are a little older, because their respiratory and digestive systems are more sensitive than that of older cats. Also, if the cat is known to consume large amounts of litter, or if the household also has a dog that likes to snack on litter and the hidden surprises found within, clumping litters should be avoided. In large amounts, gastrointestinal upset, constipation or intestinal obstruction could potentially occur.
Those who have concerns about clumping, scoopable litters can explore the myriad choices in litter at a pet supply store. Keep in mind, though, if the cat doesn't like the feel or the smell of the litter, he or she may want to do his or her business somewhere else!