Not buying this "cats are clean" nonsense...
November 16, 2008 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Are cats really as clean as everyone says?

... because if I had a friend who crawled around on all fours in a sandbox full of his own urine and feces which he buried with his bare hands, I would not feel comfortable having that friend cuddle up against my face or walk across my kitchen table.

... and if a friend licked herself from head to toe I wouldn't exactly want to pet her. And if she licked her butt I wouldn't exactly want her licking my face afterwards.

... and if a friend sat bare-anussed directly on my pillow, I'd probably throw that pillow away.

But people always talk about how clean cats are. What gives?

Are they as nasty as they seem -- should I be following them around with a can of lysol and covering the surfaces of my house with plastic? Or is there some magic property I'm not aware of which makes them super clean??
posted by Alabaster to Pets & Animals (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest that the typical human is probably less clean or about as clean as the average cat. Do you follow humans around with Lysol as well?

Not to be snarky, but you sound biased against cats to begin with. Their saliva is cleansing and deodorizing and their litter boxes are kept clean if their owner is fastidious about it.
posted by rachaelfaith at 3:58 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two things to consider:

Cats, unlike dogs and humans, smell pretty good naturally. I can put my face in my cat's fur and she smells pleasant. I don't shampoo her. It's obvious she's got some natural antibacterial thing going on.

We don't share many diseases with our cats. Cats won't catch a cold or flu or gastro from us, and we won't catch FeLV or feline distemper from them. Cat owners are no sicker than non cat owners, to the best of my knowledge, and if cats were health hazards this wouldn't be so.
posted by zadcat at 4:06 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

It depends on if you have a problem with "cooties," or if you examine the reality of what actually causes us problems (microbes), what separates the good from the bad, and how it affects us.

That is, what do you consider "clean?"

For instance, urine is sterile - no bacteria is present. On the other hand, money is one of the worst offenders in our daily lives when it comes to carrying microbes, even though it may look "clean," due to it being handled by an untold number of people before you receive it.

Does cleanliness mean it looks "clean" and without grime? Does cleanliness mean something lacks harmful bacteria, no matter how it looks?

A definition would be helpful here.. =D
posted by Nixie Pixel at 4:06 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cat mouths are home to a nasty bacteria called pasteurella. If you are bitten by a cat (or dog for that matter) you may likely be infected with pasteurella in a matter of hours. If not treated properly, you can end up with necrotizing fasciitis (otherwise known as flesh eating bacteria). Because their teeth are so sharp, if you get bit, they act as a hypodermic needle, delivering the bacteria straight in to your body. You can lose a limb, or worse, from a simple cat bite.
I guess that doesn't really answer your question, but it certainly falls on the "cons" side to cat ownership.
posted by msali at 4:13 PM on November 16, 2008

Alabaster, I think your question centers on health, but in your head, you are actually thinking about ickiness.

Health is a statistically-determinable criterion. Anus-licking is the best way cats (and most mammals, for that matter) have to remove extraneous "debris", post-defecation - their little paws just couldn't manage toilet paper, even if cat scientists developed it. And, as noted, their saliva is inherently germicidal.

Comparisons to humans hypothetically cleaning their posteriors in like manner (heck, that was fun to write!) are funny, icky, but not relevant. But let's stretch your analogy: would you prefer a friend who could & did lick themselves clean, or one who never cleaned at all?

Healthwise, they are quite safe. Ickiness is up to you; after all, it is inherently all in your head.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:14 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

My Siamese spends half of his waking hours grooming and cleaning himself (plus other cats, and myself - he loves to lick and clean).

I've yet to see a cat who didn't practice fastidious grooming.
posted by porn in the woods at 4:18 PM on November 16, 2008

They're at least as clean as they have to be for natural selection not to have wiped them out as a species. I don't think you have to worry about it.
posted by Flunkie at 4:25 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your question is misguided. Why would you throw your pillow away if your friend sat bare-assed on it? What consequence are you scared of? Nothing you talk about in your question would normally lead to anything particularly grave, it only highlights your own very human hang-ups (including a wildly misguided problem with cats.) Cats are clean enough, after all most of them aren't matted in their own faeces and they seem to thrive despite licking their own anuses don't they? This question is easily answered by looking at the average cat - yep, clean. You could have done that, then put your question to better use, ie - why am I terrified of excrement and anuses and how can I go about being more relaxed and cat-like in my attitudes to bodily secretions?
posted by fire&wings at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2008 [8 favorites]

This is a germ world and us macromorphs serve as the hosts and not the masters of it.

Germs thrive were water and nourishment are present, and die where they are not.

When I visit my mom she often has me triple-wash clorox out her cat's box and then leave it out in the sun for hours, but I try to tell her that once it's completely clean -- no organic matter on the plastic -- and dry that's the best you're going to get as far as germs go.
posted by troy at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2008

Don't forget my favorite cat-born disease agent, T. gondii. It controls your mind! Most cat owners and French people have it. (About half all humans have it.)
posted by grobstein at 4:34 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My cat spends plenty of time cleaning himself, but still manages to always have little bits of poop on his butt. Granted, this is a lot worse when I'm lazy about litterbox maintenance, and I also think it has something to do with the fact that that's his anus and I don't often have the anuses of people shoved in my face while I'm typing. For all I know, people walk around with the same number of dingleberries.

Very scientific information I'm supplying you with, no?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:47 PM on November 16, 2008

... and if a friend sat bare-anussed directly on my pillow, I'd probably throw that pillow away.

I've sat underneath a glass table that my cat was sitting on and I can tell you that there was no direct table-anus contact. It's easy to see because he's a jet black cat with a pearly white butthole. When a cat sits, things kind of skrinch up and fold under. Your pillows are safe (unless a cat has a poop stuck to his butt. THAT'S when you burn the pillow).

That said, there are still many unhygienic cat/human interactions that occur. My cat will frequently attempt backing up into my face, tail up, butt puckered like some horrific kissy death beast, and I don't even get the benefit of a warning beep. Who knows what else goes on when I'm asleep. I've yet to succumb to any feline-born bacteria. Yet.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:47 PM on November 16, 2008 [15 favorites]

I've yet to see a cat who didn't practice fastidious grooming.

We have a cat that was Boston "street-rescue." Strong Larry has no discernible natural cat grooming instincts. I can only assume that's because he was raised by rats.

But normal cats? Normal cats you can put your face right in their fur and smell for yourself. Seriously, they are clean little bastards.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:56 PM on November 16, 2008

We have a cat that was Boston "street-rescue." Strong Larry has no discernible natural cat grooming instincts. I can only assume that's because he was raised by rats.

Actually, Civil, rats also have impeccable cleaning habits, much like cats. In fact, the two that I had were the cleanest, smartest, most affectionate small animal pets that I've ever had the pleasure of owning.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:04 PM on November 16, 2008

As most people have said, humans are no cleaner, some cats are cleaner than others, and a lot has to do with perception. I think part of the perception of cats as "clean" is that they don't smell bad. Their fur, as zadcat says, smells good naturally, unlike dogs which can get very stinky in a very short time.

If you are bitten by a cat (or dog for that matter) you may likely be infected with pasteurella in a matter of hours.

I can vouch for this from bitter personal experience, having rescued my cat from a fight while he was still in the red-mist-anger zone. He bit my arm and it was leaking stinky liquid within four hours or so, and needed daily doctor visits for several days and lots of pills. (What freaks me out most is that now it's better, the skin in the bite mark is growing slightly thicker and darker hairs than before. Obviously I'm a werecat now.)

For what it's worth, though, one of the doctors who looked at me said that human bites are even worse than cat bites in terms of causing infection.
posted by andraste at 6:39 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Gods no, cats are not "naturally clean" - this is just wishful thinking by the cat apologists. I'm currently watching 5 indoor/outdoor cats, and I haven't felt clean in days - they shed EVERYWHERE...I'm constantly pulling cat hair out of my mouth and off of my food. They use their urine and feces for combat - I had an unhappy cat throw cat food everywhere and crap all over the kitchen floor overnight because I wouldn't get up for the 3rd time that night to let them out .... again. They can infect you with a bite or a simple scratch (cat scratch fever) and their feces can harbor serious illnesses. I won't even get into the "gifts" of dead rodents... UGH...CATS!!!!!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:43 PM on November 16, 2008

Healthy cats are more or less clean smelling. That aside, they have a tendency to track litter around in their paws, shed, and (personally most annoying) puke up dinner where it's either most likely to stain, or where you are most likely to step in it in the middle of the night while getting up to pee...

Seconding cat bites are dangerous, and so are cat scratches. If it breaks the skin, disinfect it, and watch it carefully. Of course, that's probably good advice for anything that bites or claws you.
posted by nonliteral at 8:50 PM on November 16, 2008

Directly comparing the cleanliness of cats vs. humans is definitely misguided. Human beings have more tools and techniques for personal grooming than any animal in the history of the planet earth, and in some sense we are the cleanest animals ever to have existed, yet we still engage in habits we cannot break that continue to expose us to "germs" (money passing between hands is a great example, as given above by Nixie Pixel).

Cats also engage in copious amounts of personal grooming, as opposed to say, rats, which don't need to groom as much because their physiology doesn't require it (rats don't live in sewers because they like filth, but rather because they can tolerate filth much more readily than other mammals -- they have strong immune systems, etc.). So you could call cats "cleaner" than rats by judging their grooming habits, but that doesn't really mean anything. In its natural environment, how clean is any animal? Could we ever call a worm dirty? Or a fish?

No. The real issue here is that we are examining the habits of one animal in another animal's habitat, namely cats in a human household. In that sense I think it is fair to say that cats (and pretty much all domesticated animals) do not live up to the standards of human cleanliness, for various reasons you've already given.

However, that says nothing of the health issues regarding cat ownership. If you find cats to be distasteful for their "lack of cleanliness", it is more an issue of the "ick" factor (as noted by IAmBroom and others) than of any real health concern.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:02 PM on November 16, 2008

I would call them fastidious? ...*generally*. I own like the cat version of what-a-mess, hence why I would say generally.
They're still dirty little beasts, they just tend to have quite tidy habits... if you're lucky? Hmm *sigh*.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:34 PM on November 16, 2008

Cats are clean and actually have a form of antiseptic in their own saliva, rendering them, their bodies and offspring meticulous.

A cat that does not self-groom or leaves remnants is ill and needs to be looked at by a professional. Usually when the illness goes away, the grooming returns.
posted by watercarrier at 2:38 AM on November 17, 2008

Um...I'm not worried about my pillow. I'm worried when a cat puts its ass on the KITCHEN COUNTER. That's pretty god damn gross. I don't know about germs but that's nasty.

My brother got toxoplasmosis when he was a kid and almost went blind. Luckily we had an excellent eye doctor and he fixed it. I've got no use for cats, honestly.
posted by sully75 at 6:33 AM on November 17, 2008

Any animal is only as clean as you encourage it to be. We brush our cats regularly so they don't shed copious amounts of fur, we don't allow them on the table or countertops, we sweep and mop (no carpets) every day/every other day, and we keep their litterboxes tidy by scooping every day (I don't know about your cats but mine generally don't stick their paws directly in the urine and feces when they're covering up, they're covering with clean litter). People walk into our house and don't realize we have four cats because it doesn't smell like we have four cats. They keep themselves and each other clean by grooming and we do the rest.
posted by cooker girl at 7:07 AM on November 17, 2008

Many Rroma (Gypsy) people consider cats particularly unclean as the bring dirt into themselves (by grooming themselves with their tongues), which is considered as dirty as it gets within that culture. They are, therefore, "self-contaminated."

But in my culture, they'd be considered pretty clean.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:48 AM on November 17, 2008

I always assumed "clean" meant "compared to other animals."
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:38 PM on November 17, 2008

Since adopting cats, my wife and I haven't noticed any negative effect on our health. They go everywhere in our home (including the kitchen counters, our bed, our laps, and up in our faces), and nothing ill has come of it. They are, in a very real way, our children, yet we probably end up better off health-wise than actual human children since we don't have to worry about school-borne infections coming home.
posted by korpios at 10:40 AM on November 22, 2008

I've yet to see a cat who didn't practice fastidious grooming.
You've never seen my wife's cat, a rescued feral who at five years old still fears starvation so much that he's grown to nearly 25 pounds and has made himself damn near physically incapable of cleaning his nether regions.

[Yes, we've tried putting him on a diet. Our other cat is sufficiently neurotic on other axes to make it impossible.]
posted by FlyingMonkey at 4:27 PM on December 11, 2008

Spray is but one of several odious secretions associated with cats, whose reputation for cleanliness is greatly exaggerated.Cecil Adams
posted by goethean at 9:04 AM on February 24, 2009

Cecil on Toxoplasma gondii
posted by goethean at 9:05 AM on February 24, 2009

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