Why My Whole House Smells Like Cat Urine
Immaculate landscaping, new carpeting, and buffed hardwood floors reupholstered furniture, and the best crystal and flatware make for a very welcoming atmosphere at party time.
With no detail going unnoticed, perfection is the order of the day since you put a priority on the comfort and enjoyment of guests.
Their nausea, however, is evident as they come through the door — one detail was forgotten, likely because of sensory adaptation.
Those who share their house with cats can quickly grow accustomed to the scent of cat urine. Yet it hits visitors like a mallet. Fortunately, it is a solvable problem.
Cats Litter Box Smells Really Bad
Yes, it is reasonable to expect kitty litter to neutralize the stench of cat urine…but not always realistic.
Since ancient Egyptians first welcomed cats as house pets, owners conducted trial and error experiments using sand, sawdust, and wood shavings to capture and absorb the emanations of feces and urine. None of these options proved sufficient so only die-hard cat lovers kept these animals at home.
According to WashingtonPost, Only in the mid-20th century did “kitty litter” come about when Edward Lowe added minuscule lumps of clay to the mix.
This supplement lessened the odor considerably and cat ownership jumped. Because of the more permeable nature of clay–with lots of nooks and crannies invisible to the naked eye–smells are better apprehended than by, say, sand alone.
Furthermore, as an inorganic material, clay does not house bacteria or other destructive organisms.
The charged hydrogen atoms bond with the ammonia (NH3) of the urine to form ammonium (NH4), thus degrading the most pungent element of cat discharge.
Still, the idea of eliminating the odor of the, well, elimination is not always realized. The reasons relate to either the strength of the NH3 concentration or the inadequacy of the hydrogen presence for effective bonding.
How Does a Cat Make Urine?
Feline physiology is at the root of what makes a cat a cat. It determines why they give chase to moving objects; why they slumber so much; why they are carnivorous; and why they like to work the graveyard shift.
In fact, physiology goes a long way to explain why Felis catus is the most popular domestic animal companion in the world.
Can physiology demonstrate why cat urine is so pungent relative to other mammals? Indeed it can, putting curious cat owners on the path to solving the odor problem at home.
In general, feline physiology is quite like that of other meat-eating Mammalia. However, a number of distinctions do exist.
For example, given its origins as a desert creature, the house cat evidences a higher threshold of heat toleration than do other mammals, including humans.
Normal vital signs for a cat are 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit for body temperature; 120 to 140 beats per minute for heart rate; and 16 to 40 breaths per minute as a standing respiration rate.
These measures are fairly uniform among the 41 currently recognized breeds of the house cat.
Cat physiology continues to provide new revelations. Case in point: the reasons for purring. Long considered a simple sign that all was right in the feline world, scientists now believe purring might even indicate pain or discomfort.
The purr is distinctive because it sounds during the entire inhalation/exhalation cycle. Locating its origins around the laryngeal muscles that open and shut the glottis, researchers determined that purring occurs when vocal cords are separated. Such a state can happen in times of comfort or in times of trauma.
This kind of discovery underscores the fact that feline physiology–or, at least, understanding it–is still a work in progress.
Recognizing this reality helps interested parties approach questions of digestion, metabolism and elimination with care…and some humility, as well.
How Do Cats Digest, Metabolize, and Eliminate?
The absorption of nutrition and elimination of waste are central questions where animal science is concerned. Keeping pets in good health, with ample energy and decent longevity, depends much on these questions. No less so with cats.
As with people, cat digestion begins in the mouth, where food is masticated and pulverized. The nutrients are then compelled toward the esophagus, the muscles of which push them into the stomach.
The gateway to the stomach is a band of muscles known as a sphincter. Once through the sphincter, At this point, the acids of the stomach do their work, transforming the mass into liquid.
After entering another sphincter portal at the duodenum, the food is subject to the bile released by the gallbladder.
Bile decomposes the largest fat molecules while enzymes–courtesy of the pancreas–counteract the acids before the food reaches the intestine. Enzymes also assist in sugar, fat, and protein assimilation.
The small intestine is where nutrition in the form of protein, electrolytes, water, and enzymes are absorbed.
To a lesser degree, they are also taken in by the large intestine (or colon) where fecal matter is formed. This then exits the cat through the rectum and anus. So what does this have to do with urine?
For one thing, water is essential to the feline digestive process. Metabolism is affected when water intake is too low. Noted above is the intestinal reception of water and electrolytes into the body.
Inadequate water intake can lead to dehydration (though this condition also comes from too much urination or diarrhea). The uptake of H2O and electrolytes by the body leaves the urine higher in waste percentages. As such, its smell is stronger.
According to MerckvetManual, Wastes are not just expelled in feces, after all. After food and nutrients are absorbed in the intestines, energy is created and some waste product is left to exit with the urine from kidneys to bladder to urethra. It is the composition of that urine that determines the strength of its odor.
Cat urine contains uric acid, creatine, and urea, as well as ketones, nitrates, leukocytes, and bilirubin. Urea, furthermore, is deconstructed into amines, ammonia among them.
The amines are again dismantled, leaving mercaptan–a molecule present in the spray of skunks. Needless to say, waste released through feline urine is designed to stink.
Theoretically, increasing the amount of water consumed would diminish the odor. Still, most healthy cats are not known for drinking more water than they need. Clearly, a remedy for the stench must be found in the litter box.
Neutralizing Cat Urine Smell
Noted above is the fact that the addition of clay to cat litter cut down heavily on the unpleasant emanations wafting from the litter box. But the nose is a sensitive receptacle…and cat urine is a dominating presence.
In the 1980s, other agents were added to the basic litter composition: chemicals that enhance clumping, reduce dust, and emit counteracting scents. As a rule, litter consists of clay, silicon, or organic matter from plants, plus an array of these additives.
Improvements in Clay-Based Litter
The 1947 innovation of clay by Edward Lowe was a landmark event for cat lovers but it was not without its own drawbacks. Lowe utilized Fuller’s earth, i.e. a variety of clay minerals that can soak up their own weight in fluid.
While the porous nature of Fuller’s earth represented a huge improvement in the quarantine of smells, it was not without its drawbacks. Most problematic was the fact that the clay litter had to be changed frequently.
According to Chemical & Engineering News, The reason for this necessarily repeated turnover was that the feces in the box instigated a chemical reaction with the urine, transforming the uric acid into ammonia, thereby compounding the power of its olfactory punch.
Over the years, Lowe’s successors addressed this problem on several fronts. First, they added baking soda to the absorption mix. Next, they introduced perfumes and scents to cover some of the stenches that escape intake.
In addition, they synthesized anti-bacterial substances like alcohol and peroxides to prevent the consequences of fecal-urine interaction.
Meanwhile, others were looking for alternatives to Fuller’s earth. Scientist Thomas Nelson discovered that bentonite clay demonstrated a compact clumping action in the presence of moisture.
This allows cat owners to scoop up the offending waste without having to replace the litter box contents so often. Today, nearly 60 percent of clay-based cat litter is bentonite.
The Power of Silica Gel
One of the constituent elements of bentonite clay is a silicate. Related material is silica gel, a granular substance often found in desiccants that maintain textile freshness.
Proving to be more absorbent than clay, silica gel composes litter that requires less change (not counting the removal of feces). Since mold and bacteria seldom grow in crystal granules, the litter box is cleaner, and also free of dust.
Added to these benefits, silica gel is more efficient than clay, so less of it is needed for the box at any given time. It is also lighter in weight.
In terms of disposal, some silica products are both biodegradable and safe for flushing. On its face, silica gel seems like the litter the world was waiting for.
Yet concerns arise over silica gel litter. Cats–especially older ones–will sometimes nibble on the crystals. Unfortunately, these are toxic to cats (minimally to humans) and might lead to a premature demise.
Moreover, the crystals are prone to aggregate together, leaving spots in the box where urine can pool unabsorbed. This, of course, defeats the purpose of cat litter.
So, manufacturers often advise buyers to regularly mix up the litter to assure more even distribution.
Also, some cats injure their paws when scratching in a silicate gel litter box, causing them to shun the box in subsequent encounters.
Finally, there is a price–literally–to pay for excellent absorbency and smell minimization. Silicate gel crystals are more expensive than other litter media.
Although some argue that the infrequent changing offsets the hefty retail price of this product, the cost difference with traditional clay litters can be prohibitive to consumers. A careful comparative study of the litters is warranted before making the larger investment.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Clay
In an age where so many cat owners are also passionate about environmental hazards like landfills, ocean dumping, and climate change, they look for a litter medium the disposal of which does minimal violence to the earth and atmosphere.
As is so often the case, ingenuity offers up several alternatives:
1. Recycled paper litters — speak for themselves. Napkins, tissues, and paper towels are all purchased for their absorbent capacities.
It is no surprise, therefore, that paper works as cat litter, as well. When the newspaper is recycled, to illustrate, the paper fibers are divided into long ones and short ones.
The former can constitute new newsprint sheets whereas the latter–if not discarded–can be molded into pellets and serve as an effective litter (with a little help from an odor reduction element).
2. Wood litters — are the refined grindings of bark, scrap, and sawdust. This mulch is heated to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which excites the tree sap to condense the wood molecules into pellets. Pine pellets contain a natural aroma that helps staunch the stench of cat urine.
3. Plant material as litter — usually consists of grain-based substances like corn cobs, kernels, and wheat. Like wood, these can be pulverized, super-heated, and fashioned into pellets of a very lightweight.
Grains contain certain enzymes–among them protease and alpha-amylase–that have a suppressing effect of cat urine smells.
Aside from grains, green tea leaves, potato starch, and wheatgrass are also vegetable-based litter alternatives. Plant material is easily flushed and decomposes without any environmental consequences.
What Kind of Litter Do Cat Owners Prefer?
A survey of product reviews evidences a wide range of preferences among the litter-buying public. All of the pros and cons come into play, from efficacy to price to dust to green-ness.
Opinions vary and people new to cats do well to discover the satisfaction and disappointment that is voiced on the many brands of cat litter. What product is bought reflects where a cat owner’s priorities are.
Clay Litter Opinions
A common complaint among those who invest in clay-based litters is that they generate a good deal of dust, especially when the air is circulating from heating and air-conditioning ducts.
Ironically, this objection is even directed at litters which boast of little dusty residue.
The reality is that dust of this sort–or any dust, for that matter–can lead to respiratory disorders in both cats and their human patrons.
How deeply it penetrates the indoor atmosphere is a factor in what consumers will tolerate. Forced air systems are more likely to disseminate dust particles through the house or the apartment.
Unfortunately for cat lovers using the clay-based litter, forced air is the most common heating/cooling vehicle in residential dwellings. The same air that carries heat also carries dust as it wafts through the home.
Not only is the quality of air altered, but the furnace can also become corroded by caked-on dust from the litter. Those committed to using clay litter do have ways to improve the situation.
First, they should locate the litter box far from heating units and vents (easier said than done). Secondly, and more practically, they can invest in a quality air filter for their HVAC system that can trap all kinds of airborne particles: dust, pollen, spores, and bacteria, e.g. These are inexpensive methods of keeping the dust at the lowest levels possible.
A final word on dust critiques. Although they are numerous, they are not universal, and many buyers express complete satisfaction with their clay litter choices.
Silicate Gel Opinions
Because of the higher cost of silicate gel crystals, these litter products received higher marks from those with two or more cats. The efficiency and less-frequent maintenance apparently more than compensate for the elevated prices.
Purchasers also note the lack of dust and ease with which feces are scooped from the box.
Yet online reviews reveal some discontent with silicate gel crystals as cat litter. Although relatively dust-free, this litter tends to track as the cats leave the box for points beyond. The regular cleaning up in the feline’s wake bothers some.
Noted above is the fact that the crystals do not maintain an even distribution, leaving urine to pool where the litter is displaced. The resulting stench disappoints some buyers who do not realize the necessity of regular reshuffling–or simply do not wish to do it.
While the following grievance is unrelated to urine, it bears some attention: a few consumers were upset by the fact that fecal odor was not effectively knocked out by silicate gel litter.
This begs the question, is litter intended more for poop or pee? Of course, it is intended for both, with this caveat — feces should be scooped out daily, at the very least, whereas the litter itself needs replacement bi-weekly (in many cases).
Additionally, the fecal odor might also correlate with the cats that are shallow in their burying.
Sporadic reports state that some cats are averse to silicate gel crystals, refusing to enter the box. Whether this relates to some kind of physiological sensitivity is the only speculation. It may simply be an aversion to anything new.
Opinions on Alternative Litter Materials
Users of eco-friendly litter media like paper and wood pellets tend to make environmental delicacy their highest value.
However, they are also cat owners who want the product to serve its function, namely to reduce and eliminate waste aromas. So, how do alternative litters stack up?
Grain-based litter is hit hard on the dust factor. This should not surprise any rural folk familiar with the ubiquitous dust particles in and around grain storage silos.
On the other hand, few purchasers complain about tracking. The only other beef with the grain is that cats think it is food and will eat it no matter how foul. Those litters made from recycled paper farewell with the cat-loving environmentalists.
Paper scores well on dust, smell nullification, and clumping. Where it leaves owners dissatisfied are in the variables of price and tracking.
As with other eco-friendly litters, those made from ground wood chips can be cost-prohibitive to some cat parents who would just as soon use them over other types.
All in all, wood enthusiasts are pleased with the relative “dust-lessness” and odor elimination of these materials, as well as the facility with which clumps are scooped.
The downside, as reviewers corroborate, relates to tracking and financial expense. Again, the constituency for wood-byproduct litters generally accepts a few drawbacks if nature is being served.
On the one hand, expecting a house with cats to be completely savory in smell can be a sort of pipe dream. These are animals which, for all practical purposes, must eliminate indoors–and are ill-suited for the use of indoor plumbing.
As scientific research marches on, the capacity for litters to completely shut down odors increases: sometimes by leaps and bounds; at other times, incrementally.
In the interim, however, cat owners can not pretend they do not live with cats. A sensitive nose will always detect their presence.
At the same time, few cat lovers want to live in a barn. They want safety and comfort for their felines while preserving an atmosphere of human civility and good health.
Cat litter has come a long way in affording them this ideal. Yet the journey does continue. The challenge of managing feline waste without household consequences remains.
Keeping the cat healthy is a simple way to minimize cat pee odor since infected urine is normally more objectionable. Meanwhile, cursory research suggests that long-haired cats (Persians, e.g.) just might emit less odiferous urine than their short-haired peers.
Wherever the science goes, people who own cats will have to order their priorities and select litter that is optimal.
They can devise ways to manage dust and diminish tracking; maintain even distribution and discourage the cats from eating their litter. Like a beloved family member, the cat lover expresses love to his or her pet by making due.