How the Cat Litter Category Has Evolved

Selecting what cat litter to buy used to be a fairly simple affair. A consumer would go to the store, find the brown bag stamped "Kitty Litter," purchase it, and then go home.

This bag of "Kitty Litter" was actually the first of its kind, invented by Edward Lowe more than 70 years ago. After serving in the Navy, Lowe joined his father’s company, which sold industrial absorbents, including sawdust and clay.

"In 1947 Ed was approached by a neighbor who was tired of using ashes in her cat’s litterbox and the resulting sooty paw prints," said officials on the Edward Lowe Foundation website. "She asked for some sand, but Ed suggested clay instead. Soon the neighbor would use nothing else, noting that the clay was much more absorbent than sand and didn’t track all over the house."

According to the story on the website, Lowe, acting on a hunch that other cat owners would react similarly, filled 10 brown bags with clay, wrote the name "Kitty Litter" on them and went to the local pet store. The owner didn’t think anyone would pay 65-cents for a five-pound bag of cat litter, so Lowe told him to give it away. When customers began asking for more—and were willing to pay for it—the cat litter market was born.

Since then, the cat litter category has expanded to include recycled paper, wood materials, silica gel and even plant-based ingredients such as wheat and corn, to name a few. So why expand? To meet the needs of cat owners—and the preferences of the pets that use the litter.

"Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products has been manufacturing cat litter since 1985 in search of a better in-home elimination solution," said Gina Zaro, director of marketing for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. "Through the years, [company founder] Dr. Elsey has been driven to develop cat litter solutions to meet the needs of cats and their parents through product innovation, whether bringing a fussy feline back to the box or keeping paws free from dust."

However, the benefits of having multiple options don’t stop there.

"Inappropriate elimination is the No. 1 behavior reason cats are abandoned, surrendered to shelters and euthanized," Zaro added. "Our litters address specific issues like inappropriate elimination and nonuse of the litterbox with Cat Attract and Kitten Attract or upper respiratory issues with Respiratory Relief litter."

Ökocat, a brand of Healthy Pet, comes in different textures to appeal to the pickiest of cats, said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and marketing promotions manager for the Ferndale, Wash.-based company. The litter is made with sustainably sourced natural plant fiber.

And while cat owners want litters that control odor without having it tracked throughout the house, the cat’s preferences seem to matter most, said Jonathan Heim, owner of Barkly and Meows, a retailer in Canal Fulton, Ohio.

"As long as [the cat] is using the litterbox, most owners are happy," Heim said.

New Products

Options Abound

There’s no shortage of new litters on the market designed to appeal to the preferences of people and their pets.

Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products brought Paw Sensitive to market this past March. It is designed for cats that want a litter with a finer, softer texture, said Gina Zaro, director of marketing for the Englewood, Colo.-based company.

"Many cats have litterbox aversion due to not having the right texture feel," Zaro said. "Cats are extremely texture driven, and Paw Sensitive allows cats with sensitive paws the appropriate texture and paw feel. Paw Sensitive litter can also be helpful for senior cats, which oftentimes prefer a softer substrate."

An increased focus on healthier lifestyles and the drive to become more eco-friendly are helping propel new alternative cat litter products such as Earth’s Finest, according to Jackie Resillez, senior marketing director of Four Paws, a sister brand of Earth’s Finest, both under Central Garden & Pet Co. in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Earth’s Finest, which began shipping to distributors in March, uses 100 percent renewable farm-grown ingredients, yuca and cane. It’s eco-friendly, lightweight (60 percent lighter than clay litter), absorbent (soaking up five times more liquid than clay litter) and dust free, according to the company. The cat litter is also able to form ultra-tight clumps on contact and has the ability to capture urine, feces and ammonia odors, according to the product description.

Ökocat, a brand of Ferndale, Wash.-based Healthy Pet, is sporting a new look. After 18 months of extensive consumer research, the company decided to launch new packaging to better convey its cleaner and more healthful messaging to today’s discerning cat owners, said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and marketing promotions manager at Healthy Pet. The new packaging design highlights key features such as: "Stops odor before it starts," "Clumps solid for easy cleaning" and "99% dust free for a healthy home."

The revamp includes the Less Mess clumping litter, which was renamed from its Long Hair version to appeal to a wider range of cat owners, not just those with longhair cats, Ellis added.

"More than ever before, Ökocat is committed to helping cat parents achieve ‘a healthier clean,’" Ellis said. "Unlike traditional clay litter, Ökocat has no toxic additives, synthetic chemicals, fragrance, dyes or GMOs, and it’s made from sustainably sourced, responsibly rescued natural fiber that’s completely biodegradable and flushable."

Assortment Optimization

Careful Selection

With the plethora of cat litter options available, pet specialty retailers must take some time to evaluate which litters are best suited for their customers. There’s a balance in selecting products that suit the needs of cat owners without overwhelming them with too many options.

"It is important for retailers to be educated about their customer demographic and stock the right products," said Gina Zaro, director of marketing for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo.

Barkly and Meows, a pet store in Canal Fulton, Ohio, stocks its cat litters based on customer requests.

"The brands that we carry in our store are limited to the brands that customers have asked us about the most," said Jonathan Heim, owner of Barkly and Meows. "We currently stock several: Tidy Cats, Arm & Hammer, Fresh Step and World’s Best varieties. The only other brand that we have is Yesterday’s News, and that is due to having a vet’s office nearby that sends people to our store specifically for that litter. Tidy Cats and Arm & Hammer are very popular due to the price point, and World’s Best is popular due to the length of time that each bag lasts in addition to being septic safe."

Pet retailers can also look beyond brand names and focus on the type of product, said Jackie Resillez, senior marketing director of Four Paws, a sister brand of Earth’s Finest cat litter, both under Central Garden & Pet Co. in Walnut Creek, Calif.

"Leaving the brand out of the equation, I would look to see what the consumer needs are, and then see how they can be fulfilled in the storefront," Resillez said. "The majority of the market is clay litter sales, so you can’t walk away from that unless you are an all-natural store. … Try to have enough of a breadth in the scope of what the consumer wants. You want to fulfill their need so they don’t walk away to Amazon or other e-commerce."

Consumer Education

Addressing the Finicky Cat

There are many cat owners who have tried-and-true types or brands of cat litter that they stick to. However, some may be looking for a better cat litter solution. Whether it be for the owner’s sake (think smell and/or mess) or for their feline friend’s preference, perhaps due to sensitivity issues, getting a cat to make the switch can be hard.

"Most cats do not like any kind of change, and the type of litter used will greatly determine whether they use the litterbox or not, which is what most cat parents worry about the most," said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and marketing promotions manager for Ferndale, Wash.-based Healthy Pet, maker of Ökocat. "Retailers should assure their customers that it is OK to try a new litter but [that] they should transition slowly, especially if they have a finicky cat. Most times, if they allow their cat to adjust slowly, there shouldn’t be any problems. We also recommend keeping one box of the old litter next to the new transitioning litter just in case and let the cat choose which one they prefer."

Jonathan Heim, owner of Barkly and Meows, a retailer in Canal Fulton, Ohio, is also in favor of a transition period.

"We really try to push for a transition period where the litters are being mixed if the cat(s) has resisted change in the past," Heim said. "Many cats have issues with texture switches with their litter, and having a mix of their old litter and some of the new litter offers at least some familiarity as far as the texture is concerned. We also recommend using nonscented litters when trying to transition because the smell of the perfumes may cause the cats to avoid the box."

Some companies have satisfaction guarantees to help ease purchasing concerns. Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products offers a one-time rebate up to $20 on all its litter products. This allows customers to try the product risk free, said Gina Zaro, director of marketing for the Englewood, Colo.-based company.