Over the last twenty years, crystal cat litter (a.k.a. silica gel litter) has become a popular choice for cat parents looking for convenience and cleanliness in their litter box setup. In this article, we’ll cover the pros and cons of crystal cat litter, answer some common questions, and hopefully help you make an informed decision about whether this litter type is suitable for you and your beloved feline friend.
Here at tuft + paw, we are cat experts. Over the last couple years, we've spent countless hours determining which litter features are most important to cats and cat parents alike. To research this article, we consulted cat behaviorist Nicole Van Andel, veterinarian Megan Teiber, and hundreds of online reviews.
Crystal cat litter is a unique mineral-based litter type composed of amorphous silica gel granules (NOT crystalline silica! More on that later), which are known for their absorbent and lightweight nature. When liquid is exposed to these miniature porous beads, it's pulled into the network of microscopic pores and trapped along with any accompanying odors. Eventually, the water evaporates and leaves the smelly compounds behind; this is what grants crystal litter its odor controlling capabilities.
Is Crystal Litter Safe for Cats?
Yes! Crystal litter is non-toxic and safe for cats and humans. Silica dust can be dangerous to inhale in certain forms, but the silica gel used in crystal litter has been processed to eliminate this problem. The next section goes over this process in more detail.
What Is Silica Gel?
Silica, also known as silicon dioxide, is a mineral harvested from open pit mines in the form of quartz crystals or silica sand. This sand is then heated in the presence of oxygen and water, which creates tiny pores inside each silica granule and transforms it from crystalline silica into amorphous silica gel. This change in molecular state makes silica gel completely harmless, whereas crystalline silica dust (the kind found in clay litter) is a known carcinogen if inhaled.
Side note: yes, silica gel is what's inside those “DO NOT EAT” desiccant packets. Although we don't suggest consuming silica gel packets (or crystal cat litter), they are not hazardous to the health of humans or cats.
Pros of Crystal Cat Litter
Unlike clay litter, crystal cat litter is non-toxic and totally safe for cats and humans. Even thought crystal litter is made from silica gel, it does not contain crystalline silica (confusing, we know), which is what makes clay litter dust potentially dangerous to inhale. Crystal cat litter is made from non-toxic amorphous silica.
Silica gel is remarkable for its porous structure, which allows each silica gel particle to absorb up to 40% of its weight in liquid at a time. Its impressive absorptive power remains effective over a long period and does an excellent job of drying out feces, thereby helping with odor control. Some crystal litters even proclaim they can absorb 40x their weight in liquid; it seems these companies are actually referring to the amount of liquid absorbed throughout the lifespan of the litter .
Crystal cat litter is renowned for lasting up to a month in the litter box thanks to its outstanding absorption. This excellent efficiency also means you're sending less garbage to the landfill compared to clay litters.
Thanks to its incredible absorbency, crystal cat litter boasts some pretty great odor control. Its silica gel particles absorb liquid waste and permit water to evaporate while trapping smelly particles securely in its microscopic pores.
Crystal cat litter is a solid solution for cat parents looking to reduce their daily workload. With just a quick stir and scoop of poop every day, you get an optimal clean without much effort. When it comes time to change out your kitty's litter box, crystal litter thankfully doesn't leave any cemented clumps behind. Additionally, crystal litter's small grains and non-clumping formula work smoothly with automatic litter boxes—yet another way to streamline your litter box duties.
Low Dust (vs Clay)
Compared to clay, crystal cat litter tends to have less dust, but still more than some natural varieties like pine pellets or tofu litter. There will be varying levels of dust present depending on which brand you choose, but rest assured that it's not the hazardous crystalline silica dust found in clay litters. Veterinarian Megan Teiber believes crystal litter to be a suitable choice for cats or owners suffering from respiratory issues.
Crystal litter is one of the lightest litter types thanks to the porous structure of silica gel. It's typically sold in small bags (<10 lbs) that, in theory, can last far longer than conventional clay litter. This also makes the bags much easier to transport and handle when filling the litter box.
Doesn’t Go Bad
Despite all the benefits of natural cat litters, they can be susceptible to mold or spoilage if not stored properly. Silica gel, on the other hand, is an inorganic mineral that's not at all appetizing to microorganisms. It never goes bad and it helps create a dry, sanitary environment in the litter box.
Cons of Crystal Cat Litter
Silica is a mineral derived from quartz, typically procured via open-pit mining. These gigantic operations can be some of the largest industrial sites on the planet, displacing massive amounts of preexisting vegetation and habitat. Like other forms of mining, these quarries are notorious for erosion, water pollution, air contamination and noise pollution - all of which have adverse effects on the local environment and nearby communities.
The tradeoff for silica gel not spoiling is that it also doesn't biodegrade. It's an inorganic mineral that cannot be composted or flushed, so it must be sent to the landfill where it will break down very slowly. Compared to natural litters, which are biodegradable and sometimes even flushable (like our own Really Great Cat Litter), crystal litter is not particularly eco-friendly.
Crystal cat litters are some of the more technologically advanced and resource intensive litters on the market, and their pricing shows it. Expect to pay anywhere from $3 to $4 per pound for these high-tech litters. Of course, crystal litter can still be a cost-efficient option depending on your cat's litter box habits and how long a bag lasts for your household.
Crystal cat litter is essentially quartz sand, so tracking is inevitable. How much it tracks depends on the specific litter's particle size and shape; smaller crystals result in more tracking but offer a softer surface for cats to walk on, whereas larger particles lead to less tracking yet can be uncomfortable underfoot (or underpaw). Of course, you can always invest in a litter mat or high-sided litter box to reduce tracking, or take a peek at our list of the best non-tracking cat litters.
In the opinion of veterinarian Megan Teiber, one of crystal litter's biggest downsides is its rough texture. It your cat has sensitive paws they might not like the feeling of silica gel under their toe beans when they use the litter box. The worst case scenario is that they reject the litter box entirely and do their business elsewhere. Fine crystal litters have a softer texture, but they will also track more.
Become Dusty With Use
Silica gel will break down and become dustier with use. Fresh out of the bag, crystal litter can be very low dust, but they do tend to get much dustier over time. If dust becomes a problem you may have to replace the litter more often, which will offset silica gel's long lasting benefits.
Other Minor Cons
These drawbacks either depend on personal preference or vary between brands.
Non-clumping — most crystal litters are non-clumping and require stirring every day to optimize urine absorption. It's up to you whether you prefer to scoop urine clumps or stir the litter everyday. In our opinion, it's roughly the same amount of work either way.
Inconsistent dust content — Being made from a mineral, crystal cat litter can be quite dusty if it's not processed properly. Additionally, dust content can vary between bags of litter from the same manufacturer.
Popping noises — If cats could talk, they'd certainly have something to say about the noises that accompany their litter box. Some silica gels emit popping noises when wet, which might prove distressing for some felines. Thankfully this issue seems to be exclusive to liquid and doesn't apply to airborne moisture.
Chemical additives — Many brands of crystal cat litter include synthetic scents or colors in their products. These additives almost always cater to human desires rather than cat needs.
What to Look For In a Crystal Cat Litter
Cats' sense of smell is many times stronger than humans', so you can imagine how overwhelming a scented litter could be. We strongly recommend purchasing unscented litter to make the bathroom experience as comfortable as possible for your feline.
Much like added scents, a litter with a sharp or rough texture can make using the box an unpleasant experience for your cat. Imagine if you had to go to the bathroom while stepping on a floor of scattered Lego pieces—not a great time, right? We recommend opting for a fine crystal litter that's soft on the paws. This might lead to some tracking, but that's certainly preferable to your cat avoiding the litter box.
Look for a crystal litter with no added fragrances or colors. This will make the litter box experience more pleasant for your cat and also allow you to see the color of your cat's urine more clearly (i.e. see if there's blood or discoloration).
This one is a no-brainer. Our list of the 5 best crystal cat litters is a good place to start, but do your own research too! Every litter claims the same advantages so make sure you read what customers’ actual experiences are. This is where you’ll find details about dust content, price changes, tracking, odor control, or whatever the company isn't likely to tell you themselves.
Conclusion: Is Crystal Cat Litter Right For Me?
This is a lot of information to take in at once, so here's a few signposts to help you determine if crystal litter is a good solution for your needs.
Crystal cat litter could be a great choice for your household if:
Low dust is a priority — Veterinarian Megan Teiber considers crystal litters to be a better option than clay if you or your cat has respiratory issues or allergies.
You're short on time — Cleaning the litter box should be part of every cat parent's daily routine, but sometimes life gets in the way. If you find yourself forgetting to clean the litter box frequently, crystal litter's absorbent and long-lasting properties will keep the litter box tolerable for longer than most other litter types.
Your cat eats litter — In Dr. Teiber's veterinary experience, cats are unlikely to ingest crystal litter. Cat behaviorist Nicole Van Andel says that cats are more likely to mistake pellet litters for food because the particles can resemble kibble. Crystal litter is sand-like and not made from food byproduct, so this should not be a major problem.
You use an automatic litter box — Crystal litter's small particles and excellent absorption pair efficiently with most automatic litter boxes. Solid waste is easily raked out and urine is absorbed by the silica gel.
You want to monitor your cats urinary health — Several crystal litters offer health monitoring features in their formula (e.g. Pretty Litter, Alpha Paw Genius Litter). You can also choose a regular uncoloured crystal litter that will clearly show the color and size of your cat's urinations.
You need lightweight litter — If you struggle to carry heavy loads, don't have access to a car, or live in a walk-up apartment, you'll definitely appreciate how small and lightweight a bag of crystal litter is.
We DON'T recommend crystal litter if:
You prefer eco-friendly products — As we detailed above, silica mining is an environmentally damaging industry that destroys habitat, pollutes water sources, and erodes landscapes. Furthermore, used silica litter will not biodegrade and must be sent to the landfill. If sustainability is dear to your heart, you might prefer a plant-based natural litter that is biodegradable and made from a renewable resource.
You hate litter tracking — all crystal litters are granular, which means even the large crystal versions track substantially more than pellet-shaped litters. If you want to virtually eliminate tracking, pellet litters made from pine, tofu, or walnut can do just the trick (plus they don't hurt as much to step on).
You prefer clumping litter — Clumping vs non-clumping litter is a personal preference, but if you're used to the convenience of clumping or don't like the idea of leaving urine in the litter box, then crystal litter might not be for you.
And there you have it! We wish you the best of luck on your litter journey and hope this article has been helpful for you. If in doubt, remember veterinarian Megan Teiber's sage advice: "the best litter is the one your cat will use."
Okay, one last thing. Crystal cat litter is a very convenient product, but here at tuft + paw we personally prefer litters made from sustainably harvested, biodegradable materials. That’s why developed our own tofu litter called Really Great Cat Litter. It’s low tracking, all natural, and even flushable! Check it out if that’s your thing, or you can take a look at some of our other educational resources below.