Cat Litter Buyer’s Guide
Last Updated by Brandon F. on February 4, 2020
(For a helpful infographic that goes over a lot of this information please click here.)
With all of the choices that one has when searching for the best cat litter for their household, it can be easy to become overwhelmed and confused about the many variables that exist between different products. To help with this challenge, we have created a Cat Litter Buyer’s Guide that will go over the main selling points of cat litters, how they are different, and what sort of things you should be looking for in your next purchase. We hope that our guide, coupled with our vast array of detailed cat litter reviews, will steer you in the right direction when you decide to make your next purchase.
There are many different materials that exist that cat litters can be made out of. To further complicate matters, many litters will even go so far as to combine multiple materials! With all of the choices that exist, it is important to understand the pros and cons of the various types of materials. Due to the sheer quantity of options, we have grouped them into 4 categories. Trust us when we say that this makes it much easier. For instance, there are dozens of different types of clays that are used in cat litter but instead of delving into each individual type of clay we simply create a “clay” category (besides, the specific qualities of each clay are pretty similar).
The four categories that we have created are clay, clay hybrid, crystals, and natural. Each is discussed in greater detail below:
Clay is by far the most common material found in cat litter. There are several different types of clay, but for simplicity purposes we group them into one. Clays are popular for many reasons: they are typically the cheapest, they clump well, they can hold quite a bit of moisture, the material is easily obtainable, and many others. They also have their difficulties: they are heavy, can be dusty, can track easily, can smell bad, and the list goes on. If you are looking for a reliable litter and your top priority is your pocket book then going the conventional clay route may be your best bet.
You can read up on our many clay litter reviews here.
Clay hybrid cat litters stick with the popular and proven clay foundation and then add some extra ingredients to the mix. Oftentimes these ingredients are added to help improve or modify an aspect that clay generally struggles with. Common additives are crystals, plant extracts, and baking soda. Similar to completely clay litters, there is a nice mix of clumping and non-clumping choices. The prices for these typically are a bit higher than complete clay since clay is generally the cheapest part of a cat litter. If you are someone who enjoys the proven ability of clay but are wanting something a bit more potent or unique then a clay hybrid might be something you should look into.
You can check out our listing for reviews off all of the clay hybrids.
Crystals are a very unique offering in that they completely get away from clays or natural products like wood or paper and instead deal with more exotic ingredients like silicon. These litters have very specialized attributes which include being extremely lightweight, being excellent at odor absorption, being able to retain significant amounts of moisture, and being near scentless. This comes at a cost, however (literally): they are typically extremely expensive. Also most do not clump which might be a dealbreaker for some. However, their box life tends to be on the longer side so in the end it might not be as big of a blow on your wallet as you think since you don’t need to replace it as often.
Check out here for a full list of the crystal-based cat litters on the market.
Natural cat litters encompass products that contain primary materials that are biodegradable, eco-friendly, all-natural, recyclable, etc. Common examples of this include wood, plants, corn kernels, wheat, newspaper, and many others. Some of these perform surprisingly well when it comes to odor fighting, fluid absorption, and clumping ability while others can struggle. Part of the selling point of these products is that they are better for the environment and people that have that is one of their top priorities when shopping for a cat litter will likely be willing to take a slight blow on the actual performance in order to meet that objective.
There are tons of really interesting options out there so head over here to read up on what is available.
Level of clumping
“Clumping” simply entails the ability of the litter to encompass cat waste, forming a solid, that can be easily identified and disposed of. While the definition is straightforward enough, there is a huge variance in just how well a litter can do this, and in some cases the litter isn’t designed to clump at all!
If you decide to go with a clumping litter, it is valuable to research which products clump the best. Good clumps will form quickly, stay hard, retain moisture, be able to tackle both feces as well as urine, and encompass the waste using only minimal product so as to maximize how much use you get out of a given cat litter container.
There are also semi-clumping litters (these are oftentimes crystal-based and many of the all-natural products). In these cases the litter material will bind to the cat waste, but it will not form a solid, rock-like clump but rather simply hold the waste in place and help absorb odor. These can be much more difficult to remove.
Finally, there are a lot of non-clumping litters on the market. These are designed to simply mask the cat odor and when the litter box is exhausted (AKA when it starts to smell) you dump out the entire box’s contents and refill. Non-clumping litters are typically lower maintenance and cheaper but can struggle with masking odors and can also not last nearly as long for a given container.
Many people only consider a litter’s ability to mask the smell of cat waste, but oftentimes the litter itself will put out a smell. You’ll see many products being advertised as being “scented”, “non-scented”, “natural scent”, and a host of other descriptions. You would think that the scented would always be the way to go, right? Unfortunately that isn’t always the case.
Many of the “scented” cat litters smell of powerful artificial perfumes that might be more of a turn-off than the cat waste itself! In addition, some of these perfumes put out intense fumes that can actually upset cats and owners who have sensitive smells or allergies. Because of this, it is important to read up on how intense the scented litters really are.
Non-scented or “natural” scent are typically litters that do not use these perfumes and rather embrace the natural litter smell itself. While this minimizes the chance of having to deal with overly perfume-heavy litters, there are some materials that we would rather not wish to smell. Certain types of clay that are used can be quite pungent in of themselves, and can make your house start to smell like a rock quarry after a while. However, many of the natural products (wood-based, plant-based, etc.) put off more pleasant scents since many enjoy the smell of, say, pine trees by themselves. Finally, there are cases such as crystals or any of the silicon-based products that are basically scentless. For some this is the way to go since they prefer not smell at all over the smell of clay or wheat.
Let’s face it: nobody likes to deal with litter boxes. Removing cat waste, dealing with dust, and the many other small headaches can really add up. That is why it is important to consider the messiness levels of a cat litter before purchasing. Being “messy” entails several different ideas: how easy it is to remove clumps, how dusty the product can be, the level of tracking that exists, if there are issues of litter caking on to the side of the box or even your cat itself, how long a litter box lasts before you have to replace it, and the list goes on.
This ideal is quite broad, and even within a certain type of material there can be a lot of variance. However, there do tend to be certain rough norms out there. Most clay-based litters will typically clump quite well (if they are of the clumping variety), but will be quite dusty and also be prone to light tracking. Crystal-based litters typically don’t clump (so there is no concern of making a mess while removing individual pieces of waste), are not very dusty, but can track quite easily due to being lightweight. Natural products such as grass, corn, etc. are also usually not overly dusty and can oftentimes struggle with forming hard clumps, meaning that it is easy to make a mess during litter box maintenance, and they are also notorious for tracking but keep dust levels in check.
That being said, these are generalizations and within each category there are certain products that don’t suffer with common problems and others than suffer with issues that normally aren’t a concern for that type of material.
Essentially, you need to consider how much work you want to put in towards maintaining a clean litter box and what your threshold is in regards to mess levels.
And of course what could be the most important factor, price. No matter if a product meets all of your particular requirements laid out above, if it is too expensive then it might be a no-go from the get-go. There is a rather wide variance on how much cat litters can cost. Variables such as the type of material used, the size of the bag, how established the company is, shipping costs, difficulty in obtaining, and many others play a role in determining this metric.
Since there are different quantities, shapes, and sizes of cat litter containers the easiest way to analyze this is by considering the relative cost in dollars per pound. This puts a 40 pound bag of cat litter on the same level as a 5 pound box. The other important note here is that we are basing these values off of online prices (generally Amazon) with localized shipping cost. You may see some prices and think to yourself, “What a minute! I can buy that in my local grocery store for a lot cheaper!“. And you are probably right. Since cat litter tends to be quite heavy shipping costs play a part. The benefit is that you don’t have to personally drive to the store and lug the heavy bag back home and instead can have it delivered to you, and online will have a much larger selection than any store you come across. The con is that this comes at a price. Only you can decide if the extra cost is worth it. Even if you decide to purchase from the store our reviews still apply and we hope they will guide you in your purchase either way.
Also since prices fluctuate we won’t list specific prices but rather break them down into price categories that you will typically pay. Their may be overlap between some of these but they are a good starting point. We encourage you to do research from potential sellers and go with the option that is the best price for you.
To simplify things, we have broke down the price ranges into three categories: budget, mid, and premium. Their ranges are as follows:
budget: The cheapest option. These will be some of the more affordable litters that you can purchase online.
mid: A step up from budget. Not the cheapest but are noticeably more expensive than an average budget litter.
premium: The highest tier. These will be some of the more expensive litters that you will find online.
Further details of each and links to their respected lists can be found below.
Budget-Priced Cat Litter
The budget-priced cat litters are the cheapest tier that we have. They are typically clay-based and come from larger, more-established companies that can afford to drive down the price. There is a variety of clumping and non-clumping options. While there are reasonably-priced, many of these litters still perform extremely well. They might not have some of the more unique attributes that litters with more exotic materials have, but they still can get the job done with a lot less impact on your wallet.
Check out all of our budget-priced cat litter reviews here.
Mid-Priced Cat Litter
The mid-priced cat litter tier is for products that are a step up in price from the budget line. At this price we start to see other materials mixed in with clays and even some non-clay litters. There are more eco-friendly options at this level as well. Most of these litters clump in some form and some of the more specialized features so as hypoallergenic and flushable come into play. If you are willing to spend a bit more there are some great-performing litters in this category, especially for multi-cat and sensitive cat households.
Head on over to our extensive list of mid-priced litter reviews located here.
Premium-Priced Cat Litter
The premium-priced cat litter tier is for those products that are the most expensive available online. These litters can be made of all sorts of materials such as crystals, silicon, pine, etc., and quite a few are intended for special circumstances such as cats that might have breathing difficulties or long-haired types. You will almost exclusively find litters that have some sort of clumping feature or a more advanced odor-elimination process, and many of these will be offered by smaller companies that you might not find in the budget offerings. You don’t have to spend this kind of money for a great litter, but for those willing to open up their wallet they will enjoy certain aspects you can’t find in cheaper tiers.
You can read up on all the different premium-priced litter options here.
As you can see there are a lot of factors to consider when researching your next cat litter purchase. In fact, there are many more smaller ones but we didn’t want to write a novel! Look through these topics and decide how important they are and what sort of goals you want each to achieve. Finally, set a budget in your mind of how much you would like to spend, bearing in mind that a more expensive, clumping litter might actually last a lot longer than a bag of cheap, non-clumping litter. And finally, purchase a few and see which ones work best for you and your cat. Finding the right cat litter is a process, and it might take a few trials to get it right.
…and of course, check out our many reviews to help in narrowing down your choices before your next purchase!