Cat Litter: from free bags to $1.4bn business

Edward Low inventor of commercial cat litterThe first bag of clay-based cat litter (labelled “Kitty Litter” in manuscript), was given away at a store which was local to where the inventor Mr Edward Lowe lived. Mr Lowe originally suggested that the store sell his bags of cat litter at 65c per bag. Apparently, the owner of the shop laughed in response so Mr Lowe changed his strategy and said:

“Give it away and see how it does.”

We know how it did. The stuff became a way of life for cat owners but before its invention by Mr Lowe, people put sand in the tray or something similar or perhaps their cats went outside and did it in the garden.

At the time, in 1948, Mr Lowe was working for his father’s company selling industrial absorbents. The range of products included a clay: Fuller’s Earth.

At the time, I suspect that cat litter wasn’t even a seed of imagination in Mr Lowe’s brain. However, one day his neighbour asked him if he could suggest something clean for her cat’s tray.

His neighbour had been using ash as cat litter but her cat was tracking ash all over her house (a continuing, potential, problem we have to admit). Perhaps we should know this lady’s name because without her question it is conceivable that the concept of commercially produced cat litter would not have been born so soon.

Mr Lowe suggested Fullers Earth and, of course, it worked like a charm because it is highly absorbent so her cat’s urine was fully absorbed into the clay.

Mr Lowe was not the first person to come up with the idea of keeping a box in the home where a domestic cat could go to the toilet. However, he was the first person to know what to put into the box and which would be highly effective. Luck played a part as usual.

Over the intervening 60 or so years there have been refinements to cat litter but the clay-based litter is still the leading type. It is, though, less ecologically friendly than wood-based litter, on my assessment.

I am guessing but it would seem that the word “litter” in the phrase “cat litter” comes from one of the meanings of the word which is “objects strewn about untidily” (that is my definition but there are others of course).

My research tells me that the cat litter business is worth about $1.4 billion in the USA and worth about £120m in the UK. The cat litter market is no doubt expanding year-on-year. It is a remarkable history.


Note: the photo is reasonably presumed to be in the public domain. Wrong? Please leave a comment.

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Cat Litter: from free bags to $1.4bn business — 12 Comments

  1. Just seen this warning on facebook from someone in Texas, so I’m sharing it here:

    PLEASE DUMP THIS STUFF OUT!!!!!! I belong to a small group of cat lovers (around 450 members). Two cats dead within a couple days – from using the same litter brand! Both cats that passed away developed lung issues within one containers use, one was 14, one was just 1 yr old. Neither lived together. The vet in both instances blames the litter. I’ve contacted Tidy Cat and they are trying to get a hold of the pet owners for investigation of this issue. It is <<<>>> this specific formula in question at this time.

      • Dee, I whined about them using Fresh Step at the shelter I volunteer at because of dust and the close confined quarters for the cats. We had cats with teary eyes and sniffling and sneezing. It wasn’t bad at all compared to TC Lightweight. It is the worst litter I have ever used for dust.

        I normally use Dr Elsey’s and liked the TC because of the weight. I am getting older and those 40# bags feel
        much heavier than when I was younger. I am using Dr Elsey’s again.

        • I’ve tried Dr. Elsey’s Cat Attract and didn’t care for it. Not enough odor control.
          I’m not a fan of Freshstep either.
          I’m using Scoop Away right now. It’s not too, too dusty. The scented is overpowering, so I’m mixing it half and half with unscented.

          • Thanks for the tip on the Cat Attract. I only use Dr Elsey’s Precious which comes in the blue bag. I don’t like the strong perfume smell either.

  2. Clay cat litter is a fantastic invention for indoor cats. However, one needs to be careful with clumping clay litters. I tried the regular Tidy Cat clumping litter and it became a sticky, tar-like goop that stuck to my cats’ paws and wouldn’t come off even with soap and water. Just think cats are constantly licking themselves clean and anything that sticks to them, they will ingest it. Ever since that experience I avoid all Tidy Cat litters like the plague. I do use a clumping clay litter but I pay more for another brand.

    I think everyone on this forum is very experienced with cats but another thing to watch out for is kittens and clumping litter. Kittens are frail. The stories of kittens becoming ill and dying from blockages due to ingesting clumping litter are numerous and heartbreaking. After they are a little older it’s ok.

    To Ruth’s point about the 2 cats that died from lung issues, I can see how that can happen because cats are low to the ground and they kick up the litter and breath it in. The problem is even worse with a covered box. What a shame though.

    I had not thought about it before but the amount of money spent on litter is truly big business. For the sake of comparing notes, I spend $50 per month on cat litter ($25 per cat). Anyone else want to share how much they spend?

    • Thank you for this comment. The truth is we don’t fully understand how, at least potentially, dangerous cat litter is. You never know, it may cause some idiopathic illnesses (illnesses with an unknown cause). I use wood-based litter. I think it’s better but this is a personal preference.

      As you say cats can jump into a litter tray and start sniffing because their odour is in the tray and when they sniff they could inhale minute particles of dust from the clay or wood or whatever substance is being used. These minute particles could be ingested. In addition, the particles become adhered to their paws. They lick their paws and ingest the particles that way. I think more research needs to be done on the potential health hazards of cat litter. No doubt big business will be against it because, as I say in the article, it is massively profitable business.

  3. well the stuff we get is budget kitty litter with crystals and got a big bag of pet team stuff today. Tried jasmin out on dirt, but found doesnt take the smell away. Shes prob ready to just go outside soon but still keep a litter for her in case. The others all go outside now. Am really impressed with her as she just so confident and even if the others dont want to play with her she still doesnt care. She loves it when i clean her litter box up and gets rather excited heres a pic below what shes looking like now. Was great to see on the page today a picture which is possibly what jasmin gonna look like of the tortieshell.

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