Is clumping litter safe for cats?

kittens are curious and may ingest litter

Part of having a cat in your life means dealing with the litter box. Nowadays, many cat owners appreciate the convenience of clumping cat litter, which makes it easy to scoop both solid and liquid waste from your cat’s litter box. The obvious advantage is that the litter box smells fresh for longer, reducing the frequency of completely changing out and replacing the litter. However, if you have young kittens, you might be unaware of a possible danger that clumping litter poses.

The safety of clumping litter is a controversial topic. While there is nothing in the scientific literature documenting the health hazards to cats of clumping litter, there are many anecdotal reports from pet owners relating problems their own cats have had that the pet guardian relates to the use of clumping litter. Clumping litters usually contain sodium bentonite, which is a natural clay. Even though sodium bentonite is considered to be an inert, non-toxic substance, many clumping litters form very hard, cement-like clumps which are not safe to be flushed as they may clog the plumbing in your home. Another characteristic of sodium bentonite is that it expands many times when it comes into contact with water.

Young kittens are naturally curious and are more likely to try to taste-test litter than are adult cats. Kittens are also messier than adult cats and more likely to get litter stuck to their fur and paws, which they subsequently ingest upon grooming. It’s not hard to see how ingestion of clumping litter could cause intestinal distress or blockages in small kittens. The ASPCA notes that “…while there has been no proof to claims of problems in scientific literature, caretakers may wish to delay introducing kittens to clumping litter until 3 to 4 months of age.”

The Breeze litter box system uses pelleted litter

In the absence of scientific documentation regarding the safety of clumping cat litter, pet parents must decide for themselves whether or not to use clumping litters. It may be prudent reserve the use of clumping cat litters to adult cats and older kittens that are less likely to ingest the litter. You can also consider use of a system such as the Tidy Cat Breeze cat litter system, which uses non-clumping, non-tracking, dust-free large clay pellets which don’t cling to your cat’s paws or fur.

What are your thoughts on clumping cat litter?

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15 Comments

  1. I have been fostering kittens since 2002 and I have heard this many many times, but as you say in the article it hasn’t ever been an issue. I’ve never had it happen, never talked to anyone who had it happen, never heard of anyone who has heard of it happening. It is all speculation. Although I do watch every kitten eat litter before they start eating food.

    However, I did read a story from a vet who was actually rather shocked that it happened to a beagel who ate cat poop directly out of the litter box. But he said he didn’t think it was possible. The blog post said it wasn’t something that happens.

    That being said, unless I have orphaned kittens who are being bottle fed, I use scoopable litter. I only use clay on those is because they are so messy they end up with cement shoes because they walk through the food as well their urine and it causes them to have a number of baths.

    I currently have a litter of kittens that have two boxes, one with scoopable and one with clay, and they avoid the clay. Occasionally they pee in it, but they strongly prefer the texture of scoopable.

    I am concerned about the scents and the chemicals added to cat litter to mask odors. Cats are very sensitive to smells, and their bodies have a hard time getting rid of toxins. The only reasons for those is to appease owners who don’t scoop as often as they should. ( just like dry food is harmful for cats but is made for the convenience of owners)

  2. Hello, my name is Lorna. I have been researching for about 3 years now because my friend and I have been loosing our cats. We have spent thousands of dollars on vet bills etc. We both lost 3 cats and the vets didn’t really have a real answer. I know now what from. It is the clay litter. I found one that won’t hurt cats or kittens. It is new and you have to order it. It is called Smart Cat. It is made of only grass. Expensive, but it has to be cheaper then all of the vet bills. If you read about clay litter, it is deadly. I think this is the only one that I can trust. I am detoxing my other cats because of the clay. I wish I had found this earlier, but it is new. The clay will kill kittens quicker than the cats. I really have gone through a nightmare for 3 years. I think this will solve many health problems for my cats. I love them dearly and wish I could find a way to tell everyone about the Smart Cat litter.

  3. Hello Lorna, I’m so grateful to have stumbled upon your comment after so many hours of reading and delving into the research surrounding clay and silica litters!! I am searching for an alternative to the sodium bentonite/clay, and kept returning to Smart Cat – but was price deterred! I was leaning towards the Dr. Elsey’s line, but keep feeling discomfort with the lack of transparency in ingredients (at least online; I’ve not yet seen a bag/box in person to look for it spelled out on the packaging, but I suspect it will be hidden behind the “proprietary blend” or “natural essences” ruse). I’m suspicious of ‘natural’ clumping litters claiming they contain “natural clay” along with (in this case) prairie grass seeds (Dr. Elsey’s Touch of Outdoors); do you have any opinions of the Dr. Elsey’s line? I dislike that the ingredients are not transparently listed, unlike on Smart Cat’s bags…I will move forward with Smart Cat, and I appreciate your many years of heartbreak and hard work trying to find a safe litter for your beloved kitties. I share in your grief for all the special kitty-kids that you are missing!!

  4. Hello Lorna,
    I’m so grateful to have stumbled upon your comment after so many hours of reading and delving into the research surrounding clay and silica litters!! I am searching for an alternative to the sodium bentonite/clay, and kept returning to Smart Cat – but was price deterred! I was leaning towards the Dr. Elsey’s line, but keep feeling discomfort with the lack of transparency in ingredients (at least online; I’ve not yet seen a bag/box in person to look for it spelled out on the packaging, but I suspect it will be hidden behind the “proprietary blend” or “natural essences” ruse). I’m suspicious of ‘natural’ clumping litters claiming they contain “natural clay” along with (in this case) prairie grass seeds (Dr. Elsey’s Touch of Outdoors); do you have any opinions of the Dr. Elsey’s line? I dislike that the ingredients are not transparently listed, unlike on Smart Cat’s bags…I will move forward with Smart Cat, and I appreciate your many years of heartbreak and hard work trying to find a safe litter for your beloved kitties. I share in your grief for all the special kitty-kids that you are missing!!

  5. “The safety of clumping litter is a controversial topic. While there is nothing in the scientific literature documenting the health hazards to cats of clumping litter…” – isn’t this curious? The so called controversy began with an article by Marina McInnis way back in 1995 – an updated version can be found here: http://www.thelighthouseonline.com/articles/clump.html

    She had also posted a debate between medical professionals regarding a suspected case of bentonite poisoning which can be found here: http://www.thelighthouseonline.com/articles/hornfeldt.html

    I wrote an article in late 2011 on the dangers of sodium bentonite clumping cat litter the updated version of which may be found here: http://kapush.org/cat-litter/sodium-bentonite-cat-litter-dangers/

    In 20 years there hasn’t been any ‘scientific study’ on what may happen if sodium bentonite cat litter is ingested by cats or kittens, and anecdotal evidence has been marginalized as … well, anecdotal evidence. Meanwhile, half the market is flooded with sodium bentonite litter endangering the environment (there is scientific evidence for that, thankfully) and cats, with bold faced lies and half-truths on manufacturer websites.

    If I had the means, I would definitely file a law suit against these companies. Unfortunately, most of what I earn is spent on maintaining my own stray animal shelter.

  6. Please don’t flag this comment as spam – I have pointed out exactly what Dr. Elsy’s is doing in my post on Dangers of Sodium Bentonite Cat Litter under the sub-head ‘The number one reason clumping clay litter is considered safe’. I would appreciate your comments on my observation. The url is: http://kapush.org/cat-litter/sodium-bentonite-cat-litter-dangers/

    I just hope the author of this post understands that I am trying to start a discussion without any intention of spamming or hijacking the visitors.

    By the way, Catsens uses Calcium Bentonite clay which they pass off as ‘Canadian Feed Grade Clay’ – that’s how the owner had replied via email upon my asking specifically if they used Sodium Bentonite. I guess he is aware of the stigma associated with the ‘Bentonite’ word and wanted to avoid it altogether.

    Calcium Bentonite, even when not food grade, is actually therapeutic and definitely doesn’t clump. In fact, before the clumping litter was created by Thomas Nelson in 1984 using quartz mixed with baked Sodium Bentonite, most cat litters were made from Calcium Bentonite and / or Fuller’s earth (which is a generic term, really , and may well refer to Calcium Bentonite granules among other, soluble forms of clay).

  7. Sorry, the line should read ‘… the clumping litter was created by Thomas Nelson in 1984 using quartz mixed with DRIED Sodium Bentonite…’ – baked sodium bentonite does not have anywhere near the severe clumping property that the dried (often sun dried) variety has.

  8. No or is not safe , my cat or sick now , vet can’t find anything wrong tests are coming back normal , o bought a new cat litter, new and improved clay clumping. And she got sick soon after , yellow diarrhea , then a tar like diarrhea , I googled can litter make cats sick , and up came a website from a cat breeder that lost kittens , please read , since I have been giving her freshly made chicken broth with slippery elm powder and mineral oil , with a few drops of sardin olive oil , she seems to be feeling better and has been passing clay like loose poop , the problem is , the cats lick their paws and then the clay powder from litter gets into their bodies and forms a clay mass in their intestines , switch to all natural litter even though it costs more or os well worth it , I wish I knew long ago , not sure if she will make it , but I must warn other people .

  9. I will NEVER buy light litter ever again!! We have three cats and one wouldn’t use the box to poop, one would straddle the box so he didn’t deal with the litter, and my favorite girl-cat got SO SICK I thought she was going to DIE. Her tummy swelled up like a football and she had incessant breathing problems that we couldn’t pin down until we went back to regular litter.

    NEVER again!!! PLEASE don’t use this stuff.

  10. I have found that, in wet climates the cat can have wet paws before going into the letterbox, after handling business and covering the mess. My cats paws were filled with cement that she began to lick off her paws. Soon turning into a very painful Urinary Tract Infection and possible stones. I am in the middle of treating her and will keep you posted

  11. My name it’s Yvonne I have 2 cats one has asma and the other had a bladder problem
    Tried a new litter made with walnuts it is a big mess everywhere to clean
    I usually buy tidy cat clumping or scoop away clumping
    What is the vet recommend

  12. About two-weeks after we first started using clumping kitty litter, our thirteen-year-old cat suffered debilitating fits which left him deaf, blind, and walking around in circles. He is on three kinds of medication now: two shots a day for diabetes, two pills a day for seizures, and two treatments a day with a thyroid medication applied to the inside of his ears. How much, if any, of this can be attributed to bentonite in the kitty litter I cannot say. The seizures stopped , whether because of the medication or because we stopped using clumping kitty litter, I cannot say.

  13. I had three cats who were only ever exposed to Scoop Away. Never had an issue. With my fourth cat (who is now 9) I decided to go with a walnut litter. We’ve been using it for a few years and I never really though there was an issue with it. It stained her paws brown after using the box but that’s about it. However, we just took her to the vet because she was vomiting and no BMs (Otherwise acting fine). The X-ray showed her completely compacted with stool with some sort of foreign material interlaced throughout. After two enemas as a result of which only some of the stool passed, we realized the foreign material was the walnut litter. It was also on her paws. She is not eating it but she is licking it off of her paws. The vet is convinced this contributed if not caused the constipation. She would not have passed the stool without medical assistance. So we are switching back to a good clumping litter again.

  14. I have a rabbit who is litter box trained. Rabbits are like cats in many ways except they are not as concerned about burying their mess. But grooming is as big a thing with rabbits as is with cats. It is well known in the rabbit community that clay based litters are lethal to rabbits. Vets with training in rabbit care will confirm this and tell you to use paper or walnut shell litter. The primary cause of death to rabbits is breathing in the clay dust which leads to pneumonia. A secondary cause is ingestion leading to GI stasis. I see know reason why cats would be less susceptible to these ills than rabbits are.

  15. I stopped using the clumping litter when my elderly cat started peeing on herself and it stuck to her fur. I hadn’t researched it at all, but I figured that ingesting it could not possibly be healthy. I bought cheap clay litter and just use a little bit, but I guess I will talk to the vet about that, too. At least I know it won’t stick to her so she won’t be licking it off.

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