What are the health effects of cat litter on people and pets?

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

What are the health effects of cat litter on people and pets?

—Andy and Taeja Klukas, Maple Grove, MN

Clay-based cat litters contain crystalline silica, the main component in sand, rock and mineral ores. A possible health threat from these litters is posed by silica dust, which can be kicked up and breathed in by both cats and humans. Prolonged exposure to silica dust causes silicosis, a non-cancerous but sometimes fatal lung disease. Crystalline silica dust has also been associated with bronchitis and tuberculosis. Although exposure to this dust is of great concern to those working in mines or on construction sites, the effects on cat owners exposed while cleaning their cat’s litter box are virtually unknown.

However, respiration problems are not the only thing to consider when purchasing cat litter. All cats clean their fur and paws, which can be coated with clay litter from the litter box. Clumping litters in particular can be harmful to your pet because, once ingested, the litter expands and absorbs moisture in the intestines, causing blockages and dehydration, and preventing the absorption of nutrients. For this reason, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends not using clumping litter for kittens.

Pregnant women should avoid handling cat litter because of a rare infection caused by the toxoplasmosis parasite and carried in feline feces. If a pregnant woman contracts toxoplasmosis, there is a 40 percent chance that her unborn child will also become infected. Children are most likely to suffer severe health effects, which may include blindness, deafness, seizures, and mental retardation. One to two per 1000 babies that are born each year have toxoplasmosis, according to the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.

Aware of the possible risks of silica dust and other effects from clay litters, many cat owners are opting for healthier more environmentally sound alternatives. Dust-free litters like Good Mews are biodegradable, less harmful if ingested, and produce no dangerous dusts. Good Mews, from Stutzman Environmental Products is made from recycled paper, and “absorbs three times more odor causing moisture than clay litter.” It contains no chemical additives, fragrances or dyes, is completely flushable or compostable.

CONTACT: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 E. 92nd St, New York, NY 10128-6804, (212) 876-7700, www.aspica.org; The Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS EC-32, P.O. Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709, (919) 541-3455, http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov, shelby@niehs.nih.gov; Stutzman Environmental Products, P.O. Box 307, 9205 South Kraxberger Road, Canby, Oregon 97013, (888) 877-7665, www.stutzman-environmental.com/goodmews.htm, goodmews@stutzman-environmental.com