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Litter Box 101: What Type of Litter is Best for Your Cat

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: December 7, 2017

Updated: November 19, 2022

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best litter for catsIt seems like a new cat litter comes out every day. And while it’s good to have some choice in the type of litter you get for your cat, too much choice can easily feel overwhelming.

And though every household is different and every cat can have their own needs and preferences, there are some general “rules of thumb” when it comes to the best litters for cats.

This article will help you cut through all the fancy packaging and marketing to find the right litter for your cat. Doing so won’t just make them happier; finding the right litter can also make it more likely that your cat will reliably use their litter boxes, which should also make you happier!

The Type of Litter Most Cats Prefer

While every cat can be different, studies have shown us that cats tend to have certain “universal” preferences when it comes to litter. Here are two things that we know generally about cats and their litter preferences:

  • Smaller Litter Particles: Cats tend to prefer fine particle litters, as opposed to pellet and crystal-type ones. It makes sense, of course, given that cats were originally desert-dwelling animals that buried their waste in the sand. Not to mention that finer particles feel better on their paws. I mean, would you rather walk barefoot on a rocky beach or a soft, white, sandy one? Similarly, your cat will probably prefer fine particle, clumping clay litters.

  • Odor-Free: Cats tend to prefer unscented litters to scented ones. Your cat’s nose and sense of smell are quite a bit more fine-tuned than yours (fun fact: it’s even more sensitive than some dog breeds!). So, to play it safe, you should resist the urge to get a scented litter, whether that’s a flowery scent or any other kind. Opt for unscented litter instead. If you’re worried an unscented litter will result in a wafting plume of kitty stink, don’t worry — here are “7 Ways to Reduce Litter Box Smell (and Messes).”

The Type of Litter Most People Prefer

So, your cat is most likely to prefer an unscented, fine particle, clumping clay litter. Fortunately, there is no shortage of those to choose from. And now that you’ve got an idea for what’s most likely to make your cat happy, you can consider the qualities in a litter that will keep you happy, too.

  • Fast and hard clumping: This will help minimize messes and make it easier for you to scoop/clean, not to mention minimizing the chances that urine-soaked clumps of litter will stick to your cat’s paws or tail.

  • Odor absorbent: Nobody likes the smell of cat pee or poo! Except maybe your dog? Baking soda or activated charcoal can be added around the litter box or directly to the cat litter — either manufactured into the litter itself or added by you after the fact. This can help keep ammonia and other litter box odors in check.

  • Low dust: This isn’t just important to keep your floors, furniture, and electronics free from a fine layer of litter dust, it’s also important for keeping your and your cat’s lungs clean. And that last part is especially important if you, your cat, or anybody else in your home has asthma (see more about that below).

  • Low tracking: It’s safe to say that you want your cat’s litter to stay in their box and not get tracked around the home. You should be able to find an anti-track litter that suits your cat’s needs and your own. Even if you can’t, there are a number of anti-tracking cat litter mats on the market that will keep the litter where it’s meant to be. Here’s our recommended anti-litter tracking mat:

Smiling Paws Pets Cat Litter Mat

My Recommended Litters

So, given what’s likely to be favored by your cat and what’s likely to be important to you, here’s what I typically recommend as some of the best cat litters out there for general use:

Clay, Low-Dust Litters

Boxiecat All Natural Scent Free Clumping Cat Litter
Boxiecat All Natural Scent Free Clumping Cat Litter

Dr. Elsey's Low Tracking Unscented Multi-Cat Strength Litter
Dr. Elsey's Low Tracking Unscented Multi-Cat Strength Litter

Non-Clay, Low-Dust Litters

Try one of these litters if your cat doesn’t like clay, or you can’t handle any clay dust

World's Best All Natural Clumping Cat Litter
World's Best All Natural Clumping Cat Litter

Swheat Scoop All Natural Cat Litter
Swheat Scoop All Natural Cat Litter

Litters for Cats (and People) With Special Needs

Some cats, and even their people, will require special litter. This is particularly true if your cat or anyone in your home has a breathing condition like asthma, but there are other conditions and living situations that will necessitate special litter. Below are three common conditions/scenarios where special litter might be needed.

Best Litters for Cats with Asthma

Anything that irritates an asthmatic cat's lungs can bring on or worsen an asthma attack. Unfortunately, litter dust — whether clay or otherwise — can be a potent respiratory irritant for cats. So, for cats with asthma, it's a good idea to go with a litter that is as "low-dust" as possible. The litters linked below typically fit that bill, while also having some of the other characteristics of litter that both you and your cat will like.

Dr. Elsey's Respiratory Relief Cat Litter
Dr. Elseys Respiratory Relief Cat Litter

Yesterday's News Unscented Paper Cat Litter
Yesterdays News Unscented Paper Cat Litter

sWeat Scoop, World's Best Cat Litter Clumping Formula, and Boxiecat (all shown above) are also great litter options for cats suffering from asthma or respiratory issues.

Best Litter for Cats Recovering From Surgery

If your cat is recovering from surgery and they have sutures ("stitches") or surgical staples in their skin, or if your cat has on a cast, splint, or bandage, or if they have an open wound or a surgical drain, it's important to prevent litter from getting stuck and built up in these sites. Because of this, it's often best to switch to a paper-based cat litter, like Yesterday's News, until your cat is fully healed. These are less likely to cause problems for these cats. If your cat doesn't take immediately to this new, temporary litter, you could try adding a little bit of the "Cat Attract" litter additive discussed and linked in the section below.

Best Litter for Cats That Need Help Learning (or Remembering!) to Use Their Litter Box

Sometimes a new kitten might need a guide map — or, more specifically, a guide scent — to find and know to do their business in their litter boxes. And this may be especially true in households without any other adult cats to show the new kitten the "ropes" of their litter boxes. For these guys, using a cat attractant litter or litter additive like the ones linked below can sometimes help.

And it's not just young kittens that can benefit from these attractant litters and additives... adult or senior cats who start going outside of their boxes can sometimes benefit from them, too. (Just realize that there are often multiple things going on in a litter-trained cat that suddenly stops using their boxes — check out some of the additional articles listed below for more help on that issue.)

Dr. Elsey's Low Tracking Unscented Multi-Cat Strength Litter
Dr. Elsey's Low Tracking Unscented Multi-Cat Strength Litter

Dr. Elsey's Cat Litter Attractant
Dr. Elsey's Cat Litter Attractant

I hope this helps you find the best litter for you and your cat. I’d love to know what you think and what litter you use with your cats. What has worked well for you, and what hasn’t? Please share your litter experiences in the comments section below.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.