Wood-based, corn kernel-based, hemp-based, crystal…

Pet litter has come a long way since people were advised to use old newspaper. But not all products meet the requirements of pets and their owners.

Indoor toileting

The variety of species kept as pets, pet thefts and increased road traffic, plus increased urban living, mean that an indoor pet lifestyle is now more common. By 2014, 70% of cats were kept indoors in the US, for example, with current ownership figures totalling around 60 million cats. Other pets such as ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, even reptiles, can be trained to use toilet areas within the home.

Convenience vs health vs sustainability

Dogs can usually be taken outside, but that is not always easy with a puppy. Traditional single-use absorbent puppy pads often contain plastics. Indoor pet toilet grass, lined with artificial turf and absorbent pads, provide a simple to locate platform, that is easily taught and reusable.

Cats are fastidiously clean, and can be fussy about litter. Scented/deodourised litters may put cats off, even though they prevent smells. Conventional
silica and wood pellets remain popular but are bulky and heavy. Lightweight litters can be kicked out of trays, causing mess. Newer ‘crystal’ litters absorb urine while dehydrating solid waste, and are supposedly five times more effective at reducing odours than clay versions. But are they good for the environment?

The risk of a pet consuming litter may also cause customers to seek safer, natural alternatives. Corn kernel-based litter helps to reduce dust. Hemp-based natural litter is suitable for cats, other small pets and birds, can be composted, is pH neutral and is good for allergies. Wood-based litter may come from managed forests.

Species-related needs

Some reptiles like to burrow, others to bask, but their litter must be suitable for hygienic care too. Products like pine shavings can be toxic for reptiles. 

Certain species prefer sand, alfalfa meal or washable ‘reptile carpet’. Ferrets tend to ‘snorkel’, poking their faces into litter. Rabbits are often given paper pellets, straw pelleted wheat or highly absorbent minerals such as bentonite. 

Time-saving innovations 

Pet waste bins allow quick disposal, with film bags sealing odours and bacteria inside. This reduces trips to the dustbin but means using non-biodegradable plastic.

Self-cleaning litter trays are excellent time-savers. ‘Rolling’ ones have curved covers that allow the user to tip them, sorting the soiled litter into a side tray and keeping some granules for reuse. Motorised versions employ rollers that dispose of the soiled surface of litter into a tray below. For dogs, ‘conveyor belt’ systems simply roll away waste, leaving a clean and ready-to-use surface again.

Human requirements or pet needs?

Human goals for pet litter are convenience, hygiene, odour control and easy disposal, but these may not meet the pet’s natural comfort and welfare needs nor help the ecosystem. An environment should be suitable for a pet rather than focussing on human requirements, so education is needed regarding species-suitable products.


Karen Wild

Dog trainer and pet behaviourist