what is cat litter made of

What Is Cat Litter Made of and Why Should You Care?

In this article we will thoroughly examine how cat litter is made and what ingredients are used. The reason we think it is important to know about the various litter types, is so as you can make the best decision for the health of your cat, and also for the safety of your home.

Most cat litters used today, and that includes both clumping and non-clumping cat litters are made from clay. There are also silica gel types of cat litter, and you can also buy what are called natural or biodegradable cat litters. We shall examine all of those cat litters in detail in this article.​

Many people don't realize that before the 1950's cat litter simply did not exist. Prior to the 1950's those with domestic cats used a variety of materials such as ashes from the fire, crumpled newspaper, corn husks, sawdust, rice hulls, corn cob granules, dirt and really anything that would absorb urine, and help counteract the smell.

The first commercial cat litter was invented in 1947 and was made by a man called Edward Lowe from Michigan USA.

He started selling a type of absorbent clay known as "Fuller's Earth." He eventually packaged it in 5 lb bags and called it "Kitty Litter." He then founded a company called Edward Lowe Industries in 1964 and sold cat box filler, known as Tidy Cat.

So really, cat litter is not really an old product as it has only been sold on a commercial basis for less than a hundred years. These days however there are quite a few different types available.

Cat Litter & Domesticated Cats

For years and years and for at least 9,000 years cats simply ran wild. People were happy to let them do so as they were very good at controlling rodents.

Rats and mice are no friends of grain crops and grain stores, and so those who worked the land were more than happy to let them use their hunting skills.

The first sense of them being treated as domestic animals was when farmers gave them treats and rewards for keeping the rodents under control.

There is only really best guess work to know exactly when that started. Archaeologists have found some evidence that cats in the country of Cyprus had owners some 9,500 years ago.

The First Real Cat Litter - Cat Litter Sand

Commercial cat litter was created back in 1947 as I have mentioned above. Until that date cat owners used mainly ordinary dirt and sand.

The main problem with those was that they did little or nothing to absorb the smell, and only partially absorbed urine. It also meant that the cat's paws were dirty, and that in turn, got walked through the home.

Sand was used regularly for cat litter. In fact if a cat finds a sand pit in your garden, it will not think twice about doing its business there.

That is why it is important to always cover a sand pit when not in use. That will help keep children safer as you do not want them touching cat urine or cat poop.

So the first attempt at cat litter was to use an absorbent clay which was better than anything that had been used before. Manufacturers have since then tried to make many improvements, some successful and some not. That is what we will look at down below.

What Ingredients Are Found in Cat Litter?

These days clay is the most commonly used material for cat litter. When I refer to clay, it is not in the true sense of the word.

So although the litter is actually a clay, it has been granulated, and only clumps like clay again when it comes into contact with moisture. It is however a completely natural product.

Different types of clay are used, but the two most popular are calcium and sodium bentonite. There are also a few other clays such as attapulgites, kaolins, and opal clay mixtures.

The main purpose of all of these clay types is to make sure that they absorb animal urine, and help to cover the fecal waste and help reduce any odors. Clearly those are three key requirements for any type of cat litter.

There are also silica gel clay litters and these are made from small crystal like pieces of silica. We will explain those in detail later in this article.

Finally there are also natural or biodegradable types of cat litter. These can use different ingredients such as corn husks, recycled shredded paper and even straw. Again we discuss these in more detail later.

What Types of Cat Litter Are Available?

We shall look at each of them just below, so as you know what is exactly inside them, and what ingredients they contain.

What Ingredients are Inside Clay Litters?

There are two main types of clay definition used in cat litter. The clay can be classed as either clumping or non-clumping.

All that means is that when a cat passes urine on top of the clay, one clay will not form clumps and the other one will. Either type of clay will absorb most of the urine.

With the non clumping, the remainder of the urine sits on top of the clay, and will eventually be slowly absorbed.

With the clumping clay, most of the urine is absorbed, and the remainder on top forms small clumps.

Those lumps can then be removed with a scoop and that means that the smell can be reduced. Cat urine is very strong, and if left will create ammonia gas, which is very smelly, especially inside the home.

Type 1 - Clumping Cat Litters

Clays such as sodium bentonite are classed as gelling clays. This simply means that the clay helps form a clump when it comes into contact with cat urine.

This clump can then be simply scooped out to prevent any urine odor build up.

This also means that you do not need to change all of the litter in the box, as you simply have to remove the clumps, and replace those with fresh cat litter.

It is estimated that this type of cat litter represent about half of all cat litter product sales.

clumping cat litter

These clumping style clays were invented in the UK using calcium bentonite. This was then improved around 1984 by a biochemist called Thomas Nelson in the USA. This was when granulated bentonite clays were first used.

Along with the clay, clumping litter may also contain quartz or diatomaceous earth. These are natural rock that can be easily crumbled into dust. This dust is very good at absorbing moisture and liquids, and that is why that is often added.

It is also used in products like toothpaste, polish, bonzai tree soil, packaging and as thermal insulators. It has a slight abrasive feel to it. Not all manufacturers use this quartz or earth, but some do.

Now some cat litter contains a controversial ingredient known as crystalline silica, also known as silica dust.

In some countries and USA states that is known as a carcinogen (cancer causing) product. These are small beads used most often in packaging to absorb moisture. They are a natural product but often manufacturers can add other elements to them.

When that happens the packets normally have a clear warning on them that the user should not eat the contents. This silica is used because it once again is very good at absorbing liquid.

In addition to that it is odorless and non-tracking. The controversy comes mainly from cat litter companies who do not use it in their products.

Type 2 - Non Clumping Clay Litters

We mentioned at the beginning, that the first cat litter was made from Fuller's Earth. This is a non clumping clay, but it is still a great deal better than sand or ashes.

They can be called non-gelling clays, and also called non-clumping litters. These do absorb the urine but do not make it clump. As a result only the feces can be scooped out.

These non-clumping litters do not last long as the odor builds up quickly, because there are no clumps to remove. They need to be regularly replaced with fresh litter when the odor becomes too strong.

non clumping cat litter

Non clumping cat litter is usually made from zeolite, sepiolite and diatomite

The same rule of regular cleaning applies to any other type of cat litter made from anything else other than clumping or gel clays.

No 3 Type - Silica Gel Crystal Cat Litter

The key benefits of these are that they are without any doubt the most absorbent of all of the litter types.

They also offer the complete elimination of all odors. For one cat, a litter like this is good for around 25-30 days, before it will need to be changed.

This type of litter does not need to be scooped out and only needs to be changed and replaced when the white crystals start to turn to a light yellow color.

silica gel cat litter

A cat owner will use around 5 lbs of silica gel litter in a month, compared to a lumping litter which would need around 25 pounds of litter, as you constantly have to remove the lumps of litter.

It has quite a number of advantages such as drying out solid waste, being super absorbent and eliminating odors. It is extremely low on dust, but there is still some. This litter is also very soft on the cat's paws.

This type of litter is also referred to as micro crystal, pearl and gel. These are all slight variations, but do a similar job. The micro crystals are smaller pieces than the pearls.

The big draw back for some cat owners is the rumors about these being carcinogenic. Some of the manufacturers state that their brands do not have this problem.

It is worth pointing out that silica gel is not the same thing as crystalline silica, that we mentioned earlier. These two terms often get mixed up.

Long term exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Silica gel crystals used in these types of cat litter are completely different and do not cause silicosis and are safe for cats and humans.

Type 4 -  Natural or Biodegradable Cat Litters

These are made from a range of plant type materials. There are many different types like recycled newspapers, pine wood pellets, sawdust, corn, wheat etc.

Those cat owners who also care for the environment will pay a little extra and use this. It helps prevent filling up land fill waste areas with thousands of tons of cat litter.

These litters are less dusty as well and can also be used for composting the garden. They can also be flushed away, unlike the lumping cat litters.

biodegradable cat litter

They are however too expensive for some cat owners. If they could be made cheaper, then in the US alone it would stop 2 million tons of cat litter being dumped into landfills.

Any cat with asthma, or diagnosed with a respiratory problem and even kittens are better off with this type of litter, simply because there is less dust for them to inhale.

Disadvantages of Clay Litters

Although these absorb urine they only really absorb that on the surface of the clay. So in essence the urine rests there. The odors produced from urine and fecal deposits produce gas which has a very strong odor.

In particular ammonia is released if left too long, and that is particularly smelly. These gases get released into the air, and as they say, can get right up our noses.

To counteract that odor problem, manufacturers may also introduce a fragrance to help reduce the odor and replace it with something more pleasant. some use fragrant oils some use a silica gel and some use crystal beads.

It is worth pointing out though that these simply disguise the smell rather than do anything to absorb it.

Many cat owners state that this combined smell can actually smell worse than the urine smell itself. That is of course a matter of personal opinion.

Different approaches have been tried including germicides in the form of a spray. Others have tried fungal growth inhibitors, buffering agents and more.

To date none of these have proved to be effective in preventing the odorous substances from cat waste.

Some manufacturers in the US have used zeolites to absorb these smelly gases. Although these work much better, they are also much more expensive to produce.

A few manufacturers have even gone as far as to produce cat litter boxes with a housing and exhaust fan to help eliminate the odors.

Which Cat Litter Should You Pick?

As you can see, there are a number of choices that any cat owner can make. Believe it or not each cat will have its own preference of litter type, and you may have to try a few to see which one it likes the best. 

The other factor that will determine your choice is of course the cost. Owning a pet of any kind comes with an expense.

Vet costs and food costs can very quickly add up. A litter box filled with litter is after all simply a toilet for your kitten, cat or cats.

It is an expense that you pay to keep your home clean, and keep your cat safe. It is worth a little thought though to make sure you get the right one that suits your cat.

It is also important to have one that keeps any smells to an absolute minimum. Hopefully you are now much better informed as to what a cat litter is made from, and why it matters.

Other Considerations for Cat Litter Ingredients and Uses

There is of course the obvious use of it being used as a cat litter. However there are a couple of other interesting uses for any cat litter. I have shown these below and they may surprise you.

  • Cleaning oil or gas spills in a driveway
  • General cleaning up of spills
  • Combating Humidity and Condensation

Cleaning Oil Spills

If your car has ever leaked oil or gas in a driveway, then that can be a horrible thing to clean up. A simple way is to spread some cat litter over the oil spill, give it a few minutes to absorb the oil or gas, and then just sweep it up. The clumping type of litter is the best for doing that.

Cleaning Up Spills

Likewise if you have any big spills such as a water spill, even a paint spill, using cat litter to absorb this is a great idea. You will know if you try to brush materials like oil or paint, you actually make matters worse.

By spreading on some cat litter, you can quickly absorb the mess, let it harden and then brush it up.

Combating Humidity and Condensation

If you have a damp basement, cat litter does a great job at absorbing the moisture in the air. The same applies to any area where there is a lot of humidity.

So if you think of closets and garages you will get the idea of what I mean. Some cat litter in an open container does a great job at absorbing moisture. It is also cheaper and easier to manage than buying a dehumidifier.

External Resources Used in this Article


Steve is a content creator with an unhealthy cat obsession. He enjoys reading non-fiction books, entreprenuership and cuddles with his cat Fij.

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