Because of cat litter’s high absorbency, consumers have used it for purposes beyond pet care, bringing us back to where we started—the applications of absorbent clay for oil and chemical absorption. In the early 1960s, Ed Lowe’s Happy Pet Products company knew the sales potential for their absorbent clay granules outside the cat box. One Lowe’s advertising document promoted “other household uses” for litter both in and outdoors: “drying and deodorizing garbage cans, absorbing grease spots in garage or spilled liquids in house…and also used in barbecue grill fire-bed, it catches grease drippings, protects fire box.”
In January 1972, Joan Lee Faust recommended winter cat litter use in her gardening column: “Kitty litter, a pelleted processed clay, is another safe, non-polluting product that is easy to obtain and use,” as opposed to rock salt, which dissolves ice but “disturbs the chemical balance of the soil.” In the early 1980s, the Wall Street Journal remarked on consumers’ widespread cat litter use for winter automobile traction and the (supposed) subsequent fall-out by house cats, “As Owners Put Their Litter on Ice.” Writer Raymond A. Joseph wrote, “Throw enough cat litter at a problem, and it disappears,” except perhaps the emotional side. One New Jersey woman reported that “[her cats] have been giving her reproachful looks because stores ran out of the clay-pellet cat litter they like,” presumably to be trod by undeserving car tires instead of cat paws.
Another woman in Chicago described how she “‘had to lend [her] neighbor some of my litter’” for winter driving. In 1996, one Pennsylvania man wrote in to Melodie Moore’s Costcutters column about removing a driveway stain; combined with paint thinner and a broom, Moore counseled, this cat litter concoction “works for oil, grease or transmission fluid.”
More recently, the popular news, digital media, and listicle website Buzzfeed used cat litter’s winter traction capabilities as a touchstone for regional differences.
In the video “Californians Figure Out Winter Hacks,” West Coasters (who are accustomed to year-round sun and warmth) gaze, perplexed, at a jug of cat litter. One respondent asks, “Is this a joke?” while another explains, “Cats pee and poop in this.” Another pair reads the jug, “Odor control!” “Maybe you’ve got some smelly snow.”
After receiving the correct explanation, Buzzfeed’s good-humored participants alternatingly express disbelief, guffaws, and curiosity. Although cat litter as we know it has been used and marketed for a variety of different purposes since the late 1940s, digital content like this YouTube video reveal that many are still discovering the hidden lives of this humble clay.
Faust, Joan Lee. “Around the Garden,” New York Times (Jan. 9, 1972): D34.
Joseph, Raymond A. “An Embarrassing Winter for Cats, As Owners Put Their Litter on Ice.” Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4, 1982): 33.
Moore, Melodie. “Paint Remover, Cat Litter Effective at Eliminating Many Stains.” News Record, North Hills, Pennsylvania (Aug. 17, 1996): 6.