Kitty litter boxes can carry the unmistakable smell of cat urine, which in large quantities can be overwhelming. While the amount of urine in a tidy litter box does not pose a significant health danger to humans, a build up of high concentrations of cat urine has some risk.
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Cat urine is made up of chemical gases such as ammonia and amines (an ammonia derivative) which are either absorbed or emitted from litter boxes and other places where cats urinate. Ammonia (NH3) is produced as toxic waste when a cat's metabolism breaks down urea. Human urine also contains ammonia (although in smaller concentrations), as do household cleaners, fertilisers, plants, soil, water and air, most of which humans are exposed to daily to some degree. A small amount of ammonia gases from cat urine are, for the most part, absorbed by cat litter, but larger quantities and concentrations can affect humans, especially young children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions or compromised immune systems. Nevertheless, with safe measures, even those at high risk can avoid exposure.
The most common method of exposure to ammonia is through the respiratory system, through inhalation, which can cause coughing, runny nose, sore throat, phlegm, headaches and dizziness. In high concentrations, inhalation can cause shortness of breath, bronchitis, pneumonia, narrowing of the throat and death. Keeping a cat's litter box in a well ventilated area, away from human activity, helps to avoid respiratory exposure. Litter box covers also help to contain gaseous fumes, but unless well kept, kitty will be inhaling the fumes instead, thus risking its health. For added protection, persons can wear a mask to minimise inhalation exposure.
In contact with skin, ammonia in higher concentrations like those found in household cleaners, can cause redness, burning or blistering. Litter scoopers, litter liners, gloves and self-cleaning litter boxes eliminate litter contact with skin.
Eyes exposed to ammonia vapours can become irritated, tear, burn or swell. In high concentrations, ammonia can cause blindness. For added protection, persons can wear goggles to avoid eye contact with ammonia vapours.
In order to avoid exposure to concentrates of ammonia in cat urine, keep kitty's litter box clean and stick to the one box per cat rule. Change litter frequently. Clumping, or clay litter allows for the easy removal of cat urine, which ideally can be done on a daily basis. Litters made of silica gel (crystals), plants (pine, corn, cedar) and recycled newspaper withhold odours and fumes, but need to be changed often, almost weekly, as urine eventually builds up to concentrations that can no longer be contained. Also, frequently wash the box with warm soapy water and bleach, and always make sure there is an ample amount of litter in your cat's box: three to four inches should be enough.
The risk of human health exposed to ammonia in general depends upon the duration, concentration and route of exposure. The aforementioned risks are most common when a person has been exposed to ammonia in significant concentrations and/or for prolonged periods of time; neither is the case with a clean, well kept litter box.
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