A gray and white kitten standing in a litter box.

A Dirty Litter Box Is Bad News for Your Cat… and You

It will probably be no surprise to cat parents that one of your cat’s favorite things is cleanliness — so much so that cats spend 2 to 6 hours per day cleaning and conditioning their coat and claws. That’s a lot of time out of their day when you consider they also sleep around 15 to 16 hours per day, on average.

This fastidious cleaning habit also applies to the condition of their litter box. Cats can be finicky about the type of litter you use, the smell of the litter and what the litter box looks like (e.g., covered or not). But they most definitely do not like a dirty litter box. If your cat is not using their litter box, this is one of the first things you should check.

A dirty litter box can mean not only cleaning up urine in random places around your house; it can also cause health issues for your cat and your family. Here are some of the reasons why you should keep your cat’s litter box clean and always wash your hands after cleaning it.

Tips for Avoiding Toxoplasmosis

One of the most one well-known diseases associated with litter boxes is toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is found worldwide and can infect most animals. Many people are aware of the disease due to the health problems it can cause babies when their mother becomes infected with Toxoplasma during or shortly before pregnancy.

Most cats don’t have any symptoms or signs of a Toxoplasma infection unless their immune system is compromised. In other words, even if your cat seems fine, they could be shedding the parasite in their feces.

The risk of people becoming infected from a cat infected with Toxoplasma is relatively low because the oocysts (egg-like structures) in feces require one to five days before they’re able to infect another animal. So if you’re scooping the litter box daily and washing your hands thoroughly afterwards with soap and water, the risk of infection is low. If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the CDC recommends that someone else change the litter, or if that’s not possible, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.

No One Wants Worms!

Two other parasites that can be found in your cat’s litter box are roundworm and hookworm. These nematodes live in the intestinal tract, where roundworms feed on food in the intestine and hookworms feed on blood vessels in the intestinal lining. Most cats don’t show outward signs unless the infection is severe — which can be fatal for kittens.

Eggs and larvae from roundworm and hookworm can be found in the feces of infected cats. Other animals (including people) can become infected with roundworm if they accidentally ingest something contaminated with feces. A hookworm infection occurs when larvae penetrate the skin.

Clearly this is another good reason to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after cleaning the litter box. You should also make sure your pets (cats and dogs) are routinely taking intestinal parasite prevention medication to help prevent a roundworm or hookworm infection in the first place.

Stress Can Lead to Urinary Issues

A dirty litter box can be stressful for your cat, given their particularness about cleanliness. They may refuse to use the litter box if it’s dirty which causes stress either through trying to “hold it” as long as possible or having to find another place they feel comfortable eliminating in.

For cats with a history of feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), a clean litter box is especially important. According to articles by BluePearl Specialty and Pet Emergency Hospitals and Veterinary Partner, cats with FIC have an exaggerated stress response as a result of imbalances in their nervous and endocrine systems.

One of the management techniques for FIC is MEMO (multimodal environmental modification). This involves assessing the cat’s home environment, identifying potential stressors and then changing the environment to reduce stress. Litter box management and hygiene is on the most important parts of MEMO to reduce stress for cats with FIC.

A possible complication of FIC is urethral obstruction (UO), which occurs when bladder stones or urethral plugs partially or completely block the urethra and the cat is unable to urinate. Urine accumulates in the bladder and can even back up into the kidneys. As a result, toxins normally eliminated in urine build up in the body, which can lead to kidney damage or heart failure. Preventing FIC can help prevent UO, especially since up to 25 percent of cats with UO may experience it again.

If your cat is straining to use the litter box with little or no success, call your veterinarian immediately. Cats with UO can die within 48–72 hours, so early access to veterinary care is critical.

Is Cat Pee Toxic?

It’s a popular search, but if you’re cleaning the litter box regularly, the chance of you becoming ill from the ammonia produced by cat urine is low. Normal cat urine is about 95 percent water, but it also contains urea, ammonia, uric acid and creatinine, which are natural waste products of protein breakdown and contribute to its distinctive, acidic smell.

The urea is broken down into ammonia by bacteria in the environment — so the quicker you clean the litter box, the less chance the bacteria have to break down the urea into ammonia. Ammonia can be hazardous at high levels, but in general, you would need to have a lot of cats and a lot of dirty litter boxes for a long period of time for the ammonia levels to cause health issues.

How to Clean the Litter Box

Your cat’s litter box should be scooped daily, and for cats with FIC, some experts recommend twice-daily scooping. Scooping regularly will also help you notice any changes in your cat’s bathroom habits that may indicate a health issue.

The litter should be changed weekly and the box deep cleaned every few weeks. When washing the litter box, use hot water and mild unscented dishwashing detergent. Avoid strong cleaners like bleach or ammonia.

Make sure you also have one litter box per cat plus one more. The litter boxes should be placed in easy-to-access places that are also low traffic areas to give your cat quiet and privacy.


The takeaway message? Keep your cat’s litter box clean and wash your hands! This will help prevent you and your cat from becoming ill and keep your cat using their litter box.


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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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