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Cat litter comes in many different styles

Choosing a cat litter might not seem like a big deal at first glance; after all, you're just filling up the litter box so a cat can do its business -- right? But most cat owners, as well as cat experts, cannot stress enough the importance of choosing the right cat litter for your pet. There are many different types of cat litter, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as concerns regarding cats' health or the environment. Also, keep in mind that a cat can be a stubborn beast; once it gets used to one type of litter, it may not want to switch.

Cat litter absorbs urine and covers solid wastes from when your cat uses the bathroom -- i.e., the litter box. Cat litter can be separated into two main categories: clumping and non-clumping. Clumping kitty litter hardens on contact with urine, creating solid -- and aptly named -- clumps. This makes it easy for pet owners to scoop out the wastes. Non-clumping cat litter typically absorbs the liquid wastes, which don't need to be scooped out -- but an obvious disadvantage of non-clumping litters is that they can make a litter box harder to clean. You should always scoop out solid wastes daily for both types of cat litter.

The most popular types of kitty litter are clumping clay litters, one reason being the price; they're drastically less expensive than many of the other types available, such as natural, biodegradable cat litter. Most are effective at controlling odors -- a key concern when choosing a litter -- and they make cleaning out the litter box much more painless. However, most consist of fine-grained clays, which can be dusty or even tracked throughout the house by a cat. Fine-grained cat litter isn't appropriate for kittens under 3 months old, as the small particles can get into their respiratory tract. Clay-based cat litter isn't biodegradable and should never, ever be flushed down the toilet for disposal.

There has been much furor raised by suspicious pet owners over clumping clay litters. This is because they use a chemical called sodium bentonite as the clumping agent, which is suspected to have adverse health effects on cats. But these claims -- according to myriad feline-health professionals -- are largely unfounded. Jacque Lynn Schultz, an adviser at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), debunks this notion in an article posted on Petfinder.com, citing the director of Cornell University's Feline Health Center, who says he has seen no adverse health impact on cats from using clumping clay litters.

Over the past few years, organic, biodegradable cat litters have become increasingly popular, as they have certain advantages over clumping clay litters. For one, they're more eco-friendly, as they're made from all-natural cat litter substances , which can include materials like wheat, corn, pine or even recycled newspapers. Because of this, they are flushable and can even be composted. Another plus is that biodegradable cat litter typically consists of larger-grained pellets, which in turn makes for acceptable kitten litter, since kittens can't ingest the particles. Many biodegradable cat litters come in clumping varieties -- though you can expect to spend a lot more on a clumping organic litter than you would on a clumping clay litter.

Less reviewed are crystal cat litters. Cat owners praise this type of litter in user reviews on online retailer sites, but experts typically dislike crystal cat litters because they consist of jagged, crystalline particles that can be rough on cats' feet. On the other hand, many pet owners swear by crystal cat litters because they're extremely absorbent -- thanks to the sodium silicate or silica gel used -- and don't need to be changed as frequently as other types of kitty litter. One caveat: When the crystals reach their absorbency limit, you can expect a pool of urine in the bottom of the cat litter box.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has not been a methodical, scientific, side-by-side comparison test of cat litter in nearly 20 years. In 1990, animal behaviorist Dr. Peter Borchelt compared 14 types of commercial cat litter, as well as topsoil mixed with clay litter and playbox sand, in three 10-day tests. However, his investigation was aimed at determining which types of litter cats prefer, rather than naming the best individual brands. ConsumerReports.org, which shines in so many other product categories, has never conducted a comparative roundup of cat litter.

You might ask: If there's so little information available, how can I find the best cat litter for my cat? That's where we come in. ConsumerSearch gathers and analyzes both expert and user reviews from all over the web, naming top picks. We identify the best cat litters by type -- clumping clay, biodegradable and crystal -- as well as clumping biodegradable options and alternatives for cats with special needs. Editors break down cat litters by their effectiveness, environment factors and value; top picks earn Best Reviewed status.

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