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July 12, 2018 |0 min read

Choosing a Cat Litter: From Clay to Silica

Written by

Sharilyn Vera

You may have seen ads on the internet or television for “silica gel cat litter or recently, but what is it and why did it become popular? For answers to this question, we must look back at the history of cat litter. Like chocolate chip cookies, Play-Doh, and the pacemaker, cat litter was an accidental invention. And we're thrilled for the mishap because without cat litter we're not sure how we'd be able to live with our lovable, furry friends under one roof.

History of Cat Litter

But kitty litter didn’t always look the way it does today. And the first version certainly didn’t have the lifesaving health alert benefits of modern silica cat litter compared to traditional clay cat litter. Here’s a look at how cat litter has evolved over time and a side-by-side comparison of the best options available to you today.

Cats have been living with us through the entire modern age - and long before then, too. But before the 1940s, cat parents resorted to letting their furry friends outside a few times per day or filled a makeshift cat box with anything they had on hand. Things like sawdust, shredded newspaper, sand, and dirt were common cat box fillers that had very little odor control.

In 1947, a man by the name of Ed Lowe was working at his father’s ice, coal, and sawdust factory. The business also produced kiln-dried clay, which was used as a safe, fire-retardant way to soak up grease spills.

One day, Mr. Lowe’s neighbor, Mrs. Draper, asked Ed for some of the sawdust from his factory for her cat’s box. Without any on hand, Ed gave her a bag of the kiln-dried clay instead. After trying it out in her cat’s box, Mrs. Draper was ecstatic! The clay filler worked far better than any sawdust or sand she had ever used before.

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Shortly thereafter, Mr. Lowe began marketing the clay as “kitty litter” and sold it in pet stores for $0.65 per bag. Cat parents were overjoyed with the new invention of cat litter and were willing to pay for Ed’s kitty litter rather than get another filler for free from their backyards.

In 1964, Ed officially created Tidy Cats and began marketing his product for sale in grocery stores. In 1990, Ed sold his company, Tidy Cats, and lived out the rest of his life as a happy millionaire until he died at the age of 75 in 1995.

Choosing Between Your Cat Litter Options

Sadly, Ed didn’t know that clay cat litter can be extremely hazardous to cats. Not only can the dust from clay litter cause severe respiratory problems or even cat allergies, but also the material offers the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

Today, cat owners have far more cat litter options than Mrs. Draper did back in 1947.  

Improved Clay

Clay Cat Litter

Clay kitty litter manufacturers have taken notice of the warnings from the veterinary science community and have tried to make a better cat litter box product. That’s why you’ll see clay cat litter advertised as “low dust” or as containing antibacterial elements.

Although this is still a popular clumping solution, clay cat litter is still a dangerous option for your cat’s litter box as it can also cause blockages in your cat’s digestive system and in other pets who get into the cat's litter box. It also makes it easy for toxoplasmosis to be spread to you and members of your family. Used cat litter can not only affect your furry friends but you too. 

Natural Media

Pine Pellet Cat Litter

Before the invention of silica cat litter, many health-conscious pet parents turned to natural media litter for filling the litter box. This natural cat litter includes options like pine pellets, corn litter, beet pulp, wheat, and recycled paper materials. Each of these causes far less dust and are usually harmless if accidentally ingested by a pet and are all considered biodegradable cat litter types.

However, the trouble with natural litter (like pine pellet cat litter) is it can still be a breeding ground for bacteria and it offers nothing in the way of odor control for used cat litter. Many people get tired of the smell from these pine pellets and may end up seeking a better odor control cat litter.

Silica Cat Litter


silica cat litter


In the 1990s, silica cat litter (aka crystal cat litter) was invented. The silica gel crystals - like those that make up PrettyLitter crystal litter - are highly absorbent. This allows the tiny silica sand granules to trap odor and bacteria.

Benefits of Silica Cat Litter

Silica gel litter crystals also allow moisture to evaporate to reduce litter box odor, so all the bacteria and odor stay trapped while the soiled litter (from cat urine and cat feces) dries. Traditional clay litter, clumping litter, or scented litter tends to be very dusty and unpleasant when cleaning the litter tray or box. Silica crystals are also an entirely dust-free material, which means it can be kicked around, sifted, and poured without causing any irritation to you or your precious cat.

As an added bonus, silica gel microcrystals are gentle on your cat’s paws and easy to combine with other vital additives. PrettyLitter's silica litter combines the engineering genius of silica with health indicators that alert you by changing color if your cat's urine is an abnormal pH or contains blood.

Written by

Sharilyn Vera

Sharilyn is a proud cat owner, long time storyteller and researcher. Her work spans beloved podcasts, television shows, media outlets, and independent documentaries. She likes to strike a balance between education and comedy, which you can hopefully tell when you read her articles!

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