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Dec 13th
Soaking Up the History of Cat Litter PDF Print E-mail
Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
July 2015

 

Ibigstock-kitten-or-little-cat-in-toilet-58968161_1n the baby boom years after World War II, the planet witnessed a flurry of groundbreaking inventions: lasers, commercial jetliners, the birth-control pill, TV dinners, Tupperware, hairspray, Super Glue, WD-40, felt-tip pens, microwave ovens.

Some of these were game-changers that made life easier after the hardships of the Great Depression and wartime sacrifice. Ranked up there on the list of top innovations of this era, along with the polio vaccine and communications satellites, is cat litter.

Felines and their owners today have it pretty good compared to the days before cat litter. Back then, cats were mostly outdoor pets, brought inside only during cold weather. Cellar boxes were filled with fireplace ashes or sawdust, which stuck to paws and tracked through the house. Newspaper was sometimes a substitute when sand or dirt was frozen outside. Boxes had to be changed and rinsed daily, and the urine smell was intolerable.

Maintaining this routine was messy and inconvenient; the idea of a cat living indoors 24/7 was impractical.

But in the Michigan winter of 1947, Edward Lowe (not a cat owner himself) changed all that. He was asked by a neighbor for some sand to use for her cat box, since her own sand pile was covered in snow. Lowe, who worked for his father’s company, which sold industrial absorbents like sawdust and sand, gave her Fuller’s Earth instead -- kiln-dried clay granules -- that he had in the trunk of his car.

In a few days, the neighbor raved about the clay and wanted more. The entrepreneur in Lowe saw an opportunity and he started brown-bagging five pounds of what he coined (and eventually branded) as Kitty Litter, at first giving away sacks of it at a local pet store, then selling it at 65 cents a bag and marketing it himself at cat shows and pet stores he visited.

By 1964 he founded Edward Lowe Industries and the Tidy Cat brand (now Tidy Cats) -- the first nationally produced and marketed cat litter. Over the years, the company added a lower-priced cat box filler, Sophisticat; by the introduction of a competitor’s clumping litter in 1984, Lowe still held a lucrative 36 percent of the clay litter market. He sold his cat litter business to Golden Cat Corporation in 1990 for $200 million plus stock options. Soon it became part of Ralston Purina Company, then Nestlé Purina PetCare Company in 2001.

Nearly 40 years after Lowe’s clay litter was first marketed, biochemist and cat owner Thomas Nelson invented clumping cat litter. He took dried, but not baked, sodium bentonite clay (instead of the traditional dried and baked calcium bentonite) and added quartz or diatomaceous silica to set off a clumping reaction when wet. The result: a solid that’s easily scooped out of the remaining dry litter. Clumping litter can absorb up to ten times its own weight and holds urine in place.

Everett Burrell of Waggle Bros. on Biscayne Boulevard swears by clumping litter for his Kitty Komforts Kattery. This 1200-square-foot cageless loft space can accommodate up to 20 cats. “I’ve tried them all, and this is it,” he says, holding a bag of Scoop Away brand litter.

Of cat-litter buyers surveyed by Packaged Facts in 2014, 72 percent purchased scoopable litter, 16 percent used nonclumping clay, 9 percent bought crystals, and 12 percent bought plant-based biodegradable litters.

But that could soon change. There’s a strong debate going on about ecological impacts of clay cat litter on our environment. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 4.68 metric tons of swelling bentonite was strip-mined in 2011 -- a process that destroys habitat, affecting water, air, and soil. Some 1.11 metric tons of that was for cat litter alone. Most clay litters are disposed of in landfills -- an estimated 8 billion pounds of it, according to the Bureau of Waste Management -- and remains there fully degraded. Arguably, clumping litter’s silica dust can cause respiratory problems in cats, as well as humans, and is considered a carcinogen.

These concerns are opening the door for clay alternatives, which now hold a small percentage of the market. Plant-derived products are made into pellet form from such materials as recycled paper, pine, corn, and wheat. Dust-free and biodegradable, some can be flushed or composted -- but are they efficient?

Scented and unscented; clumping and nonclumping; fine-grained and pellets: with so many choices available today, we need Consumer Reports to do a side-by-side comparison. According to Packaged Facts, in 2014, litter constituted nearly half of non-food cat supply sales; in 2009, 22 percent of households purchased it, representing 84 percent of cat owners -- and it all began with Edward Lowe.

Credit him not only with inventing cat litter -- a $2 billion-a-year industry -- but with inventing the indoor-only cat.

 

Janet Goodman is a Miami Shores-based dog trainer, animal-talent wrangler, and principal of Good Dog Bad Dog Inc. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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