Cleaning the litter box often seems like a high price to pay for the fickle attention of the domestic feline. The box can be smelly, dusty and, if you let it go too long between scooping, a real workout. Then you have to bag up all the mess and take it outside. It's a chore.
Those reasons, and a few others, are why some cat-owners have turned to flushable litters, which allow them to scoop a cat's droppings right into the toilet and flush away.
While few things could be easier, the harm flushable litter can cause may be more far-reaching than you realize.
What is flushable litter?
Most cat litters are clay-based. Some clump, some don't. Clumping litters in particular are popular for their ease of removing urine as the litter absorbs and creates scoopable clumps. The litter doesn't need to be replaced as often as non-clumping litters do. However, these clay-based litters end up in the trash, often in plastic bags, where they contribute to landfill sizes and other environmental woes. Clay-based litter doesn't break down in compost heaps (not that you'd want to use cat waste on your vegetable garden), and the clay itself itself is often derived from materials that are gathered through strip-mining processes.
Obviously, given how clay litter hardens when wet, to say nothing of its absorbent nature, it's not a great thing for flushing through your home's pipes, unless you want to pay your plumber a lot of money.
Flushable litter is often positioned as an environmentally friendlier alternative to clay-based litter. These litters are often made up of corn, wood, pine or wheat, so they're biodegradable if you don't put them in a plastic bag. Some will trap odors without relying on artificial fragrances, common in clay-based litters. Some also clump.
The biggest upside, of course, is that these litters can be flushed down the toilet. Gone are the plastic bags and landfill concerns because you're just dropping a couple of clumps into the bowl, flushing and waiting a few minutes before getting the next scoop. It's certainly a lot easier than scooping, bagging and trashing. But it may not be as ideal as it appears.
Flushable litter and your pipes
'Did you flush the litter enough?' (Photo: Natasia Causse/flickr)
So if flushable litter is advertised as such, it should be safe, right?
Well, hold on. You'll want to check to make sure the flushable litter you've selected is safe for your pipe system. Some flushable litters aren't designed for septic systems, and some septic systems just won't break down certain materials, like cat fecal matter and litter, no matter what kind of litter you use. You definitely don't want your septic tank to have issues because of your kitty.
Even if you have checked, it's probably not advisable to flush it anyway. Not waiting long enough between flushing clumps can result in clogs, and if you don't break up larger clumps prior to flushing — and you're going to want to do that somewhere other than the litter box — you could face all sorts of nasty problems.
Your toilet also simply may not be a fan of flushable litters. As Mike Agugliaro, co-owner of the New Jersey heating, air, electrical and plumbing Gold Medal Service company, explained to Today.com, "Today's water-saving toilets use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That's not enough water to keep the kitty litter moving."
Agugliaro also points out that toilets, which are designed for water-soluble waste, aren't keen on harder fecal matter. Cat poop quickly dehydrates and hardens while it's awaiting scooping, so by the time you get around to scooping it, it's "petrified poop" that can get stuck in the toilet's various pipes and create a clog.
Even if the litter and its contents do get out of the toilet, the flushable stuff still has its issues.
Introducing parasites into the waterways
Pet waste is classified as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency that can "harm fish and wildlife populations, kill native vegetation, foul drinking water, and make recreational areas unsafe and unpleasant."
Cat waste can contain the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. If humans become infected with it, we're normally able to fight it off, but those with compromised immune systems may not be able to. Symptoms from parasitic infection can be flu-like — aches, pain, fever — or people can develop the disease toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis can cause fetal development disorders, loss of eyesight, brain damage, premature birth and death.
Many water treatment plants aren't designed to handle those kinds of pollutants, let alone a parasite like T. gondii; they're designed to handle human waste. Adding in litter and cat waste only creates more "stuff" for the treatment plants to, well, treat. If the pollutants aren't treated, they can circulate through the water system.
That circulation can affect critters in the wild, too. Scientists have found T. gondii contamination in coastal areas, infecting marine mammals, including sea otters, with the possible source being — you guessed it — cat fecal matter flushed down commodes. (At least one study has challenged this connection.)
Flushable litter has its upsides, but some potential downsides, both on a financial and an environmental level, should be considered. Finding a way to balance those — perhaps by disposing of flushable litter in biodegradable bags — may be the key to having a happy cat and a human who is happy to scoop.