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Is your cat allergic to litter? A vet's guide to signs and treatment

is your cat allergic to litter?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cats can develop allergies to a wide variety of food allergens and airborne allergens, but is it possible to have a cat allergic to litter? 

While litter allergies are not very common in cats, they can occur. And, like other allergies in cats, litter allergies can be a frustrating problem to manage. If you suspect your feline may have a litter allergy and you're considering switching type of cat litter, read on to learn more about how to diagnose and manage this unusual problem.

Can a cat be allergic to cat litter? 

While litter allergies are not widely documented in cats, and not much research has been done on this topic, they certainly can occur. Cats can develop allergies to any substance they’ve been repeatedly exposed to, and litter certainly carries a repeated exposure risk! 

Not only do cats contact litter with their skin, they also tend to inhale dust and other allergens  whenever they are in the litter box. These two factors create an environment where litter allergies can develop.  

There are multiple components of litter that may trigger allergies in cats, including: 

  • Dust: Many clay litters create dust when the litter is scooped or when cats dig in the litter. Dust formation is thought to be correlated to sodium bentonite, a common ingredient in clumping cat litters. 
  • Fragrances: Fragrances that are added to cat litter to control unpleasant litter box odors can be a common allergy trigger for cats.  
  • Mold: Some types of litter, such as corn-based litters, can develop mold on the surface of the litter. This mold can trigger allergies when inhaled.  
  • Wood shavings: Just like we humans can become allergic to different trees, cats can be allergic to tree shavings.  
  • Walnut: Nut-based litters may contain walnuts, which can trigger allergies in some cats.  

In reality, though, there is no single ingredient that is responsible for litter allergies in cats. Dust and fragrances are probably the most common allergens responsible for litter allergies, but any ingredient found in litter can potentially be an allergen for cats with repeated exposure and the right genetic predisposition. 

cat exiting litter box

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Signs a cat is allergic to their litter

Most cases of cat litter allergies involve airway inflammation. This is especially true in cats that have underlying feline asthma. Many clay litters create dust, especially when a cat is digging in the litter. Once inhaled, this dust can cause significant airway inflammation. Common signs of litter allergies in cats with asthma include coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath. 

While respiratory signs are the most common sign of a litter allergy, skin allergy signs can also occur. Cats with a litter allergy may experience skin inflammation in parts of the body that contact their litter. These signs are often primarily confined to the feet, and may include redness, swelling, and itching. 

How to help a cat that is allergic to their litter 

If you suspect your cat is allergic to their current litter, your first step should be to change to a litter with less allergy-causing potential. When you make this transition, however, you’ll want to do it gradually, especially if your cat has had any litter box issues in the past. 

If you suddenly go through the house and empty all of your cat’s litter boxes to replace them with a new type of litter, you may find out that your cat no longer is willing to use the litter box! Consider mixing the old and new litters for a brief period of time before fully transitioning to your new litter. Watch your cat closely during this time to ensure that they continue to use the litter box normally. 

If your cat’s allergy signs are primarily respiratory in nature, you should also look for ways to increase ventilation around the litter box. If you are using a covered litter box, switch to an open litter box that will allow more air circulation.

Ensure that the litter box is located in an area with adequate air flow, so that inhaled allergens aren’t gathering in the litter box. Providing adequate ventilation can help remove allergens from the litter box environment.

cleaning cat litter box

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is the best type of cat litter for cats with allergies? 

Cats with allergies typically benefit from litter that is dust-free and fragrance-free. Appropriate litter varieties may include World’s Best Cat Litter (opens in new tab), Arm & Hammer Slide Clumping Litter (opens in new tab), and Tidy Cats Free & Clean Clumping Cat Litter (opens in new tab), among others.  

Ultimately, though, selecting the best litter for your cat may require some degree of trial and error. Once you switch your cat to a new litter, wait a couple of weeks to see if the litter change has had an impact on your cat’s allergy signs. If your cat’s allergies are improving, continue with the new litter long-term and continue to monitor your cat’s signs. If your cat’s allergies are worsening or unimproved, try a different litter type. 

Although dust and fragrances are the most likely allergens in litter, it’s possible that your cat is reacting to some other aspect of their litter. You may need to try a variety of litter types in order to find the litter that works best for your cat. 

When to see the vet 

If your cat is showing signs of allergies, including respiratory signs or skin allergies, you should always begin with a visit to your veterinarian. There are a number of other conditions that can easily be confused with litter allergies, so your veterinarian will collect a medical history and perform a thorough physical exam to try to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. 

Your veterinarian may recommend additional testing to rule out other medical conditions, such as radiographs of the chest in the case of respiratory signs or skin scrapes (to look for mites) in the case of skin disease. 

If your veterinarian determines that your cat is suffering from allergies, they can recommend medications to help treat the signs of allergies and help you identify likely environmental allergens (such as litter). These treatments will help provide your cat with some symptomatic relief, as you make the necessary environmental changes to address your cat’s allergies long-term. 

Conclusion 

Fortunately, having a cat allergic to litter is a relatively uncommon problem. However, this problem can still be very frustrating for cat owners, as it can significantly affect your cat’s quality of life. 

Seek your veterinarian’s opinion and rule out other causes for your cat’s clinical signs. If your vet agrees that your cat is likely experiencing allergies, transition to a dust-free and fragrance-free litter to see if that alleviates your cat’s clinical signs.  

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.