By Donald McNeil
Updated July 30, 1984 12:00 PM

In his research-and-development center, a converted cow barn in Cassopolis, Mich. that he calls the Cattery, Ed Lowe keeps 24 cats, seven kittens, five white-coated scientists and a team of visiting “consultant sniffers” all busy seeking perfection. As the felines hunker down happily in the service of nature, technicians get ready to test the contents of their boxes for such critical variables as odor control, absorption, dust level, tracking and appearance. After their own noses they turn to instruments such as an “odor captivator” that Lowe designed. And the consumers’ reactions must be studied as well. “Please the cats,” says Lowe, “and the owners will buy.”

It would not occur to most people that Kitty Litter, the product Lowe invented 37 years ago, needs further R&D. His three brands, Kitty Litter, Tidy Cat and SophistiCat, account for 43 percent of the $250-million-a-year sales in cat litter, and the product itself, kiln-dried clay granules treated with deodorants, would seem almost immutably humble. But this summer Lowe, 64, is bringing out Tops-Off, a patented “layered litter” with special deodorizing granules on top. As the company joke goes, “We aim to stay No. 1 in the No. 2 business.”

It was back in 1947, says Lowe, when “most cats were not kept inside unless you had a hell of a constitution,” that he became a litter bearer. Kaye Draper, a neighbor, came to his house with a problem. She had run out of sand, then the commonest cat box filler. Ed was working with his father, who sold sawdust to factories for sopping up grease spills. He offered her some. It worked, but “the cat tracked it all over creation,” he says, so he offered her some of his dad’s new line, dried pulverized clay. “It absorbed even better, and it didn’t track,” Lowe recalls. “I thought maybe other folks would take an interest.”

Thus Kitty Litter was born. “The name just popped into my head,” says Lowe, who hastens to add that it cannot properly be applied to such competitors as Glamour Kitty and Cat’s Pride. “I feel proud that Kitty Litter’s being used as a generic term, but I also have to be protective,” he grumbles. “We have the same problem as Kleenex.”

Yet the sweet smell of success did not spread overnight. The pet-store owners Lowe visited in his Chevy coupe didn’t think they could sell five-pound bags of Kitty Litter for 65 cents when they were moving sand at a penny a pound. So Ed told them to give it away. They did. He toured cat shows, cleaning out redolent cat boxes and pouring in his product. People came back for more. Of course not everyone was satisfied. Griped one dissatisfied customer, “I’ve tried everything. I’ve put milk on it. I’ve put cream on it. But my cat just won’t eat the stuff.”

Growing up in Cassopolis with his parents and younger sister, Lowe remembers being “so poor we burned corncobs for heat and had no indoor toilet.” He still lives in the area, but now on a 2,300-acre homestead with 54 buildings (including the Cattery and eight guest houses) and about 20 unemployed farm cats who roam the property. When the spirit moves them, he and his wife, Darlene, 48, a decorator and former hog breeder (“Doesn’t she look like Linda Evans?” he asks, lifting her chin), sometimes head for one of their four other homes in Chicago, Florida, Tennessee and California.

In Cassopolis Lowe rises at 5 a.m., selects a hat from his collection of hundreds and visits one of his brook-side or hilltop “pondering points,” where he pens ponderous poetry. (“Did it ever occur to those who are blind/ That those who can see are sometimes behind.”) At day’s end he might meet Darlene for a drink in “Billyville,” an Old West town replica he built on the estate, or look over his private 18-hole golf course, which features upright pickle barrels as cups.

Mostly, Lowe works hard, perfecting his litter and expanding its agricultural and industrial uses. “The very least I can do is support 50 cats,” he says. “Look what they’ve done for me.”