On a cold January night in 1947, heavy snow prevented Michigan resident Kay Draper from reaching her sand pile, so she filled her cat’s litter box with Kleen Kitty instead. But this litter box filler was made from wood ashes, and Mrs. Draper’s cat subsequently left sooty paw prints all over her house. Displeased, she asked her neighbor Edward Lowe (who sold sand and clay granules) if she could buy some sand from him.
As fate would have it, Lowe could not access his sand reserves either. He suggested she use some of the kiln-dried clay granules he’d been trying to sell to chicken farmers for nesting material. The farmer’s weren’t keen on using this “Chicken Litter,” as Lowe called it, but Draper thought it was the cat’s meow for the litter box. While most people during this time used sand, dirt, shredded newspapers or ashes in the litter boxes, Draper was sold on the clay because it was more absorbent than sand and didn’t track soot like ashes did.
From Chicken Litter to Kitty Litter
Mrs. Draper came back time and again for refills of the clay, and she brought her friends too. Lowe viewed them as more of an inconvenience at first, but since they were so enthusiastic about using the clay for their litter boxes, he soon began to wonder if other people might also like it.
Fine entrepreneur that he was, Lowe filled ten bags with five pounds each of his kiln-dried clay and labeled them “Kitty Litter.” He asked a local pet store to sell them for 69-cents. With sand available for a lot less, the shop owner doubted his customers would buy them. Lowe reportedly told him to “give it away then,” but he needn’t have worried. The Kitty Litter was a big hit, and soon the shopkeeper placed an order for more.
Lowe sold his Kitty Litter at cat shows, and by the early fifties it was widely available at pet stores nationwide. In 1964, Ed created the popular Tidy Cats brand of litter which was sold in grocery stores. Edward Lowe Industries soon became the largest producer of kitty litter. Lowe sold his company in 1990, when it was grossing $165 million in annual sales. Now owned by Nestle Purina PetCare Company, the Tidy Cats brand is still going strong today.
The Evolution of Kitty Litter
Clay cat litter was definitely an improvement over sand, and more people than ever before began to open their homes and hearts to feline friendship. Data published by the Pet Food Institute (based on census figures) estimated that in 1970 there were 30 million pet cats in the United States alone. A 2009/2010 survey by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) found that Americans now have more than 93 million pet cats in their home.
As great as it was for cats and their owners when Ed Lowe simplified the “bathroom issue,” things got even better in 1984. Thomas Nelson, Ph.D., a biochemist, Persian breeder and professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, developed the first clumping clay cat litter.
Nelson was studying the molecular structure of clay when he discovered that some types of clay prevented urea (the primary solid component of urine) from breaking down, which eliminated the unpleasant ammonia odor. He also found that drying bentonite clay instead of baking it in a kiln allowed it to clump when the kitty did his business in the litter box. These clumps could then be easily removed from the box, allowing the rest of the litter to stay cleaner and fresher than when using regular clay litter. Today, the APPA estimates that clumping clay litter is used by about 75% of U.S. cat owners.
The Many Forms of Cat Litter
Cat owners today have a lot more litter box options than Mrs. Draper did. Besides clumping clay litter and regular clay litter, there are a host of “natural” cat litters available today. One of the first of those was Pine Fresh, which was created in 1986 and is still sold today. Pine sawdust is baked at high temperatures to remove the sap, then pressed into pellets. When the pellets get wet, they break down into sawdust. A similar natural litter called Feline Pine is also available.
There are several brands of natural kitty litter made from biodegradable corn fibers, including World’s Best Cat Litter and Arm & Hammer’s Essentials. Cat owners looking to go the natural route can also purchase kitty litter made from wheat, wheatgrass, beet pulp, oat hulls, wood, paper and more. There is also “crystal” cat litter made from silica gel, which is a porous granular form of sodium silicate.
No one can say for sure whether cats would have become so popular with pet owners had Mrs. Draper and Edward Lowe not discovered the convenience of his Kitty Litter. Nevertheless, cats and all their many litter box options are here to stay. Whatever your favorite kitty litter is, one thing is for certain – this is one invention cat owners can be thankful for!
Cat Fancy Magazine, August 2010