Health Hazards of a Dirty Litter Box

Your cat’s litter box may be putting you and your entire household at risk.

Cleaning a litter box is probably one of the biggest downsides to owning a cat. Sure, seeing your furniture all scratched up and covered in fur can be infuriating, but these annoyances don’t really compare to scooping clumps of cat waste daily out of a small box. A mere whiff of that vileness is enough to make your stomach hurl, but someone’s gotta do the dirty work and it's all worth it for those adorable head bumps and late night snuggle sessions. However, we can all agree that the horrific odor that emanates from your cat’s waste is revolting, but what’s lurking behind the stench is even more sickening—literally and figuratively.

Dangers of a Dirty Litter Box

Dirty litter boxes are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms. Failure to clean them regularly can pose serious health risks for both you and your cat.

Urinary and Kidney Problems in Cats

Cats are notorious for being sticklers for cleanliness and hygiene. They can get very obsessive-compulsive about pretty much everything, and that includes their litter boxes. Just like what us humans feel about dirty toilets and bathrooms, cats also abhor dirty litter boxes and won’t even dare step in a box full of filth to do their business. If the box is not clean, they will try to hold it in, and that’s where the problem begins.

Holding waste in for prolonged periods of time is bad for your cat’s kidney and bladder health. It can cause urinary tract infections, bladder infections, and even kidney problems. While these conditions are not considered fatal, the cost of treating them can be quite significant. Furthermore, the discomfort that your cat will experience from these health issues may cause it to avoid using the litter box altogether.

Human Health Risks

If you think a dirty litter only affects cats, then think again. Humans are also at risk of contracting diseases from it as much as cats do. While most diseases can be spread only between the same species, there are diseases that can be transferred from cats to humans through waste exposure. Here are some of them:

1. Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease, or CSD, is a zoonotic (diseases spread between animals and people) disease that humans can acquire from direct contact with a Bartonella henselae-infected litter box. Although Bartonella infections are more common with outdoor cats, indoor cats can contract it through infected ticks and fleas.

2. Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is another disease that can be passed on by cats to humans through their waste. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 million people in the United States may be infected with this zoonotic disease. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, and is capable of staying in the human body for an indefinite period of time. It produces fever-like symptoms and has even been associated with suicidal tendencies. To learn more about Toxoplasmosis, check out this blog post.

3. Salmonella

Salmonella isn’t only acquired by eating uncooked meat. It can also be transmitted through direct contact with animal feces, or in this case, a dirty litter box. This bacterial infection generally attacks the gut and produces symptoms such as diarrhea and stomach cramps.

4. Fungal Infections

When a cat steps in a filthy litter box, it can contract different kinds of fungal infections such as hookworms and ringworms. Dirty litter boxes harbor a multitude of fungi, which often spread to humans by direct contact with an infected cat.

Cleaning Your Cat’s Litter Box

As you may have known by now, cats are infamously finicky when it comes to their litter boxes. They will often turn up their noses and look for another place to do their business if their box is not clean enough for them to use. Cleaning your cat’s litter box is probably one of the worst chores there is, but it needs to be done properly to keep your cat and your entire household happy and healthy. Here are some tips on how to do so and a litter box maintenance routine you can implement in your own household.

Tip # 1: Protect yourself from direct contact with bacteria and toxic fumes.
Your cat’s litter box harbors a horde of bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms, so it’s important that you are well-protected against these invisible nasties. Wearing protective hand gloves can prevent germs and bacteria from directly touching your skin, while a face mask can help prevent you from inhaling ammonia and other toxic fumes emanating from your cat’s litter.
Tip # 2: Follow a regular cleaning schedule.
If you only have one cat at home, maintaining their litter box is quite easy. However, if you have multiple cats and multiple litter boxes to maintain, cleaning can be so much harder to manage. By following a regular cleaning schedule, you’ll be able to clean your cat’s litter efficiently and effectively.

DAILY CLEANING TASKS

  • Scoop out your cat’s poop and clumps of pee at least once a day. Your kitty would surely appreciate it if you clean its litter box at least twice per day, though—once in the morning and once in the evening. The longer you leave your cat’s litter box dirty, the more difficult it is to get all the waste out of it, so make sure you clean it every day to prevent waste and disease-causing microbes from accumulating.
  • If you use traditional kitty litter such as clay or crystal, you’ll probably need to sweep up or vacuum around the litter box to clean all of the particles that were tracked by your kitty. On the same note, if you use a litter mat, it would probably be best to shake it out into a trash can, disposing of all of the litter particles caught by the mat.
  • To make cleaning a breeze, keep a trash bin within reach as you scoop the waste out to prevent leaving a trail of litter behind. If you have a natural, flushable kitty litter such as TofuKitty, you can simply take the clumps right to the toilet instead of depositing the poo in a garbage can. If you’re not a fan of flushing, another option is to dispose of it in a biodegradable bag! How convenient, isn’t it?

REFILLING YOUR CAT’S LITTER

  • Refill your cat’s litter every two to three days. You need to maintain a sufficient level of litter in the box so that your cat can dig and cover their waste. Ideally, it’s recommended to keep between 2”-3” of litter in the box. Make sure to not overfill it though, as it will just end up getting kicked out of the box.

WEEKLY CLEANING TASKS

  • If you’re using traditional clay litter, you’ll need to empty and wash your cat’s litter box once a week. Using a mild and unscented detergent, wash the box thoroughly and rinse it with warm water. You may also add in some white vinegar to effectively kill all harmful microbes lurking on the box. Try to avoid using bleach and other scented cleaning agents when cleaning as cats are very sensitive to strong odors.
  • If you’re using clumping, crystal, or an all-natural litter and if your litter box is getting a bit musty or stale, you can deodorize your cat’s litter box by sprinkling a tablespoon or two of baking soda or activated charcoal before adding in the additional litter. This can help the longevity of your litter and keep your litter box fresh until you clean it again.

MONTHLY CLEANING TASKS

  • If you’re using clumping, crystal litter, or an all-natural litter like TofuKitty, I suggest that you completely empty, clean, and replace the litter every month using the same weekly cleaning protocol listed above. Clean it with soap and vinegar, rinse with warm water, dry, and deodorize...get the gist? In addition, try to stay away from unnecessary harsh chemicals when cleaning your kitty’s litter box. There are plenty of all-natural cleaning products or ‘make-your-own’ cleaning product recipes out there to explore.

RECOMMENDED CLEANING PRODUCT LIST:

  • Pooper scooper
  • Garbage can, garbage bags, and a vacuum or broom (if you’re using traditional litters)
  • Eco-friendly rubber gloves
  • Protective face mask
  • Baking soda or activated charcoal
  • Eco-friendly cleaning products like Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap, doTERRA On Guard Cleaner Concentrate, or Method Home’s antibacterial cleaner
  • Eco-friendly scrubbing brushes like those from The Clean Collective
  • DIY cleaning supplies (if you’d rather not buy cleaning products):
     a. White vinegar
     b. Baking soda
     c. Whitehazel
     d. Essential oils of your choice

A Clean Litter Box Makes a Happy Cat

Taking care of your feline friend takes dedication and a little bit of sacrifice. Cleaning your cat’s litter box may not be the most glamorous part of being a cat-parent, but the benefits that it offers definitely outweigh whatever inconveniences you may have to put up with. Be sure to clean your cat’s litter box regularly not only to keep health risks at bay, but also to keep your neat-freak kitties happy all day.

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