Scented vs Unscented Cat Litter: Which Is Better?

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Research is mixed.

Experts suggest the winner of the scented vs unscented cat litter debate is probably unscented – with caveats.

There’s a lot of cat litter to chose from, and it’s hard to know what cats like best.

In the rest of this article, I’ll scented vs unscented cat litter is best for your cat and tease out this problem.

I recommend seeking the advice of a vet for any further questions. The advice in this article is not intended as medical advice.

Scented vs Unscented Cat Litter: What Do Cats prefer?

Results are mixed.

This is what the science says on the topic of whether cats prefer scented or unscented litter.

A 2006 study compared scented (floral) to unscented litter in 35 cats over 4 nights, to see what cats used more.

From 277 elimination events (i.e. pee and poop):

  • 134 used the scented
  • 143 used the unscented

The difference wasn’t statistically significant, although the trend was to unscented.

This study has a few limitations though:

  • Only tested one fragrance (floral)
  • Not testing cats with prior elimination problems
  • Not cleaning the litter box after every ‘deposit’

Cats might have reluctantly used the other litter (even if they didn’t want to) when the other was full. Other research shows cats want a clean litter tray, supporting this idea.

Another 2006 study compared 20 cats with elimination problems to 20 cats without. Researchers compared what variables associated with litter avoidance over a 72 hour period.

The use of scented and unscented cat litter didn’t impact elimination problems.

Back in 1997, researchers gave owners of 100 cats with elimination problems a questionnaire. They compared results to 44 control cats (no elimination problems).

68% of cats with elimination problems used scented litter compared to 25% in the control group. It’s not clear what type of scented litter owners were using.

A report in 2009 suggested that cedar is a cats preferred scent, with citrus less favorable. This suggests the type of fragrance matters.

Beyond that, it might be that it’s not fragrance that matters most – but the ability to control odors.

The author of the 2009 report shares results from an unpublished paper. Cats preferred litter with activated carbon over bicarbonate soda.

Activated carbon adsorbs gasses and vapors (i.e. from waste) keeping odors away.

Normal behavior for cats is to cover scent after elimination, by covering it with litter. The utility of this is to conceal their location.

If the litter isn’t covering waste and odors – cats might deem that litter as not a good option.

A 2014 guideline report for vets suggest a cafeteria set up with side-by-side litter trays to see what cats prefer.

Test scented and unscented litter together to find out what they like best.

A cat using a litter box
Side-by-side litter box tests help find out what your cat likes

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Scented Cat Litter?

A cat litter with an attractive odor.

This usually involves added essential oils and/or perfumes. They are semi-volatile compounds that are lightweight, and travel in the air (to our nose).

The benefit of scented cat litter is to improve the smell of our homes, and get rid of the mustiness.

Cats have a 14x stronger sense of smell – and are presumably more sensitive to pleasant and unpleasant smells.

Quick notes:

  • Uses essential oils and/or perfumes
  • Lightweight compounds
  • Help mask smells
A cat smelling a flower
Cats have a stronger sense of smell and are more sensitive to odor

What Is Unscented Cat Litter?

Cat litter without perfumes or fragrance added.

Most cat litters smell earthy (e.g. clay) or barnyard like (e.g. pine litter). Some don’t have much smell at all (e.g. tofu).

The benefit of not using scents is avoiding potential allergens. Cats are sensitive to a range of essential oils as well.

Quick notes:

  • Cat litter without fragrance
  • Most cat litter smells earthy
  • Avoids allergens

Learn more:

An unscented cat litter
Most cat litter tells you if it’s unscented on the front label

What Is the Best Thing to Use for Cat Litter Smell?

Activated charcoal.

This compound adsorbs odors and vapors made when your cat uses the litter tray. Cats prefer litter with activated charcoal vs bicarbonate soda.

Try a cat litter using it, if you’re after odor control. The best rated odor control cat litter is Fresh Step (uses fragrance and activated charcoal).

Quick notes:

  • Activated carbon is best for odors
  • Cats preferred it over bicarbonate soda
  • Look for cat litter with activated charcoal

Best products:

Activated charcoal
Activated charcoal offers great odor control, which cats prefer


There’s mixed research on whether cats prefer scented or unscented cat litter.

Results can depend on other factors like the scent used and frequency of litter box cleaning.

Activated carbon helps neutralize odors and cats prefer it over bicarbonate soda. Try placing scented and unscented litter side-by-side to see what your cat likes best.

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I'm qualified dietitian that's turned their attention to cat nutrition. My goal is to help tease out the science on how best to feed your cat.