Waste is far from being the sexiest part of having a companion pet, and today’s pet parents are faced with the essential challenge of how to handle their companion animal’s bathroom needs. The good news is that litter is constantly evolving, with several manufacturers rising to the occasion. One of the biggest trends being natural, biodegradable litter with a focus on pet health, while several other litters meeting the needs of consumers that are seeking dust-free, lightweight and multi-pet litter. Pet Age recently spoke with Steve Gordon, president at Kent Pet Group, to learn more about the litter sector.
What important aspects of litter should retailers know in order to educate their customers?
For many years, the default products used for litter were absorbent clay materials. In fact, today the vast majority of litters in the market are still clay-based formulas. While so many product choices in our homes have moved toward more sustainable sources, litter continues to be overwhelmingly unsustainable and it does not need to be. Over the past 20 years, Kent Pet Group has been making great strides made in creating absorbent and odor-control products that advance sustainable pet care and I think it is important for retailers to know what those products are and how they work. Today, every major manufacturer of litter has a sustainable option and I think that ranging more of these options is good for the category, our pets, our planet and retailer sales.
What are some best practices for cat health involving litter?
In our consumer research, we find that many consumers know very little about how litter and litter box maintenance affect cat health and quality of life. One of the most frequent stories that we hear from consumers is that as soon as they scoop the litter box their cats jump right back in to do their business. Cats are inherently clean animals and they value a clean litter box experience. We strongly advocate that, for best health and happiness of your cat, daily scooping of the litter box and a complete transition of litter once it becomes overly soiled and no longer clumps or eliminates odors well. We also recommend that you maintain one more litter box than you have cats in the home. This cats+1 formula is especially important in multiple cat households. When consumers become more aware of how litter box maintenance affects the health and wellbeing of their cat, they often make more informed choices about their litter and maintain the litter box more frequently.
We love cats and love our shelter partners. In the last year alone, we donated over one million pounds of litter to shelters across the country to support them in their amazing work. The number one reason that cats are returned to shelters is that the cat is not going in the box so we view the work of shelters and our work with litter as a deep partnership. The issues of a cat not using the litter box can be complex and sometimes requires the help from a vet or cat behaviorist. Other times, the issues can be resolved by creating a better litter box experience. One option is to use one of the specially designed attractant litters that are on the market today. Our Picky Cat formula, for example, was developed and tested to ensure that it would improve box usage. Education is really at the heart of making the litter box a non-issue in cat ownership and there are a lot of great solutions in the category that improve animal health and wellbeing.
There are many segments of cat litter. What can you tell us about them?
You are right, there are a lot of options when it comes to litter. At Kent Pet Group, we specialize in natural and sustainable litters made from plants or recycled paper. World’s Best Cat Litter, for example, is made from whole-kernel corn and other plant materials and is naturally absorbent and flushable. We also lead the litter category in Australia with our paper-based litter Breeders Choice and our Back-2-Nature small animal bedding products. Some of the other sustainable options are made from grains and agricultural by-products like soy, walnut, cassava and wood. Many, but not all, of these plant-based options are flushable. As I mentioned, the clay-based products are the clear market leaders in terms of volume. We continue to see the major clay brands adding benefits and features that reduce the sticky mess at the bottom of the tray and extend their odor-controlling properties. A development that we also see is clay-based brands adding plant ingredients to attract that natural consumer. One of the trends that has picked up steam are litter systems that incorporate refills for their system (often refilled with silica crystals or zeolite pellets). Most of the growth that we see with these systems is coming out of Ecommerce due to auto-replenishment programs that make it easy to set it and forget it.
One polarizing feature that we hear a lot about is scented vs unscented litter. Consumers are really passionate on either side of this debate and for some, it is the most important criteria. On the World’s Best brand the majority of our formulas have no added scent and in our scented formulas we only use natural plant based extracts that are safe for cats. Last year we launched our new Lotus Blossom scent, which has been very well received. We do not add scent for odor control, rather, for the consumer who views scent as cleanliness cue.
The last segment that I would highlight is lightweight litter. The cost to ship litter is high so anything that manufacturers can do to lower the weight is a cost benefit. There is a wide range of “lightweight” litters with some products being very fluffy and others only slightly less dense than their original formulas. World’s Best Cat Litter is naturally lightweight so we do not maintain a separate lineup in this segment but most brands are offering lighter versions of their original lineups. The thing to watch for in lightweight is the increased tracking that consumers experience if the product is too light.
What’s going on, from a category standpoint, with respect to consumer behavior that’s impacting litter purchases?
From a share standpoint, the majority of litter purchases have historically been made at mass and grocery retailers due to shopping convenience. With the added convenience of delivery, Ecommerce has been stealing share and those share gains have only accelerated as shoppers consolidated shopping trips during COVID lockdowns. There is no mistaking that convenience is a key component of litter purchase but it is not the only driver. Loyalty programs and a good assortment of Natural Litters are the two highest indexing purchase drivers for the Pet Channel. When these benefits of loyalty and assortment are coupled with delivery, store pick-up and great service pet retailers are winning and driving growth.
Where do you see the cat litter category going in the future?
Cat litter is not the most glamorous category in pet care but it is a surprisingly fun category to work in. Cat owners are passionate about their cats and love to engage so anything we can do to improve the pet and human bond drives us to be better. Similar to other categories, we believe that consumers will continue to demand improvements in sustainability and animal welfare. Advances in packaging, ingredients and delivery models will continue to shape the future of cat litter in good ways that benefit pets, people and the planet.