When comparing clay vs paper cat litter, paper litter has an advantage in health, environmental impact, and mess. While clay litter has a small advantage in cost and odor control.
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Health Effects of Paper vs Clay Cat Litter
As pet parents continue to become more savvy, clay cat litter has become an increasingly less popular choice.
And rightfully so.
Crystalline silica, an ingredient commonly found in clay litter, is classified as a human lung carcinogen when inhaled. It’s safe to assume that it would be equally, if not more harmful to a cat’s smaller lungs. Smaller lungs that routinely breathe in litter dust at close proximity multiple times per day.
Synthetic fragrances often found in clay litter are also irritating to cats, and sometimes potentially harmful. Many commonly used artificial fragrances have inconclusive or questionable health effects for cats long term, with a glaring lack of impartial testing. Even if we assume that they’re not harmful, they can certainly be irritating to cats, whose senses of smell are about 14 times stronger than that of a human.
If that’s not enough, sodium bentonite, the clumping agent found in many clay litters, is often ingested during grooming or by curious kittens. When wet, sodium bentonite can swell up to 15 times its original size. Which is great for clumping, but absolutely terrible for the inside of a cat’s stomach.
Every time your cat uses a clay litter box they breathe in litter dust, placing them at risk for respiratory issues, and ingest sodium bentonite, placing them at risk for bowel obstruction and other GI issues.
Is it worth the risk?
Paper litter, on the other hand, is among the healthiest litter varieties — being all-natural, and most often with no potentially harmful additives, synthetic fragrances, or harsh clumping agents. Paper litter is safe for kittens, cats recovering from surgery, cats who suffer from chronic wounds or infections, and other at-risk cats.
When it comes to the environmental impact of cat litter, clay is by far the worst offender.
Most clay litter is made of bentonite, zeolite, diatomite, or sepiolite — all of which are nonrenewable resources.
These clays are harvested through a process called strip mining, in which huge layers of soil and rock are scraped away to expose layers of mineral underneath.
The process itself is extremely harmful, causing irreversible damage to ecosystems, polluting nearby waterways, and leaving permanent scarring on landscapes. And that’s not to mention the amount of fuel required for the heavy machinery used to move and transport such massive amounts of earth.
But the damage doesn’t end with production. Clay litter isn’t biodegradable either, meaning every bit that’s sent to a landfill will remain there basically forever. It’s estimated that nearly 3 million tons (yes tons) of cat litter end up in landfills annually, with amounts continuing to rise year over year.
Paper pellets, on the other hand, are made from renewable resources — most often recycled paper or reclaimed lumber. This means that no new trees are cut down for production. It also means that paper pellets are both biodegradable and compostable, helping to reduce the amount of waste clogging our landfills.
Paper litter is an eco-friendly, sustainable choice.
Neither is Great at Controlling Odor
Clay litters generally try to control odor by overpowering them with artificial fragrances. Even outside of potential health concerns, this approach has its downsides.
First, it usually just smells kind of gross anyway — like whatever artificial scent with a side of ammonia.
And second, your cat probably hates it.
Unfortunately, paper litter isn’t exactly known for its odor control either. Most paper litter is unscented, and attempts to control odor through absorption alone.
In our experience, it doesn’t control odor as well as many other types of plant-based litter (pine litter is our favorite for odor control).
Still, I’d happily take a downgrade in odor control to know that my pet isn’t exposed to potentially harmful artificial fragrances.
The Real Cost of Clay vs Paper Litter
In terms of cost, clay litter is more budget-friendly than paper litter. But the difference isn’t quite as big as you may think.
Clay litter is much heavier by volume than paper litter, so comparing the price per pound doesn’t give a realistic view of what each litter will actually cost to use.
In our experience, paper litter will last roughly 50% longer than an equivalent weight of clay litter — making the difference in price much closer to even.
In any case, we do recommend avoiding super-budget clay litters. They tend to have more questionable additives and are often much dustier than slightly pricier options.
Paper Pellets Make Less Mess
Mess is another big win for paper. Clay litter is often very dusty and tracking. Even those labeled as ‘low-dust’ or ‘low-tracking’ aren’t noticeably better.
And it’s really no surprise.
Processed clay is just naturally dusty. There’s no reasonable way to avoid it. When it comes to tracking, the small clay granules just naturally get stuck on paws or tangled in fur.
When using clay litter, you’ll just need to accept a fine layer of litter dust in the area, dusty paw prints and scattered litter granules.
Paper litter, on the other hand, is almost completely dust-free and the least tracking litter we’ve used. Paper pellets in particular are especially low tracking, due to their larger size and weight. They rarely get stuck in paws or fur, and when they are kicked out of the litter box, they don’t travel quite so far.
Paper pellets also make less mess than other pellet varieties, as they absorb moisture when soiled, rather than dissolve into trackable sawdust.
If you’re considering a switch from clay cat litter to paper, we wholeheartedly recommend it! Just be mindful that not all cats will like paper litter, especially pellet varieties.
If paper litter just isn’t a good match for you or your cat, consider another plant-based litter, like pine or walnut-based litter, which share many of the same benefits of paper without all the downsides of clay.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Silica, Crystalline – Health Effects. United States Department of Health. Retrieved September 6, 2021, from https://www.osha.gov/silica-crystalline/health-effects
- IBPSA News. (2018, March 20). Health Risks of Chemically Scented Products for Pets and People. International Boarding & Pet Services Association. Retrieved September 6, 2021, from https://www.ibpsa.com/blog/2018/03/20/fragrance-stinks-health-risks-chemically-scented-products-pets-people/
About Matthew Alexander
Matthew lives in Maryland with his two cats, Puff and Pancho. He’s been caring for and fostering cats with various special needs for more than fifteen years. He hopes to pass some of the insight and knowledge that he’s gained on to the readers of Pawmore.