FAQ: Can Cat Litter Hurt Your Dog or Is It Harmless?

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

FAQ: Can Cat Litter Hurt Your Dog or Is It Harmless?

As any dog parent knows, our pooches love to get into things they shouldn't. It's pretty much an engrained instinct, and there's very little way to stop it from happening, at least occasionally. Even the most well-behaved pup can suffer a moment of weakness and go in for that delectable odor they detect.

It's one thing if they're digging in the garbage or getting into some hidden treats you've kept in a cupboard. It's quiteanother experience altogether if they're getting into something much less savory, like your cat's litter box.

Cats and dogs? Cohabitating? It'll never work! The truth is, though, cats and dogs can get along great. They have different instinctual body language and interpret each other's behaviors in different ways, but that doesn't mean they have to be aggressive to one another. They can be friends and love each other just as much as we love them.

The biggest issue comes with the territory of caring for animals. While you can take your dog outside to go potty, cats generally should stay indoors, and that's what the litter box is for. So when your pooch decides to investigate that litter box and finds some tasty treats, well, not only is it gross, but you might wonder if it's dangerous.

Is cat litter dangerous to your dog if they eat it, or is it more or less harmless? The answer is a firm "it depends."

Cat Litter and the Differences Between Cats and Dogs

Many pet products are designed to be harmless to their respective creatures, but different kinds of animals have different needs. Something harmless to dogs might cause digestive distress or other damage to cats, and vice versa. They have different nutritional needs, after all, and can be sensitive to different kinds of chemicals.

A big example is xylitol. Xylitol is fine – even beneficial – in humans. It's used as a sugar substitute that doesn't rot your teeth, so it's increasingly found in everything from candies to peanut butter. As any responsible dog parent knows, though, xylitol is toxic to dogs. It lowers their blood sugar to potentially dangerous levels and can cause organ damage, especially if your pooch gets into a tub of xylitol-infused peanut butter and has no self-control.

Cats, though, don't much care about the ingredient. Xylitol doesn't seem to have much of an impact on cats at all.

So, it just goes to show that different substances have different impacts on different pets, and it's not always clear or obvious what does and doesn't have an impact.

A Cat and Cat Litter Image by Toe Beans

Cat litter is explicitly made to serve three goals.

  • It serves as a substrate media for cats to bury their waste, since cats prefer to find some place they can dig and bury their leavings to help avoid detection or contamination where they hang out.
  • It absorbs moisture and, more importantly, the odors that develop from your cat's waste, so you don't have to smell it throughout your house.
  • It often (though not always) has material properties that allow it to clump up when moistened to make it easy to clean a litter box without wasting excessive amounts of cat litter.

You might notice that the safety of the cat isn't on this list. In fact, one of the most common kinds of cat litter – bentonite clay litter – is actually toxic to cats, because sodium bentonite is dangerous. Not only can it be toxic, it can also clump up inside your fur baby, hardening into an impossible-to-pass lump that causes an impacted bowel.

Not great!

So why is this allowed? Well, the simple answer is that cats have zero desire to eat their refuse or their litter. It's simply not a problem outside of extreme circumstances, and if your cat is suffering in such an extreme circumstance, there are much bigger problems to address as well.

What about dogs, though? Is cat litter harmful to dogs? There are two factors to consider.

Factor 1: What Kind of Litter Did Your Dog Eat?

The first question is, what kind of litter are you using? Different kinds of cat litter have different material and chemical properties.

There are actually a bunch of different kinds of cat litter. They come in two categories: clumping and non-clumping. Within each category, there are a bunch of different types of materials available as well. You can read a bigger breakdown of these types of cat litter in my guide to litters, here.

A Cat Litter Box Image by Toe Beans

Paper product litter is generally made from recycled paper products. It's sterilized and cleaned, so there aren't things like toxic inks in the pellets. It's generally non-toxic to animals, but if your dog eats too much of it, it can cause an intestinal blockage, which can be serious. More on the repercussions later, by the way.

Silica or "crystal" cat litter is made with a silica gel kind of product. Silica gel is used as a desiccant, which means it absorbs moisture. This is useful in cat litter for absorbing urine and for odor control. But, if your dog eats it, the moisture inside them can be absorbed into it. Those silica gel packets say "do not eat" on them, after all. Fortunately, in small amounts, silica gel can be passed just like anything else your dog eats. It doesn't clump up, so it won't form a blockage. All you need to do is make sure your pooch drinks plenty of water.

Clay cat litter is made from bentonite clay. This is the archetypal clumping cat litter; the clay pellets, when they get wet, get sticky, and stick to both waste and one another. This means they absorb moisture and turn into blockages, making it one of the more dangerous kinds of cat litter for dogs. Some bentonite clay can also include trace amounts of quartz, which can be carcinogenic when inhaled (causing silicosis), which is bad for everyone and everything.

Grain cat litter, like corn litter, or wood litter, like pine litter, are all generally safer. They aren't typically going to be as good at their jobs as the main clay or silica litters, but they'll also be less dangerous if your dog eats a mouthful.

Factor 2: How Much Litter Did Your Dog Eat?

Here's the thing: your dog isn't going after the litter. You know that, I know that, and as much as we don't like to think about it, it's simply a fact. Your dog is after those little nuggets of leavings your cat buries; the litter they eat along the way just happens because it's stuck to those nuggets.

That means that when your dog is eating cat litter, they're doing it with very little in the way of actual litter as their goal. They might take a mouthful while they find a turd to eat, but they're generally not just chowing down on the litter box unless it hasn't been cleaned in a long time, and again, in that case, you have bigger problems.

A Dog Next to a Litter Box Image by Toe Beans

In general terms, if your dog has only eaten a small amount of cat litter, they're fine. A tiny amount of cat litter probably won't be toxic to any but the smallest dogs, and the issues with dehydration and internal clumping generally only happen if a lot of litter is eaten at once.

What Are the Problems with Your Dog Eating Cat Litter?

So, if your dog has decided to dig into the litter box for a snack, what are the primary risks?

Toxicity. As mentioned above, cat litter is usually not toxic to dogs. That said, if you get scented cat litter, perfumed litter, or litter with some kind of additive to it, it's possible that your fur baby can be sensitive to that ingredient, or it could include a chemical that is toxic to your pooch. This is why unscented litters are generally better.

Allergies. Similar to toxicity, your dog might have an allergic reaction to some component of the litter. This is, again, most common with scented litters and perfume compounds, which are usually chemicals that can cause various problems, even in people or cats as well as dogs. You can also identify if your dog is going to have a reaction through a skin test, and if so, change litters ASAP to avoid a problem down the road.

A Dog Being Treated by a Vet Image by Toe Beans

Intestinal blockages. Clumping litters in particular can cause blockages internally when they clump up and get stuck in the bowels. Depending on where in the system they get stuck, this can range from simple constipation all the way to an impacted bowel that might require surgery to correct. Usually, small amounts of litter won't cause this, and non-clumping litters usually won't either.

Dehydration. Cat litter is almost always designed to absorb moisture because moisture is what allows bacteria to grow and what causes the stench of waste. Moisture is also what keeps every living thing alive and is what allows the bowels to work properly. Dehydration causes all kinds of problems, and if litter in the gut is absorbing too much moisture from the surrounding digestive system, your dog is going to suffer from it. Fortunately, in all but the most extreme cases, all you need to do is get your pooch to drink more, and it'll be fine.

Infections. This one doesn't have anything to do with the litter, but rather with your cat's refuse. Cats can carry parasites, including worms, and bacteria like salmonella. If your dog eats their droppings, then your dog can contract one of those infections as well. Now, ideallyyou have antiparasitic treatments for all of your animals and the only risk is bacteria, but it's still something that can crop up at any time.

Other than extreme levels of internal blockage, dehydration, or allergic reaction, none of these are going to be life-threatening, at least not right away. Still, it's something you need to watch for.

Signs Your Dog is Suffering from Eating Cat Litter

Normally, it should be fairly easy to determine if your dog is eating cat litter. Dogs aren't the most subtle or crafty of God's creatures, after all. Still, you should pay attention to their behavior and keep an eye out for symptoms of impending problems.

A Dog Eating Cat Litter Image by Toe Beans

Look for:

Your dog may also vomit, and that vomit might contain litter and can be a sign that they ate more than what came up and that you may want to get them checked out.

As mentioned, the majority of the time, your dog won't be in an immediately life-threatening condition, and you can call your vet and schedule an appointment in the next few days to have them checked over. If they seem to be struggling with dehydration, lethargy, or a complete inability to potty, then you should be more concerned and consider the emergency vet.

Stopping Your Dog from Eating Cat Litter

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if you want your fur baby to stay away from the litter, your best option is physical separation.

Stopping a Dog From Eating Cat Litter Image by Toe Beans

You have a few options here.

  • Buy an enclosed litter box with a small door that your dog can't get in through, but your cat can. Cats also tend to prefer more protected and enclosed spaces for their litter needs, so this serves double duty.
  • Use a baby gate or other barrier that your cat can bypass, but your dog can't, to separate the area where you keep your litter.
  • Make sure your dog has enough activity and engagement so they don't get bored and start getting into things they shouldn't.
  • Consider training your cat to use the toilet instead of a litter box and, eventually, get rid of litter entirely.

These are some of the most common options. You may also just be able to train your dog well enough to stay away from the enticing litter box treasures. In rare cases, you might even be able to train your cat to go outside on a harness to do their business, just like your dog. Really, there are plenty of options for you to explore. Which one has worked best for you? Be sure to let me know in the comments section, down below! I always love hearing from you all!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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