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Clumping cat litter questions and feline litterbox obsession

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:

I would love to know what brand scoopable cat litter clumps the hardest, in your experience? I have a cat who seems obsessed with the litterbox and, while obsessing, the waste breaks apart into many tiny pieces that take a lot longer for me to scoop out. Do I need to scoop every little piece out? Also, can a cat be obsessed with a litterbox? Mine sure seems that way and it drive me nuts since I am obsessive-compulsive myself! She's been in there 3 times already today! Is this natural, or is there something I can do? Please write me back. Thanks.

Kevin

Sinéad: Well, Kevin, we do have quite a bit of experience with kitty litter. Mama's tried just about every kind there is, and we have some very definite preferences.

Siouxsie: First of all, when we were kittens, Mama used clumping clay litter. We liked the feel of it on our paws, and to this day we prefer that or similar textures for our cat litter.

Thomas: However, there have been some concerns about the safety of clumping clay cat litter, particularly brands that use bentonite as the clumping agent. You see, Bentonite gets very hard and expands a great deal when exposed to water.

Sinéad: And there have been some stories published on the Internet about the fact that bentonite-based clumping clay litter can cause cats to become sick or even die. All these stories seem to have originated from an article by cat breeder Marina McInnis, in which she states that several kittens she had bred, died due to bentonite/clay buildup in their digestive tracts.

Siouxsie: To be fair, all the stories about "clumping clay litter death" are anecdotes, and there haven't been any scientific studies done to determine whether these litters actually are harmful to cats. Author Franny Syufy wrote an article on the potential risks of clumping clay litter with bentonite on the about.com cats forum. She states that there is no scientific evidence that bentonite clay litters cause harm, but she also says the only studies that say bentonite isn't harmful are published by manufacturers who make clumping clay litter that uses bentonite as its clumping ingredient. So, the jury is still out on whether or not bentonite is safe for cats.

Thomas: To be on the safe side, we recommend that if you are going to use a clumping clay litter, you buy one that does not use bentonite as its clumping ingredient.

Sinéad: In addition, the Keystone Veterinary Clinic of Stow, Ohio (and several other sources we checked) recommend that you do not use clumping litter with kittens younger than 16 weeks. The clumping litter can crust onto their feet if they step into a newly wetted area, and then, of course, they'll lick it off, which may cause digestive upsets or other problems.

Siouxsie: Clumping cat litter is a really great invention, and we like it. For a while, Mama didn't use clumping litter at all -- she'd heard about the health risks a long time ago. We missed our clumping litter, although we did bear with Mama as she tried everything from regular cheap cat litter to recycled newspaper pellets to "feline pine" to silica "pearls" (Yuck! Never again!)

Sinéad: I thought the pine pellets smelled nice, but they hurt my paws, so I used the shower stall instead. Mama didn't like that very much. The "pearls" hurt my toes, too. And although they didn't smell at all for a while, once they let go, it was horrible!

Siouxsie: But then Mama found another kind of clumping litter, one that wasn't made of clay. Several years ago, a couple of companies began making clumping litter from food products like corn and wheat. When Mama discovered these new kinds of clumping litter, she bought a bag of "World's Best Cat Litter" home to try for us. We loved it!

Thomas: World's Best Cat Litter, and one or two other brands, are made from corn. The World's Best Multi-Cat formula (in the bag with the green label) has very good, solid clumping ability and we like it a lot.

Sinéad: Another plant-based kitty litter, Swheat Scoop, is made from wheat. It smells good, too, and while the clumps it makes are softer, it does clean up very easily. Mama says Swheat Scoop is also quite a bit less expensive than World's Best, at least in our home area, but she thinks the World's Best works better.

Siouxsie: I'd have to agree on that. One thing you should be aware of with plant-based cat litters, however, is that they may be made of genetically modified plant material (this is a particular risk with corn-based products), and they are rarely produced in an organic way -- so they may have pesticides and chemical fertilizers in them.

Thomas: A lot of people think the risk of exposure to non-organic foods is a lot lower than the risk of being exposed to (and consuming) bentonite. Also, plant-based litters tend to be significantly less dusty than most clay litters, so the chance of inhaling any toxins through dust is minimal.

Sinéad: If you'd like to learn more about other alternative kitty litter brands, here's a link to some reviews of alternative kitty litters. These reviews are on the same website as the bentonite-poisoning article, but we looked them over and thought they would be a good introduction to what's out there and the risks, cost and benefits of each.

Siouxsie: Now that we've finished our discussion about types of cat litter, we need to talk about some of the other issues you're bringing up, Kevin.

Thomas: First of all, it is quite normal for a cat to use the litterbox several times a day. Cats usually have one or two bowel movements and urinate two to four times each day. Since we cats rarely pee and poop during the same litterbox session (and if we do, we choose different locations for each bodily function), you are going to have a lot of clumps and poop to clean up. That's just part of life with a cat.

Sinéad: One thing to watch out for when your cat uses the litterbox is signs of a urinary tract infection. If your cat is visiting the litterbox frequently (more than 6 times a day, let's say) and producing very little or no urine, this could be a sign of crystals in the urine or an infection in the bladder or urinary tract. Other signs include peeing in inappropriate locations such as showers or tubs, spending a lot of time in the litterbox with no output, cries or other signs of discomfort while trying to urinate, and blood in the urine. If you see any of these signs, call your veterinarian immediately.

Siouxsie: Some cats do kind of "go nuts" burying their waste after a visit to the litterbox. This usually happens if the waste is exceptionally smelly. But then, some cats just like to dig. And dig. And dig. And dig some more. And then there are some cats who don't cover their poo at all. Like Sinéad!

Thomas: You have to admit that an unburied poo does broadcast its odor that much faster, and therefore results in quicker cleanup by the service staff.

Siouxsie: Grrrrrrrrrrr! Shut your tuna hole, stripe-face! You're always defending her!

Thomas: Anyway, Kevin. You don't have to clean up every little tiny minuscule speck of litter clumps. As long as you clean the larger clumps out of the box, anything less than about half an inch in diameter really isn't that much of a problem. Mama tries to keep our litterboxes pretty clean, and occasionally she'll go in and scoop out the tiny leftovers as well as the larger bits. A good rule of thumb is that if the clumpette is small enough to go through the holes in your litter scoop, it's really not going to be a problem.

Sinéad: I don't know what to tell you as far as getting your kitty to stop being so obsessive about her litter burying. Sometimes a loud noise after an excessively long bout of scratching and digging (let's call "excessively long" something over 40 seconds or so) can get the cat to forget about all that digging and covering. But the best thing you can do is to remove the offending waste. Once the smell is gone, her urge to bury and dig will be gone, too.

Siouxsie: It is possible to teach your cat to use the toilet. However, this training will require a good deal of time and patience. There are lots of books and doodads and other assorted gadgets on the market that claim to be the One True Teaching Tool. We can't recommend any of these from experience, because we use a litterbox. Mama says she once had a cat that taught himself how to use the toilet, and he didn't need any of these training tools.

Thomas: It's better if your kitty does not learn how to flush the toilet, though. If he does, you may find your water bill going way, way up -- some cats find that spiraling-water-down-the-drain thing endlessly fascinating, so much so that they don't mind the noise that comes with the flush.

Sinéad: Good luck, Kevin. We hope you find a litter that your cat likes and that makes both of you feel less obsessive about litter activity. And if you do wind up teaching your kitty to use the toilet, we'd love to know about that too.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.