Litter is a necessary fixture in any cat owner’s home, and socially conscious consumers are reveling in the number of natural litters available on the market today. But while these litters may be more environmentally friendly than traditional options, manufacturers caution that cat owners shouldn’t fully embrace any product that calls itself natural without first reading the label—even natural products can contain harmful ingredients.
“Natural cat litter is made only from ingredients that are found in our environment, without adding any artificial chemicals or fragrances,” explains Jack Drasner, project manager for Simply Pine. “There is also an expectation of the term ‘natural’ that means it is safe for the pet and the environment. There are many plants that are found in our environment, but not all of them are safe.”
Manufacturers are using ingredients like paper and plant matter to develop products that fall under the natural category, so many are either made from biodegradable materials, are biodegradable/compostable, or both, giving consumers a wide array of choices.
Why Natural, Why Now?
Natural cat litters are another in a long line of products on retailers’ shelves that are good for pets, good for the environment, and even good for consumers’ wallets. Cat owners want products that work well and are cost-efficient, and manufacturers are stepping in to meet those needs. “The natural category continues to grow because of product performance,” says Marty Phelan, partner at BPV Environmental, whose Fresh News cat litter line is made from 100-percent post-consumer biodegradable recycled paper. “Many price-conscious consumers focus on the lower price point per pound of clay litters, and they don’t think about the number of litter pan fills they get from one product versus another. You use litter by volume, not by weight, so that’s how you should look at cost. Sometimes, a more expensive product works out cheaper in the long run.”
Most litters made largely from paper or plant/vegetable matter tends to be cleaner—less dust and tracking—and require less maintenance than clay-based products, so cats get more use out of the litter and their owners have to change the box less frequently. Typically, most natural litters must only be changed daily; many clay-based products must be changed several times a day.
“Our litter will last four to six weeks for one cat, provided the litter box is kept clean,” says Stan Yamamoto, CEO of NextGen Pet, which offers a lineup of litters made from wood and green tea leaves. This means an average bag of natural litter will last a little over a month.
Sensing the Differences
There are a few key sensory differences between the clay-based and alternative litters, with texture being one of the biggest.
“Cats can tell the texture differences,” Phelan says. “Our original formula is pelleted and our crumbled texture is more like clay, but softer. It sometimes takes pets awhile to get used to the different textures, but once they do, homeowners are rewarded with a much cleaner litter box area.”
Like humans, cats dislike change, so owners should be aware of this when switching products. It may help to ease them in slowly, suggests Yamamoto. “It may be more difficult to transition older cats that have used clay litters for years,” he says. “But some of our customers have had success transitioning cats by slowly mixing in our new litter in with the old litter, increasing the percentage of new litter every week.”
Odor is another concern for cat owners, and the success of products in the litter category is often determined by their ability to not just mask odors, but absorb and eliminate them completely. A product’s odor absorption capabilities lie in its ingredients—some materials like paper, plant and vegetable matter, and certain types of wood, are naturally more absorbent, while additives like baking soda and green tea (which contains a chemical called catechin) are natural deodorizers and are very effective at suppressing offensive bacteria.
Read All About It
From a retailers’ standpoint, manufacturers stress the importance of consumer education when shopping. Overall, consumers are more knowledgeable about natural pet products than they were even five years ago, but it’s important that retailers stay as informed with new product launches or changes to existing products simply to help consumers buy the right product. “Over our seven years in business, we have continued to see a growing demand for our products as more and more consumers learn about the natural alternatives to cat litter,” Yamamoto says. “Education plays a big role in the sales of our products. If the consumers take the time to learn about the benefits of natural cat litter, they find that natural litters perform as well as or better than our clay competitors.”
Encouraging cat owners to read product labels and learn the common ingredients found in most natural litters can assist cat owners with buying decisions. How can a consumer tell that a product is as natural as the packaging claims? According to Drasner, it’s pretty simple. “Look for fewer ingredients,” he says.
Also pay attention to whether or not the product contains artificial fragrances. “People may like the smell of strong fragrances, but cats have more sensitive noses,” Yamamoto cautions.
“We do not put any chemicals or deodorants in our litters,” says Gina Zaro, marketing director for Precious Cat. Instead, the company uses a natural, non-toxic herbal attractant especially designed for cats with inappropriate elimination issues, so they are attracted back to their litter boxes.
Let the Owner Decide
For basic inventory purposes, stock the newer products on the shelf at eye level so they catch customers’ attention right away—they may read the label and try the product out of sheer interest to find out if the product delivers on what the package says.
However, one of the best ways a retailer can educate a consumer on the differences between litters—whether natural versus natural, or natural versus clay—is to provide them with samples of various brands. “Consumers are very sensory. Many of our retailers have found that a small display box with a sample of the litter for the customer to see, feel and smell helps them understand the product better,” Yamamoto says. “Regardless of which natural cat litter you decide to use in your home, making the decision to switch helps limit the amount of waste you produce in your home and helps to create a better future for us all.”