Who would have ever thought that cat litter would be available in so many different varieties, scents, strengths and styles?

Before 1947, most indoor cats had litter boxes that were filled with sand, dirt or ashes. You can imagine the mess made by a cat exiting a litter box full of ash, then tracking it through the house. One cat owner, who had grown tired of this housekeeping nightmare, had a neighbor (whose family owned an industrial absorbents company) who convinced her to try an absorbent clay material. She was so pleased with the results, she came back for more.

The neighbor, realizing other cat owners might be interested, packaged the clay material and began selling it. He called it Kitty Litter and until 1990 Edward Lowe Industries was the largest producer of cat box filler in the United States.

In the 1980s a cat-loving biochemist, Thomas Nelson, began studying the various types of clay litter. He realized certain kinds of clay absorbed moisture more effectively and formed an easily removable clump when cats urinated on them. Hence, the creation of the clumping cat litters more than 60 percent of cat owners use today. However in the 1990s, an article appeared in a cat magazine claiming that scoopable clay litter was dangerous for felines, especially kittens. The article claimed that if the dust was inhaled or litter ingested that respiratory or intestinal illness, even death, could occur.

According to the ASPCA, “there has been no proof of claims of problems (with clumping clay cat litter) reported in any scientific literature.” They do state that, as an extra precaution, you may wish to postpone the introduction of clumping litter for kittens that are being weaned as they have a tendency to eat the litter when they are introduced to it. They also advise that cats older than three to four months who are observed eating litter should be taken to their veterinarian because this may be a sign of a dietary deficiency.

In addition, animals ingesting large amounts of cat litter (such as dogs that “clean out” the litter box) could experience stomach upset, constipation or an intestinal blockage requiring urgent medical attention.

Despite the fact that there is no scientific proof of trouble with clumping clay cat litter, there are numerous companies that have created plant-based alternatives. Not only do they avoid the asserted danger of clumping clay litter, they also claim to be more “eco-friendly” than traditional clay litter, which usually end up in the landfills.

There are now litters made of materials ranging from corn cobs to orange peels and peanut shells to wheat. Wood-based products claim to have natural odor controlling ability and some paper-based litters claim to track less. One of the most recent additions to the cat litter options is that of silica litter or “crystals.” This type of cat litter uses silica gel crystals that absorb urine, trapping the odor while it allows the moisture to evaporate. They are more expensive, but claim to last longer.

As the parent of a male cat that has suffered a urinary tract blockage (which can quickly become life threatening), I was pleased to find there are even cat litters that help monitor your feline’s urinary tract health. Hemalert, one such cat litter, detects blood in the urine. Another, from Pet Ecology Brands Inc., tests the pH in the cat’s urine for unusually high alkalinity levels that can lead to the formation of struvite crystals in the cat’s bladder. Struvite crystals are one of the leading causes of urinary tract blockage in cats.

Despite the array of cat litters available and their marketed benefits to the humans who select them, we must keep in mind the ultimate purpose of any cat litter we choose. That is, to provide an acceptable place for our indoor feline family members to do their necessary business. Keeping this in mind, it is important to consider the results of several studies conducted where cats were given a wide assortment of litters to choose from. The studies concluded that most cats prefer fine-grained clumping litter that is not scented.

If you decide to introduce a new litter, remember to do so gradually. Either place the new litter in a completely separate litter box adjacent to the current box or mix the new litter in with the old in gradually increasing amounts to allow your cat to adjust. Regardless of what litter you choose, your cat will make the ultimate decision. Based on experience, I would take note of his or her preference.