Deodorizing a house
August 24, 2010 9:19 AM   Subscribe

De-stinkifying a house of cat smell--while the cats (and their not-so-hygenic owners) still live there. I found a place I want to live (cheap!), but all of the common areas smell very strongly of cat and litterbox. If I move in, are there any affordable measures I can take to return the place to tolerable freshness? Or should I find somewhere else to live?

I think this is one of those cases where the owners don't realize how bad the smell is. I've been there. I really, really like the price of the place, and as such would be willing to invest a little bit in cleaning materials to make it liveable and wouldn't mind doing the cleaning to keep it smelling OK, but if removing the smell is going to require steam cleaner rentals and whatnot then I'll move on.

Complicating the situation is I'm not sure if the smell is due to accidents (hard to get rid of), poor litterbox cleaning habits on the owner's parts (easy to fix, I'll clean it), or a mix of both.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (18 answers total)
Blacklight + nature's miracle + carpet odor remover (I use arm and hammer pet fresh) + vacuum + very frequent litter box cleanings, possibly with a different type of litter (World's best is better at masking pee odors, in my experience).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the cats are elderly and there's accidents, you'll need to keep on top of cleaning it and you still may have some pee smell. Get Nature's Miracle For Cats, it's a specific formula designed to work better on the particular nastiness that is cat pee. A new litterbox makes a good fresh start, and multiple litterboxes will reduce odor too.
posted by The otter lady at 9:27 AM on August 24, 2010

The first apartment I lived in was previously lived in by a bunch of guys and a cat. They kept the litter box (and often, sadly, the cat) locked up in the half bathroom (which was right off my room and therefore mostly "my" bathroom), rarely scooped it, and pretty much let the cat pee all over it. While the rest of the apartment was pretty scuzzy, the only place that smelled like cat was my bathroom, and holy crap did it smell like cat. And we moved in during one of the hottest summers Chicago has had in the last several years. With no AC.

Even though there was no cat anymore, the bathroom was basically drenched in cat pee and cat pee smell. What I did was fill a squirt bottle with white vinegar and spray down all the walls and the surfaces every day, multiple times a day. The runoff was disgusting. I opened the window and set up a fan to vent the air out. After about a month of this, the cat pee smell started to dissipate and you could actually close the door to the bathroom without choking. I highly recommend vinegar as a cat-stink deodorizer.

But if you're moving in with these cats, it's going to be an ongoing problem. I don't know why some places with cats stink so bad. In a week I'm moving in with a new roommate who has two cats--I've been there several times and have never smelled any hint of cat. I have to assume it's a case of lazy owner that causes the cat stink to take over. I would bring the problem up with your new housemates and try to troubleshoot the problem.

Hopefully some cat owners will chime in here with good living-with-cats tips.
posted by phunniemee at 9:28 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

How many cats are there, and how many litterboxes? There should be one box per cat, as stink arises when boxes get crowded. If you've noticed the owners only have one open box and three cats, the household can invest in a couple strategically place Booda boxes, a mixture of corn litter and odor-absorbing crystals, and lots of Febreeze. Make sure the boxes are cleaned twice daily and soon normal litterbox smells should clear up.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:32 AM on August 24, 2010

This is why cats make terrible pets for most children in "it's yours, you clean up after it" families. To fight the smell (and puke, incidentally) requires precisely the kind of constant vigilance that most kids find impossible.

Unless it appears there's carpet damage, I doubt you will need a steam cleaner. But if you want the house clean, you either get to spend a lot of time (and some money) doing it yourself or lots of time training recalcitrant humans.
posted by SMPA at 9:40 AM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: There are two cats, and I think one litterbox--I didn't see where it is.

I (think) I could maintain a clean-smelling apartment, it's just judging whether I can make it clean-smelling without going to over-the-top measures.
posted by Anonymous at 9:41 AM on August 24, 2010

Change the litterbox habits of the human rather than the felines.

Often, the reason litterboxes smell is because nobody likes to scoop litter, so it gets put off until later, and then it gets smelly. Switching over to litter that is changed entirely twice a week rather than scooped daily and changed weekly makes a big difference. I had great success using litter like Good Mews (the recycled newspaper litter) because it didn't need to be scooped. Instead, I'd just change the entire litterbox twice a week (Monday nights and Friday mornings. Exactly three and 1/2 days apart).

A clean litterbox leads to a cleaner smelling home. It makes the cats happier too.
posted by 2oh1 at 10:03 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

jamaro: That's a hilarious story. I mean, for me to read. Probably wasn't so much for you to experience. The advice I've heard from builders on how to deal with a bad cat odor problem: "Burn it down, salt the earth, build a new house in a different town."
posted by rusty at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jamaro: My God. That's quite a tale. I'm going to share it with a friend who was an absentee landlady of a small house. The people who lived there had four cats and did not keep their litter boxes clean, thus driving the cats to pee elsewhere. Poor cats, poor landlady -- she had to replace the floorboards and joists. But I've never heard of anyone having to replace drywall. "Pee All The Way Down," indeed.

P.S. I am so not equating your experience with Milo with the above-mentioned bozos' willful neglect of their kitties. My Max (RIP, big guy) had kidney disease, thus the "frequent weak pee" syndrome. When I found his "personal pee spot," I got off easy -- all I had to do was get rid of a buttload of sheets and towels.
posted by virago at 10:54 AM on August 24, 2010

I think the real question here is do you want to live with a bunch of people who apparently can't take care of their pets and the place where they live.
posted by elder18 at 11:00 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Warning! Warning!

It seems that you like the place, but have not told the owner/occupant about the smell issue - am I right?

I'm betting your new roommate will NOT appreciate if you move in and then start cleaning up after their cats. They will be insulted by what you are implying with the cleaning. They will come to resent you. That will make for an emotionally toxic environment.

If someone is showing an apartment with really bad cat stink, it's because they don't care about being clean!

Sometimes the box(es) get a little stinky at our house because we get busy, or whatever. But the poop is still scooped. And we def clean before company arrives. We clean regularly because it's just something you do, like making the bed.

Your possible new roommate doesn't share your values on this issue. In fact, I bet that's why the price is so reasonable!

As an owner of 2 cats, I urge you to keep looking for a better arrangement.
posted by jbenben at 11:20 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are so many variables that it's going to be difficult to tell how much work it will be until you move in. Unless you are willing to have a very blunt conversation ("Why does it smell so strongly? Are the cats peeing outside the box? What are you going to do about it?"). I would not bother living there; if they are unhygienic about this then they'll be unhygienic about other things.

I cannot believe no one commented on the OP's username yet.
posted by desjardins at 11:28 AM on August 24, 2010

Try to have a polite and tactful talk with the roommates before you move in. It will be very helpful to figure out where the smell is coming from, and if they even realize how bad it is. It could be anything from the type of litter they're using (I've found World's Best Cat Litter can develop a really strange odor, even if you do scoop it frequently - and if you use those silica crystal things, they absolutely reek if not changed often enough), if the box itself needs to be scrubbed clean, if it's not emptied enough, if there isn't enough litter in the box, etc. If the cat is actually peeing/pooping outside the box, obviously that's a whole different problem.

If all else fails, depending on how bad it really is, Glade scented candles can do a pretty good, albeit temporary, job at covering up cat box odors. Also, see if the cat is burying its stuff. My roommate's cat has a tendency to leave her poo uncovered, so I'll usually just take the scoop and cover it myself. It helps.
posted by wondermouse at 12:48 PM on August 24, 2010

That would be a deal breaker for me.

It could also be the case that the room mates don't have a good sense of smell. My mom had two cats and her place still kinda smells like cats even though the cats passed away a few years ago. She just can't smell it though.
posted by reddot at 1:21 PM on August 24, 2010

I think this living arrangement is pretty doomed, honestly. Cat pee smell isn't just something that happens overnight. It's the result of a sick or poorly trained cat and/or bad human habits. You're going to be the Sisyphus of Cat Pee if you try to undertake this.
posted by jennyb at 2:24 PM on August 24, 2010

Best answer: My experience is that cat smell on furniture is permanent. I know of no way around this, having had a bad behavior cat for a couple years. I've tried ever odor eliminator on the market as well as things on the net. They never fully eliminate the smell from things like couches.

Rugs: similar story. If the cat has been urinating heavily on rugs, you just have to replace the rugs.

Anything else (tile, wood, etc.) strong cleaning products. I would strongly suggest paying the money for a cleaning service to do this, as they will likely have some more industrial, caustic stuff than you'll bring to bear.
posted by kryptonik at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2010

I second doom. I once owned multiple cats but no one automatically knew this walking into my home. I am diligent about sifting the box and quickly cleaning any other messes.

Years later, I move into a multiple cat home with stink issues. No matter how much cleaning I did, it didn't help because the cat-parents I moved in with had not really cared for many years, were not frequent litter changers, nor did they bother to clean spray spots. The stink was already in the furniture, seeming to have seeped into every part of the home. In addition, once I moved out, my furniture and belongings had the stink. No actual urine spots according to my blacklight, but the smell is still taking it's time releasing.
posted by _paegan_ at 8:11 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: I decided taking the risk that the smell wasn't fixable wouldn't even be worth the price, as losing that bet would mean not leaving my room, ever. Thank you all for the advice!
posted by Anonymous at 8:42 AM on September 5, 2010

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