According to Veterinary Pet Insurance in Brea, Calif., the No. 1 claim filed in 2005 and 2006 for cats was for urinary tract infections. Diabetes, kidney failure and ear infections follow. With millions of American cats at risk for this common ailment, manufacturers began creating litters designed to detect signs of urinary problems. In fact, some cat owners may have even wondered why it didn’t happen sooner.
“It’s hard to do,” says John York, president of Health Meter Cat Litter in Mira Mar Beach, Fla. “It took a lot of research and development, time and expense, to develop [a litter] that would do this.”
Diagnostic Cat Litters
Diagnostic litters are evenly coated with a safe, nontoxic pH detector; the litters turn colors when they detect pH changes in a cat’s urine.
“You know the strips you use to test the pH in a swimming pool?” says Tim Barber, Ph.D., chief operating officer and director of research and development for Camarillo, Calif.-based Performance Plus Laboratories. “It’s the same principle, although you’ll never get that little strip underneath your cat. This is the simplest way to identify if a cat may have a problem.”
If the litter changes to a color other than yellow, it’s an indication the cat should visit the veterinarian for a diagnosis. Manufacturers emphasize that owners should seek veterinary care and not attempt to make diagnoses themselves.
“Every owner checks the litter box every once in a while,” York says. “All they do is check and see a color that is not normal. You need to take your cat to the vet.”
Catch It Early
Part of diagnostic litters’ strength lies in its ability to detect health concerns before owners might recognize physical signs in their cats. Because cats hide their illnesses, owners may not detect a problem until a cat’s treatment is either very expensive or comes too late.
Because of this, manufacturers recommend cats use diagnostic litters every day, just as they would any litter and not only if the owner suspects a problem. The point, of course, is to detect signs of illness early—before owners realize there’s cause for concern.
Manufacturers say they have addressed all the qualities owners look for in cat litter, such as moisture absorption and odor control.
“They’re fantastic litters so they can use it every day, but the most important thing about using it every day is that they’re looking for a trend,” York says. “If they see it every day and there’s no change, the cat’s healthy. If a few years later they see a blue color one day, which is what happened to us, take the cat to the vet.”
For best results, manufacturers recommend that diagnostic litters stand alone in the box. It’s OK to mix litters while transitioning from one to another, but there is a possibility that diagnostic litters may react to another litter. Owners should similarly refrain from adding anything to litter boxes, such as odor-control agents, because it may cause the litter to react.
Also, storing diagnostic litters properly is important for maintaining their integrity.
“It’s important that you keep the package sealed because you don’t want outside contaminants,” Dr. Barber says. “For example, if you put it in your closet with your cleaning sprays and detergents, the ammonia will affect it because of the high pH in ammonia. We like for people to keep the lid on it, so to speak.”
Most diagnostic litters have been made for easy use. Litters come with instructions on interpreting color changes and prompts to take cats to veterinarians if there is change in litter color.
“If my toothbrush turned colors if I was sick, I’d buy that toothbrush,” York says. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to do that.”