Clay litter options are still popular, but natural alternatives have taken the segment by storm in the pet specialty market, and in some cases are outselling clay-based options as a percentage of overall sales.
"The majority of our sales are in natural litters," said Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat & Dogs Too in Denver. "I carry [Dr. Elsey’s] Cat Attract because when cats have litterbox issues, it does seem to help. I carry one other that’s a clay litter … but other than that, I don’t really care for the clay at all."
Natural litters include materials ranging from corn, wheat, walnut shells and pine to diatomaceous earth. All are considered clay alternatives, industry experts reported, and various attributes, beyond what a litter is made of, can contribute to what the market accepts as "natural."
"The adjective ‘natural’ can mean a variety of things in the cat litter world," said Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "Litters [may incorporate] natural materials, a natural way to fight odor or natural fragrance."
The company’s Green Tea Fresh Litter, made with wood and green tea powder, incorporates green tea to add a pleasant scent and offer odor-fighting characteristics, Yamamoto noted.
Still, the term "natural" can have a wide range of meanings in consumers’ minds, and understanding customer demand can help drive sales.
"Renewability, biodegradability, and lack of chemicals or added fragrances have become synonymous with natural cat litter and have become minimum requirements for the category," said Pedro Bastos, CEO of Petfive Brands, maker of Sustainably Yours Natural Cat Litter, based in Pembroke Park, Fla. "With that said, we believe we’re entering an exciting phase of innovation in which consumers are recognizing that they no longer must sacrifice performance in order to be natural."
Environmentally minded consumers are increasingly aware of the benefits natural litters provide.
"Across the industry, we’re seeing the emergence of sustainable cat litters that are friendlier to the planet," said Paul Cannella, founder of The Original Poop Bags, maker of Catfidence 100 Percent Organic Bamboo Cat Litter, based in Suwanee, Ga.
Catfidence litter is made from sustainable bamboo and pine, Cannella noted, and is also certified as compostable as well.
Additionally, health considerations are driving consumers toward natural litters, experts reported.
"Consumers are not only thinking about the environment, but also about their cat’s health as well as their own," Bastos said. "A cat will use the litterbox, on average, several times a day, and it’s likely that they will indirectly ingest litter while cleaning themselves after each use. Pet parents are more cognizant of the fact that litter isn’t just stepped on. It’s inevitably inhaled and ingested, and, therefore, they want to ensure that there are no concerns with what their cat may be breathing in."
Sustainably Yours Natural Cat Litter combines corn and cassava, Bastos noted. In addition, the manufacturer has partnered with the Rainforest Trust to commit a portion of proceeds from every bag sold to the nonprofit to help protect rainforests around the globe.
While health considerations and environmental concerns are motivating many pet owners’ shift to natural cat litter, products have to meet customers’ needs and standards.
"Natural litters still have to perform to a certain level," said Kaitlin McGrath, owner of Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass. "It’s almost like customers want it to perform similarly to clay litter, but they don’t want to buy clay. They want the natural product, but they want it to perform just as well as clay-based options."
Increasingly, customers are looking for practical benefits when they shop for natural cat litter, including ease of use and odor control, among other considerations.
"Customers usually want something that’s easy to clean and easy to scoop," McGrath said, adding that clumping is a key property of cat litter that is sought by shoppers. "They’re also concerned about dust. They don’t want litter they have to dump and change all at once. Customers want litter they can maintain and then change after a time.
"Customers are definitely looking for natural litters that clump," she added. "They’re also concerned with odor control and dust, because cats are inhaling what’s coming off of their litter. Those are the three main things."
The first thing customers will notice about a natural alternative is often the odor control properties of the litter, according to Green.
"Odor control on the natural stuff is a big item," she said. "Clay and wood litters smell. I think that the natural litters are better in terms of odor."
The eco-friendly attributes of many of these products are definitely playing a role in sales, industry insiders noted, but performance overall is much more important to consumers.
"In general, people across all age ranges are pushing for more eco-friendly products," Cannella said. "We’re especially seeing this from millennials that are demanding more responsible products, and that has a trickledown effect to their parents and grandparents who seek their opinions and research capabilities. There is no doubt that cat litter must perform in terms of odor control and absorbency. If it’s bad litter but eco-friendly, it isn’t going to make the cut."
Fortunately, many retailers report that cat owners are finding these products to be effective.
"Customers are definitely happy with the way various natural litters perform," McGrath said.
As for price considerations, overall, natural litters can be more expensive than clay-based litters, but customers are increasingly willing to shell out for the benefits they provide.
"Eighty percent of our litter sales are natural-based now," said Harry Schankweiler, manager at Whiskers Wings and Wild Things in Canton Township, Ohio. "We sell five different litters, with only one or two clay offerings. It’s growing a lot. Even 10 years ago, people were buying 99-cent bags of cat litter at the grocery store. That’s the cheap stuff. They didn’t know anything about it. Customers want something that’s lightweight and that’s dust free … Natural litter costs more upfront, but you are saving in the end, just like with dog food."
Thankfully for purveyors of natural cat litters, both performance and price are starting to come in line with traditional litter offerings in the marketplace.
"The changes in the market have been awesome to watch," Yamamoto said. "I remember when using a natural product meant you had to sacrifice quality and price to help the environment. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Being able to see more people consider the effect of the litter they bring home and their concern to provide a happy and healthy litterbox for their cat and family has been really inspiring."
Worth the Shelf Space
Customers who have already adopted natural cat litter usually don’t require a lot of convincing to stick with it, pet specialty retailers reported, but for those new to natural offerings, education and product visibility are key.
"Our customers see our litters in action," said Harry Schankweiler, manager at Whiskers Wings and Wild Things in Canton Township, Ohio. "We sell rescued kittens, and customers actually see our litters in use. It starts with explaining the benefits. It depends on the person. You have to feel them out and see what their needs are. If you can get them to try one bag, they’re usually hooked."
Cat litter takes up a lot of shelf space, retailers reported, so focusing offerings and keeping litter in high-visibility areas is important to encourage repeat sales.
"We have a really small store," said Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat & Dogs Too in Denver. "We have 1,200 square feet here. When customers first come in to the store, they can see our litter. Customers usually come in looking for a different litter, or they want to buy from an independent. We have people that always buy their litter with us, and then we have people that just buy occasionally. The relationships you’ve built up help keep that repeat business for us."
Repeat sales and increasing foot traffic are the biggest benefits to carrying natural litter, according to industry insiders.
"Natural litters are worth the shelf space," said Kaitlin McGrath, owner of Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass. "We like to carry a little bit of everything for everybody. It’s not like I can dump [these products] off of my shelf. Otherwise, customers will just go to Petco. It’s a hard call. I thought about maybe offering a delivery service, which would directly compete with Chewy.com, but then I’m killing my foot traffic. Everything in the store has to be worth keeping in stock, or else it’s just using up space that could have been better used stocking a product that’s moving."
On the Market
The Cat’s Meow
As natural cat litters continue to earn greater market share, certain options have taken positions as favorites among consumers.
"Our No. 1 seller is World’s Best Cat Litter," said Harry Schankweiler, manager at Whiskers Wings and Wild Things in Canton Township, Ohio. "We use it for our cats and kittens here [in the store], as well as our cat at home. I would have everybody on this if I could. It’s really good."
Dr. Elsey’s also sells well, Schankweiler stated, adding that he’s recently started offering AltaGama Advanced Cat Litter, a nonclumping diatomaceous earth litter that is doing well so far.
World’s Best, a corn-based natural litter brand, is at the top of the pack in terms of sales for The Whole Cat & Dogs Too in Denver as well.
"World’s Best is probably our No. 1 seller, but I do sell a lot of the walnut-based litter too," said Sue Green, co-owner.
The performance of many natural litters is such that customers often prefer these offerings, retailers reported.
"World’s Best is our top seller," said Kaitlin McGrath, owner of Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass. "Yesterday’s News is also doing pretty well. I just started using World’s Best for my cat. The odor control is great. It does track a little bit more, but you can just find a good litter mat."