As a cat owner, you may also be wondering – are there any dangers of cat litter for humans? Can cat litter really make me sick?
Most products will produce a cloud of dust into the surrounding air and your first instinct is probably to hold your breath. Well – rightfully so!
We are more and more aware of various health concerns affecting our daily life – traces of pesticides and fertilizers in the food we consume, air pollution from busy roads, small particles of plastics leaching into water supply and so on.
And there is also the aspect of dealing with poop – how realistic is it to pick up a disease while cleaning a dirty litter box?
Dangers of inhaling cat litter dust
We are going to look at two potentially dangerous types of cat litter – clumping and silica cat litter.
Can cat litter really be dangerous? In the end it’s there for your cat’s business and aside from the occasional stirring, scooping and weekly cleaning you have very little direct contact with it.
However, very small particles of cat litter will be present in the air – we cannot see or often smell the air around us, but the surrounding air quality is always affecting us in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways.
If you’re someone prone to respiratory issues – maybe asthma – you will want to take note of the amount of dust your cat litter includes.
If you are noticing any respiratory irritation, increased phlegm or difficulties catching a breath – it could be that your kitty’s litter box is contributing to the problem.
Dangers of clumping cat litter
Cat litter manufacturers quite obviously market their clumping litter products as ‘safe’.
Considering that the global market size of clumping cat litter is estimated at USD 9.78 billion (2020) – their view is certainly biased and tied to profit making.
More importantly – the market share of clumping cat litter is 76%. Clumping litter is convenient indeed, so what makes it dangerous?
Sodium bentonite, the main ingredient in clumping clay litter, is a type of moisture absorbing and sealing clay – its close cousin calcium bentonite is often used for detox purposes, but they are not the same.
Due to its ability to absorb A LOT of water – up to 20 times its own size – it has been a principal ingredient in cat litter products – making them clump, so it’s convenient to scoop out the cat pee.
The problem arises when cats inhale fine particles of sodium bentonite clay while using the litter box or accidentally ingest some that are stuck to their paws for example.
The clay is attracted to moisture INSIDE either the respiratory or digestive tract and essentially acts as an expandable cement potentially forming hard masses that the body may not be able to eliminate.
Over time this can build up and seriously affect your cat’s health.
Affected cat owners and vets have warned about this pet health issue for years, but science may be slow to catch up on the dangers of clumping cat litter.
Maybe science too is biased – the funding comes from somewhere. In the end, there is an overwhelming amount of sick cat stories all over the internet, so that should account for something.
Another question that arises is how seriously could this affect cat owners. Indeed you’re probably not spending hours on end next to your kitty litter or ingesting it, but could this still affect your health?
There is no scientific research about this, but I would err on the side of caution and use plain old logic – think about the location of the litter box, the “protective gear” you could use when scooping for your cat’s treasures (all these facemasks will come in handy now) and most importantly – the type of litter you buy.
Dangers of silica cat litter
Silica gel is another type of litter many cat owners are now buying. It is relatively new to the market and made from the same hard beads you find in those white packets that say “DO NOT EAT”.
They are used in cat litter, because of their extremely porous molecular structure – this enables the little beads to absorb a lot of pee and also odors.
Silica gel cat litter is on the expensive side, but lasts a while without needing a refresh – again, sounds pretty convenient! Being the newest product on the market also means there is no research on the long-term effects of using silica litter.
However, it is important to know that silica dust is considered carcinogenic and can lead to not just respiratory problems and lung cancer, but potentially also silicosis (lung tissue scarring – pulmonary fibrosis) and sarcoidosis (inflamed cells sticking together into lumps of tissue – granulomas).
There are no studies that have looked into silica dust effects on cats, but silica has been studied rather extensively in metal foundry, construction and ceramic industry workers.
These reveal that breathing in large quantities of silica dust has been harmful for their lungs and led to silicosis in a large percentage of them – this continues to be a public health issue in many, mostly developing, regions of the world.
There is also a study of a woman, who was diagnosed with sarcoidosis due to using silica cat litter (she also had further occupational exposure). Long scientific story short, with some medicine and changing the type of cat litter she used, she recovered.
More toxic chemicals – scented cat litter and deodorisers
Chemical exposure may not stop there – many cat owners are either using scented litters or some forms of air freshener products to improve the smell in the cat toilet area, particularly if a deep clean is overdue. It is tempting to use home air fresheners to deal with the situation and buy a little more time.
But beware – scented products often contain toxic chemicals, many of them carcinogenic, and you may be better off without.
Even the term ‘air fresheners’ is misleading, because they may mask the element of smell, but do not improve air quality.
Fragrances, smells from scented household products (including candles and incense), air fresheners – they all contribute to tiny particles flying around in your household air, bombarding your respiratory tract and potentially causing irritation and harm to your health.
Studies on air freshener safety conclude that manufacturers are allowed to be brief with their product ingredient disclosure – by just listing ‘fragrance’ on the label they avoid going into details, which can expose a long list of potentially harmful chemicals that are also ‘part of the deal’.
Instead of the ‘promise to ‘freshen’ the air’ they actually contribute to indoor air pollution with toxic and harmful chemicals.
It is more difficult to know if your cat is suffering – without any obvious immediate symptoms the problems can take years to manifest and by then the damage may already be irreversible.
Do look out for sneezing and sniffling behavior when your cat uses the litter box and if at all possible – make sure their litter box is in an area with good ventilation.
Top tip – sprinkling baking soda at the bottom of the litter tray will help to naturally eliminate the smell of cat urine.
How to make smarter litter box decisions?
There is no denying that convenience is an important part of cat litter decisions and the majority of cat owners will keep using these types of litter products without any adverse reactions to themselves or their cat. Or, at least, not any KNOWN adverse reactions.
And in the end, these products would not be sold if they were not safe…right? The decision here lies with the cat owner.
There are rules and regulations to ensure the safety of consumer products, but if you ask me – it does not remove the individual responsibility of just simply being aware of potential dangers.
There is no ‘one solution fits all’ – some of us are more sensitive to these elements or have a weakened immune system and will notice the raised health concerns.
Either way, it is certainly worthwhile thinking about other contributing factors in your life – general health, air quality and ventilation in your home/neighborhood/workplace, smoking, lifestyle, genetics, etc.
If you have some concerns in any of these areas, you may already have a high exposure to other toxic or inflammatory agents – in that case tread with caution.
It is important to know the dangers and risks, so you can make an informed decision based on your unique circumstances.
Dangers of a dirty litter box
Besides various products and their safety, there is another side of the story – A dirty litter box can be the start for some serious health concerns. All cat owners, at one point or another, have been in the position where litter cleaning has waited a day or two longer and is starting to stink up the place – enter ammonia.
Can you get sick from the smell of cat urine?
Ammonia is naturally present in soil, decaying waste matter, even in human bodies. It is widely used in agriculture and manufacturing industries, as well as in some industrial strength cleaning products.
Breathing in a large quantity of ammonia is very dangerous and can cause lung damage, blindness and even death.
When cat urine comes into contact with bacteria, it starts to release ammonia – usually only trace amounts of it, which will not cause the same damage as an industrial strength source.
If your cats litter box is not cleaned regularly, the ammonia content in the air starts to build up and lead to respiratory troubles, irritating your skin and eyes, causing headaches.
Long-term exposure to ammonia from a cat litter box can lead to more serious health problems.
The longer the exposure – the more severe can be the consequences, especially if there are several cats involved.
You may also struggle with your feline friends – most cats will want to keep clean and will not use a dirty litter box. You can then start to have much bigger problems with cats going to pee or poo in other areas in your home, ruining furniture and carpets.
This will make the smell of ammonia and various possible infections an even bigger issue.
Much easier to tackle the problem head on and make litter box duties part of your regular hygiene at home.
Top tip – If your cat has peed on a carpet or upholstery, you can try the “magical” home remedy of vinegar-water spray. Just mix the solution with 1:1 ratio, spray the affected area and really rub it into the spot. The acid in the vinegar eliminates the odor.
Another solution to try is baking soda, sprinkle generously onto the area, really rub it in and leave it to sit for 12- 24 hours. Then vacuum the area and you can also give it a soapy scrub after, to make sure it’s all gone.
Zoonotic disease – Dangers lurking in cat feces
Besides various types of questionable litter choices, it is important to be mindful about infectious disease that cats can spread through their feces.
The likelihood of this is low, but if you are somebody with a weakened immune system, on certain medication that affects your immune defenses, pregnant or if you have small children at home, it certainly pays to know what’s out there.
Hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms
Nobody likes the thought of having worms, but these guys are intestinal parasites that can make a home in your cat’s body. If your cat is infected, it is possible to pick up a parasitic infection from coming into contact with cat poop.
General hygiene is usually enough to prevent this problem – washing hands often, especially after cleaning the litter box, maybe even wearing gloves.
Make sure the smallest in your family know that litter box is out of limits and that cat poop (even though it may be tempting at a certain age) should not be played with.
If you have a garden that your cat goes to, you may want to use gloves also for gardening and wash all home-grown produce properly to avoid any contact with potential cat feces.
Cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis
These infections are both caused by microscopic parasites that CAN be picked up from cat feces.
Most people that get the infection actually contract it via other contaminants – unclean water, uncooked food, infected surfaces, but contact with cat feces can also lead to infection.
Diarrhea, stomach cramps and pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, slight fever can be some of the symptoms.
If you suspect you may have the infection, there are medications you can take, so first of all contact your physician for advice and knvestigate investigate investigate potential exposure to avoid this in the future.
Most of us have heard of the infection caused by Salmonella bacteria and may even know that this can be picked up from raw or undercooked meat, eggs, poultry, even dairy.
Infection from this bacteria can also affect cats and be transferred to humans through cat feces.
An infected cat can show various symptoms depending on the severity of the disease. Watch out for weight loss, anorexia, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, lethargy.
This doesn’t mean that if you avoid directly touching the poop, you’re safe from a bacterium.
These types of infections can also occur through indirect contact, so hygiene is paramount!
If you have any concerns about your kitty’s behavior, it’s best to have them checked by a vet as soon as possible to avoid spreading the infection in your household.
By far, the most talked about parasitic infection that can be contracted by cat poop is toxoplasmosis.
This is caused by a microscopic parasite (Toxoplasma gondii), whose main goal is to make its way into a cat’s intestine and reproduce. Infected cats will shed millions of oocysts (it’s one of the life cycles of these infectious parasites) daily. Depending on the environmental factors, these can carry the infection for even more than a year.
The parasite will use other intermediate hosts – including birds, rodents, humans – to get one step closer to being ingested by a cat.
This is where things get interesting – studies show that the parasite can alter the behavior of its intermediate host, so that they are, simply put, more attracted to cats!
This is widely studied from all angles and one of the most famous papers published shows how rats with T gondii infection will have no fear towards the smell of cat urine and some are even attracted by it.
The natural reaction from rats without the parasite is stress and avoidance of the space with cat urine.
Scientists hypothesize that the parasite may be ‘playing’ with the fear and pleasure responses in the brain.
More recently, studies have even linked T gondii infection in humans with entrepreneurial tendencies; the idea is the same – people are more likely to take risks and have a smaller fear of failure. Doesn’t sound all that bad?
Well, Toxoplasmosis is also linked to other behavioural changes and even certain mental disorders, such as schizofrenia, suicide attempts and “road rage”.
This is certainly an interesting time to be an animal behavior scientist!
T gondii can be very dangerous for unborn babies.
If you are a pregnant cat owner you are in the risk group for congenital toxoplasmosis, so make sure you take extra care if you have to clean cat litter, but ideally pass on these duties to somebody else in your household.
Most babies born with toxoplasmosis do not have symptoms, but this infection can also cause some very serious symptoms – including miscarriage, preterm labour or stillbirth.
Even though most babies are fine – better take extra care! Besides transmission from an infected cat, toxoplasmosis parasite can also spread through raw and undercooked food and lead to severe ocular and neurological disease – even if you are a healthy adult.
7 tips to keep your cat’s litter box safe
1 – Clean, clean and clean some more
There is nothing new under the sun – the best way to prevent troubles with infectious disease, bad odors and unhappy kitties is to have a disciplined hygiene routine.
Scoop cat waste daily and change the litter often enough. Make sure you always wash your hands after!
How often should you change your cat litter? This will depend on the type litter you are using and the sex, age, nature and lifestyle of your cat, so read the product advice to get a ballpark idea and then get on the same page with your furry friend.
By paying attention to your cat’s behavior (and using your eyes, nose and logic) you will know when a litter change is approaching.
During each litter change you should also take the opportunity to let the box soak in boiling water for a short while.
Use homemade vinegar – water spray for natural disinfectant and give a good clean with a dedicated brush or rag.
Rinse and refill with fresh litter.
2 – Use protective gear
After having read about potential infections you can contract from cat feces, it is best to have a pair of rubber gloves and a mask nearby to make cleaning duties swift and safe!
Do not forget to clean your hands thoroughly after and avoid touching your hair and face while cleaning.
Make sure you pay good attention to hand cleaning and don’t miss thumbs, fingertips and the areas between the fingers.
You can even top it off with some hand sanitizer! Always keep litter box cleaning supplies separate from other household ones, clean them regularly and make sure they are tucked safe from the reach of kids.
3 – Think about ventilation
The best location for your cat’s litter box will depend on your home and your cat(s), but think about ventilation.
You want to be able to regularly create a good breeze to clear the air and reduce the amount of particles bombarding your respiratory and digestive tracts.
This will also help to limit the smell of cat litter, but remember that if you are starting to smell your cat’s toilet – chances are that you’re overdue with a good cleanup.
4 – Get to know your cat
Outdoor cats can pick up infectious diseases from other animals, rodents, bugs and surfaces they interact with and can virtually bring home anything that will catch a ride with your cat.
If your cat does not venture outside, their exposure is limited and risk factors reduced.
There is no ‘one solution fits all’, so best advice is – get to know your cat and their habits.
Are they hunters and will happily munch on their prey?
Do they hang out with a dodgy stray cat or a potentially infected animal?
Maybe they spend their days running around your home or just napping on the sofa?
Do they eat food when they are outside or are you the master of their diet? Knowing what’s normal and what’s abnormal for your cat is the foundation of your relationship and you will know when something is wrong with your pet.
Maybe they just move less or do not want to eat – better to have them checked by a vet before anything potentially dangerous spreads through your household!
5 – Take your cat for regular checkups to the vet
Your vet will advise you the best frequency for health checks as this will likely depend on the cat’s age. Senior cats may need more frequent visits.
Regular checks will help with disease control and you can rest assured that potential issues are dealt with before they become a serious problem.
Plus, you can get some professional advice.
Even if you are a seasoned cat owner, an eye specifically trained in veterinary medicine will look carefully for symptoms you may not have even heard of.
6 – Be aware of potential dangers and symptoms
It is important to take on the responsibility of educating yourself about potential dangers and risks affecting the health of you, your family and your cat.
By knowing what’s out there, how diseases contract and what is impacting our health, we can make better decisions about the products we purchase, the rules we have at home and our routines.
If you notice any unusual symptoms in someone in the household, it is worth knowing about the potential involvement of your cat!
This article only talks about health concerns related to litter (and cat feces), but there are more dangers for your pet cat – cat scratch fever, rabies, ticks, fleas, you name it!
Best to be aware of all potential dangers.
7 – Consider an automatic litter box
An automatic litter box may sound like an alien concept, but it’s a convenient choice, where you avoid unnecessary contact with cat poop and reduce the chances of picking up an unwanted infection.
You will want this for your peace of mind when you are pregnant – to avoid a toxoplasma infection and later on you won’t have to worry about kids playing in the litter box (plus, let’s face it – one less chore to do around the house)! Besides, your kitty will love digging around in fresh litter every time!
When searching for your automatic litter box, consider our favourite – Self cleaning cat litter box Pura Max.
When choosing an automatic