Is our smelly closet a lost cause?
December 19, 2006 1:23 PM   Subscribe

We have a large closet in our apartment that has always smelled of cat urine. Despite taking every measure we possibly could to eliminate the odor, it still smells, 2 years later. Is there anything left to try?

When we moved into our apartment 2 years ago, we had one closet that smelled *very strongly* of cat urine. We had the apartment management do everything we could think of to eliminate the smell. Below is everything we and the management have done to try & get rid of the cat piss smell.
  1. Saturated the carpet and closet walls with Nature's Miracle, allowed it to soak and then dry.
  2. Washed the carpet and closet walls with water to rinse any residue out.
  3. Bought 2 Oust fans and a few things of baking soda to let sit in the closet to neutralize the odor.
  4. Removed the carpet and carpet pad, saturated the floor boards and wall closest to the door with more Nature's miracle and let soak and then dry.
  5. The management then installed tiles in the closet where the carpet had been (not real tile, those dumb adhesive tiles).
  6. Closet still smelled so I put refills in the Oust fans and let them run until the batteries died.
This closet is supposed to be a combination coat / linen closet, but I do not want to put coats or linens in there because I don't want them coming out smelling like an old cat lady. We even have cats, and their litterbox area never gets to smell like this! We have always kept the closet closed because we are also afraid that our cats might mistake it for a second litterbox.

We've used this closet for storage for things that won't absorb odors (our vacuum, some cleaning supplies, snow shovel, etc), but we're at the point where we need the storage for the coats & linens we have had to pack into our bedroom closet (which is bursting at the seams).

Is there anything else you can think of to get this closet to smell better?

Alternately, can you recommend any non-expensive ways to store linens & coats in this closet without having them come out stinky?
posted by catfood to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are the walls made of wood? Those tend to suck up odors. Could there be something BEHIND the walls? Cats can find a way into crawlspaces, not be able to escape, and then get very scared. Is there a ventilation duct in the closet?
posted by muddgirl at 1:28 PM on December 19, 2006

If repainting the walls doesn't help, then it must be in the floorboards under the tile, which need sanding and bleach, I think. (Bleach and sanding is how I got rid of mega pet urine I inherited in the old fir floor in my old house.)

I guess you could store the linens in plastic bags...but the bags are going to eventually stink and so will your hands from touching them, if you're sensitive to smells, and that one is easy to be sensitive to.

You'll be glad to leave that apartment one day, I think.
posted by Listener at 1:29 PM on December 19, 2006

Response by poster: The walls *are* made of wood. There are no ventilation ducts in the closet.

Ugh. It does seem pretty hopeless, I guess. I had thought of keeping our linens in thick plastic bags (e.g. space bags) but it's not really that convenient for stuff that I want access to somewhat frequently. Plus they have that strong plasticky Color Forms smell.

We're moving in the spring, but I was hoping I could manage to make the closet usable until then.
posted by catfood at 1:34 PM on December 19, 2006

can you put the linens in big plastic bins with lids?
maybe with cedar blocks or dryer sheets folded into the contents to mask any teeny hint of catpee smell that does get in?
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:44 PM on December 19, 2006

catfood: "The walls *are* made of wood. There are no ventilation ducts in the closet... Ugh. It does seem pretty hopeless, I guess."

No, it's not. Listener up there was right on the money: if the smell is in wood, sanding and bleach do the trick. It's not likely that the cat managed to piss on the walls, and even if he did, wood doesn't usually soak up fluids beyond the first few millimeters. So take off that first millimeter with a sander and bleach the crap out of it.

Seriously, bleach is the key, and lots of it. "De-odor" products usually don't work on tough stuff-- hell, it's hard to eliminate just an odor-- so it's best to hit the area as hard as possible with the strength of undiluted bleach.

Also, you should get your money back on that Nature's Miracle. They have a guarantee.
posted by koeselitz at 1:53 PM on December 19, 2006

Sure cats can piss on walls. Koeselitz, haven't you ever had a male cat? Mine used to hate music, I think, and liked to spray the speaker covers. Gross. Now the male neighbour-cats do it on my house! I hate it.
posted by Listener at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2006

I've used X-O Odor Neutralizer and Febreze with some success. Eventually, I've gotten the smell out altogether but it took several attempts alternating wtih these products. I would hazard a guess you've already tried this kind of stuff, but I figured I'd throw it out there for what it's worth.
posted by Doohickie at 2:03 PM on December 19, 2006

I used to work for this company but quit because I couldn't stand the upper management. But they make a product that is pretty good at getting rid of the far smaller quantities of cat-piss odor I've had to deal with. It's nothing like Nature's Miracle, so it's at least a different chemical approach. Your problem sounds pretty intractable so no promises, but now that I've run out of the free supply I got when I was working for them, I have the dilemma of whether to endure cat funk, or to send money to people I don't like personally. It initially leaves a slightly bleachy smell (so koeselitz' suggestion may work instead), and then ends up with no smell at all. Obviously remove the tiles and stuff; you can soak the floorboards or whatever you have after all that -- sounds like the walls could probably use it too.
posted by xueexueg at 2:05 PM on December 19, 2006

I wonder if you could use Kilz or another heavy duty primer to coat the floor after tearing up the tile. I had a landlady that did that after some pets ruined a carpet. I think she did it to keep stains from bleeding back up into the carpet but I assume the barrier would also help with the odor.
posted by cabingirl at 2:31 PM on December 19, 2006

You want a product that uses bacterial enzymes (yes Nature's Miracle is one, but there are a selection of stronger solutions) to eat away the offending chemicals. Commonly found in large Pet Stores. The key with these products is to apply it and let it soak in. It can take up to 2 weeks to do its magic, depending on the materials involved.

I've used the Odormuteā„¢ boxed concentrate successfully on concrete, wood and carpet. Your mileage may vary.
posted by empyrean at 2:42 PM on December 19, 2006

The reason that you haven't seen a thread about cat piss in a while (despite the question being asked almost weekly for the first year that Ask Metafilter existed) is because the answer is always, always, always the same:


Yes, I know the site looks dodgy and they make some vaguely pseudoscientific marketing claims. I don't know why they do that, because the stuff works, especially for cat pee.
posted by majick at 2:50 PM on December 19, 2006

I use 50 50 white vinegar and water. If you had a hotplate you could steam vinegar and water in the closet. Like Koesiltz said chlorine bleach can help.
posted by snowjoe at 4:18 PM on December 19, 2006

you might try an ozone generator. however they can supposedly generate harmful levels of ozone so you probably would only want to run it when you're not home (unless the area vents well).
posted by jjsonp at 4:27 PM on December 19, 2006

X-O that I mentioned earlier is an enzyme formula.
posted by Doohickie at 4:54 PM on December 19, 2006

The odor may be caused by male cat spray, it is 20x's stronger than regular cat piss. I threw away a sofa because of it years ago.

It seeps into the wood, sheetrock, even cement! You must sand the area until the bulk of the odor is gone. It will get worse before it gets better. Then treat with an enzyme spray.
posted by JujuB at 5:03 PM on December 19, 2006

This comes up a lot on home improvement blogs and someone always comes along and says the only sure way to get rid of it is to seal the wood with shellac. Not poly varnish, but old fashioned shellac. Shellac sticks to absolutely anything and you can paint over it. However I have not tried this myself.
posted by LarryC at 5:41 PM on December 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anti-Icky Poo. It has worked for all cat urine odors on wood or wherever for us. This is what my chi-chi vet uses in the office and at home.
posted by oflinkey at 6:14 PM on December 19, 2006

I second LarryC. Cat pee odour is really hard to remove. Shellac will seal the odour in, the most common version sold in the US is this: B-I-N. Which is White Pigmented Shellac, which you will need to paint over. If this is natural wood then regular clear or white shellac will do the trick. But, shellac stinks! It will smell really strong and the smell of it may take a few weeks to disappear. Also, don't get fooled by the latex version of B-I-N, it won't sealed the odour in.
posted by zaphod at 7:16 PM on December 19, 2006

I had luck washing a coat that my cats peed on (and had been stagnating for years in a trash bag -- after it dried, of course, but still nasty) with pine sol. It was pretty amazing that this technique worked, but it did.

I don't know if it's directly applicable to your situation, but I was amazed at its ability to de-stink clothes.
posted by kdar at 8:24 PM on December 19, 2006

Are you sure it's cat piss and that there wasn't any creative chemistry going on there before you moved in? I ask only because I've heard that meth/meth labs can smell like strong cat urine.
posted by dilettante at 8:46 PM on December 19, 2006

Just out of curiosity, how many times have you reapplied the nature's miracle? I've had to do 5+ applications for some particularly bad areas (fully saturating the spot and leaving it to dry for at least a day each time), but after every application it got a little better and eventually the smell was gone. Might be worth a try before you start with the shellac.
posted by somanyamys at 5:13 AM on December 20, 2006

Lots of good suggestions in this thread, but wanted to mention that for odor absorbing tasks, charcoal is generally considered much more effective than baking soda. Obviously you want to try to remove the source of the problem and hopefully you can. But if, along the way, you find that you need something to absorb odor, I'd give the charcoal a try.
posted by Clay201 at 5:29 AM on December 20, 2006

I wonder if you could use Kilz or another heavy duty primer to coat the floor after tearing up the tile.

That's how we approached the problem at a friend's home. Carpet removed and discarded, molding removed, everything painted twice with Kilz.

Even then it wasn't perfect but it was a million times better. Eventually more improvement was made by cutting away and patching the drywall which had also soaked up stink. Personally I'm skeptical about the effectiveness of sanding drywall - once you sand away the outer paper shell there's nothing to hold it together anymore and you should just be replacing it. And cat piss can certainly completely penetrate the paper.

At this point if you're surely moving in 6 months I'd say close the door and give up, it's not worth the time. Those tiles would have to come up before you could seal the (presumably) underlying MDF.
posted by phearlez at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2006

I've had great luck with an ionic air purifier, specifically the Ionic Breeze from Sharper Image (also available refurbed for a lot less $$). Supposedly they're not really great for you (are they a type of ozone generator?), but I've had mine for 5 years and just can't live without it. If unplug it for some reason and forget to plug it back in, I know it because suddenly there's an odor of dog pee and I start sneezing.
posted by Jaie at 3:54 PM on December 20, 2006

If you want to try a less chemical solution, perhaps consider using essential oils. I've had really good luck with EOs.

To treat wood, I would try:

30 ml Lavender
10 ml Peppermint, Spearmint or Wintergreen
15 ml Lemon

blend into 60 - 80 ml of any light carrier oil.

Apply blend to wood with a cloth, or put the oil in a spray bottle and saturate the wood if that's the easiest way to attack the walls. Just leave it on.

Notes on oils: For lavender, either 40/42 or the more expensive Bulgarian can be used. 40/42 has more of that "camphor" smell that many people don't like about Lavender, but it's cheaper and easier to find in small amounts.

For carrier oils, try a sunflower or walnut if accessible, soybean is probably the "heaviest" you want to go, and I think it might be too viscous. I use cherry oil on my wood, but I don't know where you can buy that in smaller quantities than a gallon.

Drop me an email if you need some good places to buy EOs in bulk.
posted by dejah420 at 4:39 PM on December 20, 2006

Kilz isn't as effective as a shellac based product. Used to work in a Paint Shop years ago and the preferred product by the painters who'd come in was white-pigmented shellac
posted by zaphod at 11:22 AM on December 23, 2006

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