A Breath of Fresh Air: How to Keep Your House from Smelling Like Cat

orange cat on couchI love cats, and have never had a problem with a cat smelling bad or my house smelling like cat. That may have something to do with the fact that I’m extremely allergic at cats and have pretty much lost my sense of smell over the years, having been constantly being plugged up.

But I have family members and friends with operational noses, who say they can easily sniff out cat body odor, litter stench and musky fur smells. And even they say they can’t tell we’re a multi-cat household.

So, how do you keep your house from smelling like cat? The main rule with cats is to keep the litter box scrupulously clean, scooping frequently and discarding used litter into a seal container.

Scoop the Litter Box Often

It’s not a job cat owners relish (and I’m very happy that I don’t have a working nose), but keeping the litter boxes clean is necessary to eliminate unpleasant odors from your home. This means you should scoop each litter box scoop at least twice daily. If you let it go for just one day, you’ll smell the difference when you walk in your front door.

Discard used litter into a sealed can. You can certainly use a garbage can with a lid, but be ready to gag to death when you have to lift the lid each time. The odor escapes into the rest of the house, so you’re kind of defeating the purpose of frequent scooping.

I prefer a Litter Genie. Just like the Diaper Genie we had when the kids were babies, they seal the smell. The dirty litter goes into a chute, then drops into the plastic bag below. Depending on the size of the pail, you change the bag every 2 or 3 weeks.

Location of the Litter Box

The basement has got to be the best choice for a litter box. It’s far enough from the front door to your home so that guests don’t keel over when they enter, and there’s enough space so you can put the boxes as close together (or far apart) as necessary. You’ve also usually got a utility sink nearby so you can wash the boxes more easily.

If you’re in a bungalow or apartment, finding an out of the way spot for one or two litter boxes can be challenging. A covered box might fit into a mud or laundry room, or you may need to use a bathroom, although that’s my least favorite choice. If you’ve got a large storage closet (not one where you hang clothes), that could be a good spot — just make sure the door can’t be closed inadvertently. One brilliant cat owner installed a motion activated exhaust fan in his study closet, where the cat litter boxes are located:


To hide a litter box in plain view, it might be worth splurging on litter box furniture. These hidden litter boxes are perfect for small spaces, and can serve as end tables, night stands or planters.

Change the Litter and Clean the Litter Box

It’s a good idea to throw out the old litter regularly and replace it with new litter. Exactly how often really depends on whether or not it smells. If you’ve got one cat on a high quality diet who doesn’t have diarrhea and doesn’t urinate on (and over) the side of the litter box, and you use clumping litter, you won’t have to replace the litter as often.

Same thing goes for how often you should wash out the litter box. Make sure you use a mild, fragrance-free detergent and rinse very well so the lingering odor of the cleaner doesn’t dissuade your cat from using the litter box. I’ve never had luck with liners: all my cats have scratched so much they destroyed them. However, if your cat doesn’t bury and scratch and dig for all she’s worth, liners can save you from having to scrub out the box.

Not All Litter is Created Equal

The kind of litter you use also plays a big part in whether a box is smelly and how often it needs to be cleaned. Clumping tends to be the easiest for cat owners to clean up after, but it’s usually pretty dusty and very heavy to carry in from the car. All the foster and adopted cats I’ve had seem to prefer odorless clumping litter made from clay, but I have used corn and recycled paper products with success too.

Food Matters to the Litter Box

stinky litter box

Ideally, cats should be eating wet food exclusively. It should be high quality food with no grains or fillers (the latter are not digestible, so runs through them anyway). And that’s not just for their health it’s also to keep their poop from being stinky and gross.

Transitioning to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate wet food diet should be done slowly to not cause stomach upset. When your healthy cat is eating a good diet, the amount of stool she produces will decrease, it will be well formed and won’t have an excessive odor. Feces will never smell like roses, of course, but it also shouldn’t send you (and your guests) screaming from your house.

Other Tips to Reducing Cat Odor

Keep the Fur Under Control

If you’ve got an indoor-only cat, you’re not just giving your cat the best chance at a long life, you’re also keeping your house from that funky smell of wet fur. Usually, it’s dogs that stink up the house with that special odor specific to wet canines, but a soaked cat can make your eyes water too. At least cats don’t tend to roll in dead and decaying matter.

Shedding, though, is shared equally between cats and dogs, unless you’ve got a hairless cat, like the Sphynx. And while cat fur is not malodorous, you’ll need to vacuum, sweep and use a lint roller to remove fur from carpets, floors, furniture and yourself. A vacuum with a HEPA filter reduces allergens, which is not a bad thing to have when so many people are allergic to cats. While pricey, a Roomba is certainly the easiest way to stay on top of vacuuming. They are designed to handle pet hair and have filters that capture the majority of allergens.

Grooming cats is important for many reasons, especially for long-haired breeds, overweight and older cats who may have difficulty. The tail and rear end should be brushed so that there are no tangles or mats. If mats do form, they can actually collect urine and feces, which will cause your cat to smell bad. If you are unable to clean their hind quarters with a wipe, a bath may be necessary. Just make sure to use a shampoo formulated for cats and recommended by your vet.

Spot Clean

Have your cat spayed or neutered to avoid them spraying urine all over your house. Males spray to mark territory, and females spray when they’re in heat. If your cat does spray or simply has an accident on the floor, carpet or furniture, clean it immediately with an enzymatic cleaner that neutralizes odors, like Urine-Off or Nature’s Miracle. A solution of bleach and water is a great disinfectant, and regular baby wipes are fine to use to clean your cat (which, by the way, helps with any cat allergies you may have).

cat licking pawWash the Cat’s Bed and Your Bedding Too

Most cats beds (or cat bed covers) fit into the washing machine easily and can be washed as often as you think necessary to keep them smelling fresh. If your cat curls up on your bed much of the time, a removable comforter or duvet cover is called for. These covers can be removed and tossed into the laundry to clean. Unless your cat has had an accident, there is no reason to take the comforter or duvet out to be professionally cleaned.

Controlling Stinky Cat Food

Canned cat food shouldn’t be left out all day; actually, it shouldn’t be left out at all. And while wet cat food doesn’t smell great, the quality high-protein food without filler isn’t as bad as the cheap stuff. Once your cat eats, use a wipe to clean the floor, and rinse the bowl with mild soap. Leftover cat food should be sealed in plastic to reduce odors. Once they’re empty, just wash out the cans and put them directly into the recycling box or garbage can. You may need to run some baking soda and vinegar down the drain once in a while to disinfect and rid it of any lingering odor, but you probably do that anyway.

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