Cleaning litterbox using a shop vac - good idea bad idea
March 31, 2020 4:48 PM   Subscribe

So I am doing some studies about the best way to clean a litter box that doesn't make a big mess and doesn't ask the kitties to adjust to any kind of change. So what if I used a dedicated shop vac that had a filter bag inside? What could go wrong? Please tell me.

In my last question I asked about what solutions are existing for a clean litter experience and it seems like the best ones all require the kitties to adjust to something new, and I'm afraid to do that because they'll pee my bed if they don't like it and I just can't deal with that right now.

So I've been trying to analyze how I do the litter and what needs to happen for me to not hate every second of it (I used to be more easygoing than this).

I made a prototype of a shovel that has a hole at the end connected to a tube (right now it's made out of a plastic bag because I can't just run out and get tubing) that goes into a collection bag, so as you shovel all the bad stuff goes down the tube and into a bag and you never have to see it again. Then I wanted to attach the shovel to a stick so I didn't have to bend down.

In this model, I don't really care about filtering out clumps from not-clumps because the not-clumps aren't necessarily clean and I don't want them to go back into the box. Just get everything out and I will buy more litter is my strategy.

Then I realized that what I created was a vacuum without the vacuum.
So I thought, could I just use a vacuum?

I did some googling and the advice says don't use a vacuum because:
1. You will damage your regular vacuum and make it stink.
2. You will get yucky particles all over your house.

OK fine. But what if I bought a dedicated shop vac that could handle wet/dry messes and never used it for anything else?

Before I spend any money on this I thought I would see if there were any downsides I'm not thinking of.

If there are significant downsides I'll keep working on my manual idea. Thanks for your help!
posted by bleep to Pets & Animals (33 answers total)
Response by poster: PS This is the one I'm looking at
posted by bleep at 5:02 PM on March 31, 2020

Best answer: I've never seen a vacuum that didn't put small particles in the air. So while I use my shopvac to clean up spilled litter I'm not sure it's a great idea to do an entire box worth.
posted by leslies at 5:21 PM on March 31, 2020 [8 favorites]

Would a different type of litter be an option? I've had good experience with pine-pellet style. Your fine bits are basically sawdust rather than fine clay and whatnot.
posted by jquinby at 5:34 PM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No, it's a key requirement that nothing changes from the kitties' point of view.
posted by bleep at 5:36 PM on March 31, 2020

Best answer: I have that exact Shop Vac – its filter bag capacity is really small. I'd estimate it'd only hold about a week of litter clumps generated by my two cats. I'd get a size or two up.
posted by zsazsa at 5:41 PM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're just emptying the contents of the tray into your vacuum why not just pick the tray up and dump the contents into a large garbage bag? Or use a litter box liner/garbage bag with draw string under the litter to just empty the whole thing? I don't see the shop-vac as cleaner because your hose and attachments, which you'll be touching with your hands, are going to be rooting through cat litter daily. The outside of a litter box is likely a fair bit cleaner than those. And if you're using a liner the underside of that is relatively pristine because its only ever touched the outside of the litter box which itself is covered by the liner. Use a shallow-ish layer of litter to keep the weight down I guess. Also, emptying a shop-vac isn't fun or clean either.

I was thinking maybe you could rig up a litter box with a trap floor to dump everything into a garbage bag, but that's what the litter liner already is doing without the extra complexity.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:56 PM on March 31, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think you risk the kitties associating a loud scary noise with the catbox area. I think your manual idea has promise!
posted by fritley at 6:04 PM on March 31, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The filter would stop particles, but not smells. Vacuuming anything stinky will pump nasty odors into the air while you do it.
posted by jon1270 at 6:19 PM on March 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also 1.25” hose is too small for... some things.
posted by jon1270 at 6:21 PM on March 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

That’s so much effort for something that might not work and could scare your kitties. Amazon and Chewy both carry very good sturdy litter scoops, far superior to anything I’ve ever seen in a pet store in person. It feels like you’re trying to reinvent the wheel. Get a sturdy litter shovel and scoop daily into used grocery bags or if smell is a big problem, into sandwich baggies that you can seal. I save all but wet gooey sandwich bags for dirty litter and our trash never gets that dirty diaper stink.

My biggest concern with your plan is the vacuum itself. I hate to bring it up but that time my nephew barfed up fish and chips and I unwisely tried to vacuum some of the last of it, well all I’ll say is it was a mistake I regretted every single time I used that vacuum and it was replaced not long afterwards. I can’t imagine cat pee and poop being any better. Where will you store this rank vacuum? Not in the house! Well, not after a couple weeks anyway. Then do you want to haul the stinking vacuum inside daily? I assure you that vacuum will develop an unholy stench pretty quick and that’s what will scuttle the whole plan. And it won’t wash away, it’ll be embedded in all the many plastic parts forever. No, save yourself a lot of time and money and invest in the best kitty litter pans and scoop you can. I think they also make a litter genie similar to a diaper genie, they cut down on stink too. But really a pack of ziplock baggies is cheap, lasts a long time and cuts odor considerably.

Good luck, kitty litter management is actually so important to the happiness of our cats it’s great you’re thinking about it so much. In many instances it can be a matter of life and death, many kitties are euthanized because of inappropriate litter habits.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 6:32 PM on March 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

There is a litter scoop that sounds a lot like your idea - the handle is a tube with a collection bag at the end. It only gets an average rating, but maybe it will spark more ideas.
posted by XtineHutch at 6:56 PM on March 31, 2020

This is a recipe for disaster.

I understand that you are grossed out by using a litter scoop and find it deeply unpleasant to clean the litter box using one. But honestly, this is how most people clean litter boxes. It's easy, reliable, and doesn't risk scaring the cats. We haven't invented a better method because this one is honestly pretty good.

You just have a much, much stronger aversion than most other people.

You're kind of falling down the rabbit hole here. None of the complicated methods you invent are going to beat a good litter scoop. And I mean that in terms of cleanliness, too. You're going to gross up this vacuum really fast. Instead of a small, dirty scoop, you're going to have a big, dirty vacuum. And you're not going to be able to clean it (or throw it out) like you would a scoop.

I guess what I'm saying is I wonder whether this is one of those situations where going to great lengths to avoid some unpleasantness is just going to lead to more stress and unpleasantness.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2020 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: A shop vac with a removable filter bag will still stink?
posted by bleep at 7:09 PM on March 31, 2020

Response by poster: It's not only that I don't like using the scoop, it's that it's inefficient and takes a long time and I have to bend over and it scatters the still-dirty leavings all over the place. Anyway I have another open question for suggestions for neater methods. I'm looking to find out if there's anything about this I'm not thinking of other than "it will stink", because as you can see in my question, I have already heard about that.
posted by bleep at 7:11 PM on March 31, 2020

Best answer: I like the manual idea, though one of the issues with your idea is that a longer scoop is not as easy to maneuver to begin with and tilting the scoop to get the poops into the bag will also likely be...messier.

You could slowly work toward acclimating the cats toward an elevated box. Provide them with stairs or a ramp, that way you minimize your bending. Or you could keep a step stool near the box to sit on while you scoop.

Additionally, the solids in a cat box should ideally be removed daily. This process should take about a minute and you can keep a diaper genie near the box so you don't have to trudge all the way out to the outdoor trash. This will stink quite a lot less than the vacuum, which is not sealed. And yes, the vacuum will also throw stinky particles.

Finally, most cat litter basically makes concrete, which will damage the machine.
posted by bilabial at 7:21 PM on March 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A shop vac with a removable filter bag will still stink?

Yes, because the stinky bits will get battered against the sides of the hose and the connectors on their way into the bag and leave behind bits of stinkiness. I had a roommate who used my vacuum cleaner to clean up after her pet rabbit and even though I've cleaned all the parts I can reach, it still smells faintly of eau d' rabbit shit and I haven't lived with that roommate in about 4 years.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:33 PM on March 31, 2020 [22 favorites]

Best answer: The hose won't be big enough, so urine clumps will break up or just not go in and you'll end up sucking up a lot of other litter.

The inside of the hose will get gross from accreted crud.

You said you understand the vacuum will stink, but beyond merely stinking, it will also blow stink-air out into the room.

Filter bags will be very expensive at the frequency you'd need to replace them. The very fine particles in the litter will clog them, plus they'll get full fast.

Your cats will hate the noise.

The scoop with a bag and long handle is a much more viable solution.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:47 PM on March 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

I foresee far greater nightmares with a shopvac experience going wrong (terrifying the kitties, getting totally gunked up, being too hard to manuever/store) than with a great metal scoop (I got one rec'd by Metafilter and it's delightful) and the litter genie, which essentially causes me only 30 seconds of unpleasantness daily and two minutes when I change the bag on garbage day.
posted by TwoStride at 9:03 PM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a good wet/dry vacuum with replaceable filters and bags and can confirm that the filters and bags do a lot to lower the amount of dust escaping into the air, but there's still some dust and they don't do much for smells. This includes more innocuous smells than used cat litter, like sawdust or drywall dust. Anything that involves moving the litter more than required is going to bring the stink. Would not recommend this route.
posted by asperity at 9:26 PM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Shop vac filters are basically quite sad in the grand scheme of vacuum filtering mechanisms. If you're sucking up something you don't want spat straight back out the exhaust, and I think macerated kitty turds fit into that category, you should also look at the cyclone separators that people use in conjunction with shop vacs for, eg, cleaning out fireplaces. What you're cleaning is not as fine as ash, true, but you really, really don't want the fine bits spat back out in this instance. (You can even home make them from a bucket. Supposedly they're effective.)

None of this affects the above conversation about parfum de cat butt. Nothing is going to save you from that.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 9:52 PM on March 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

Just because it hasn't been mentioned there are litter bag liners that can go inside a box. When ready unclip liner, close,throw away. Replace liner and litter. It would be way easier to modify a trashbag to go on in your current litterbox than to deal with vacuum issues. My cats did not notice a difference between liner box and unlined box.

In my home we use ikea bags for this purpose and dump that into a trashbahg.We reuse the bags until they get gross.

I don't think the vacuum idea is a good one.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:12 PM on March 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I dunno.... using a shop vac to clean a litterbox seems far more repulsive and messy than just scooping the turds and emptying the box.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:49 PM on March 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

I've thought about this a lot. What I think might be the revolution you're looking for is a litter box that you put on a sufficiently high platform, with a gentle ramp, so that you don't have to bend over to clean it. I honestly think that just saving your back will make the whole experience a _lot_ better. You can store stuff under the box platform (old suitcases, emergency water, cat carriers), and maybe work up to putting an easy-to-remove shield around it to make it less unattractive.

I do worry about cats adjusting to pooping in an elevated location. If you try this, move the box _gradually_ higher and make sure the cats can easily get into it even if/when they are super geriatric.

As for the vacuum idea - it will make more stinky air than you currently have. I really think it will be a problem: the air that goes with the cleaning - a significant quantity - will go through your filter/bag and out of the vacuum. That will not only smell bad, but will generate a great deal more stinky air than normal and will propel it forcefully into the air.
posted by amtho at 1:52 AM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

A suggestion for a better manual tool - stay with me here - a fish spatula. Using something not a flimsy plastic piece of junk improves your experience and changes nothing for the cats.

Outside of your scope because it involves a change, and one you may not be able to make, depending on your: raise the litterbox. I had a setup once where I was able to pick up the whole tray, turn 90 degrees, and place it on top of something the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, in order to clean it out. (On preview: this was just when cleaning, not making the cats climb to poop by leaving it up there.) I found not having to stoop to scoop improved the experience.
posted by bartleby at 1:54 AM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

One concern about raising the litterbox. Could a large and sufficiently determined cat push it off the raised area?
posted by Homer42 at 2:08 AM on April 1, 2020

3 inches of clay litter in a normal-sized box is too heavy for a cat to push around.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:43 AM on April 1, 2020

To avoid the bending over, would it help if you're sitting/squatting? We have a squatty potty in the bathroom where the litter boxes are, and when cleaning them, I'll sit on the squatty potty. Before that, I'd use a foldable stool ($3-10, but they only last about 1-2 years before they break under my 180-200 lb weight).
posted by nobeagle at 8:03 AM on April 1, 2020

I remember your previous question and honestly, perhaps you should just buy disposable litter boxes. They sell a different brand at my grocery store (for example, not saying to go out if you don't need too) that come complete with litter. Given the cats peeing in the bed issue, the linked option might work best.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:58 AM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Maybe you could slowly introduce a new type of litter into the current litter to prevent kitty revolt? I commented previously that my lil sis uses farm grade pine shavings which she just tosses instead of cleans, smells much better than litter, and doesn't attach to kitty paws and leave clay prints. So perhaps you could introduce like, 1/8, 1/6, 1/4, etc etc pine shavings over time into the current litter?
posted by erattacorrige at 10:38 AM on April 1, 2020

To avoid the bending over, would it help if you're sitting/squatting? We have a squatty potty in the bathroom where the litter boxes are, and when cleaning them, I'll sit on the squatty potty. Before that, I'd use a foldable stool ($3-10, but they only last about 1-2 years before they break under my 180-200 lb weight).
This! My Dad always seemed to think that he was the only one who cleaned the litter boxes "properly", so even if one of us kids scooped, he'd criticize and do it "right" afterward. As Dad aged, he had trouble bending down, and after he fell more than once my brother bought him a small wheeled seat, similar to this one but without the tray below which made it so Dad didn't have to bend so far.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:28 AM on April 1, 2020

Not a good idea: Poops will smear through the vacuum tube and leave poop particles inside the tube. Ugh.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:09 PM on April 1, 2020

Turn on a shop-vac in my house and the cats would rip your throat out.
The noise, man!

How many "kitties" are there?
Do you need to be rescued/bailed out of a bad scene?

Pay someone to come do it for you or adopt the cats out.
posted by dustpuppy at 5:44 PM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also: cats can't talk. Keeping tabs on the litter box is one way to keep tabs on how they're feeling.
posted by amtho at 3:11 PM on April 2, 2020

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