By Paula Fitzsimmons
When was the last time you changed your cat’s litterbox or cleaned your dog’s food bowls with soap and water? Pets make our lives full, but they can also make them messy and dirty. Along with their unconditional love comes fur, dander, dirt, and grime.
Keeping your home clean when you have pets—not to mention the individual toys, dishes, and grooming tools that have to be sanitized—is a challenge for even the tidiest pet parents. And if we’re being honest, a chore or two may occasionally (ahem, or more often) fall to the wayside.
If keeping your space clean were just for the sake of appearances, then it would be easier to justify putting off these mundane tasks. But being diligent about pet-related hygiene chores is also about keeping our pets—and ourselves—healthy. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 6 out of 10 infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they pass from animals to humans.
Keeping these diseases from surfacing is often a matter of practicing good—and simple—hygiene. The following are essential pet-related housekeeping chores that you should be doing on a regular basis. Do them not only to keep your space looking and smelling great, but also to ensure the health of your loved ones—both furry and human.
If the pungent smells aren’t enough to compel you to clean your cat’s litter box every day, consider that a filthy box is a fertile ground for a number of germs, including a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, says Dr. Keith Poulsen, a veterinarian with the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Spread through cat feces, T. gondii can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease that may result in flu-like symptoms. Of the more than 60 million Americans the CDC says may be infected, most are protected by healthy immune systems.
Toxoplasmosis can cause birth defects in children of pregnant women who have been infected. For this reason, “most doctors and veterinarians recommend handing off litter box duty to someone else in the family during pregnancy,” explains Poulsen.
Litter boxes are also breeding grounds for intestinal parasites like roundworms and hookworms that can be transmitted to people, especially children, says Poulsen.
Cleaning litter boxes also cuts down on the build-up of ammonia, which Dr. Liz Stelow, a veterinary behaviorist with the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, says can irritate our delicate nasal membranes.
What is the best way to clean a litterbox? After emptying the litter, Stelow recommends using a mild dish soap and completely rinsing and drying. “Anything stronger may keep your sensitive cat away from the box,” she says. For pet stains, she suggests using an enzymatic cleaner that will eat away at organic matter. “But be sure to check the expiration date, as these enzymes are produced by bacteria and will cease to be effective over time.”
It’s also a good idea to have at least as many litter boxes as there are cats in the home, says Dr. Sonja Olson, a senior clinician in emergency medicine for BluePearl Veterinary Partners. She says it allows individual cats to mark their own territory while avoiding peeing around the house. This holds true for kittens, too, who she says are often treated for gastrointestinal parasites.
Besides being a magnet for collecting fur, dirt, and grime, bedding can also harbor flea eggs and larvae, ticks, and other skin parasites, says Dr. Heide Meier, medical director of the Truesdell Animal Care Hospital and Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin.
Clean bedding helps keep pet dander and hair in the environment to a minimum, explains Poulsen. This task is especially essential if you or someone in your household suffer with asthma or allergies. “If your pet has lice, mites, or fleas, washing bedding is very important for getting rid of parasitic eggs and flea dirt,” he says.
Vacuuming is fine for in-between cleanings, but to reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases, dog bedding need to be thoroughly cleaned. “Bedding should be washed with a mild fragrance- and dye-free detergent, weekly or when it becomes dirty, recommends Meier. “The water temperature should be 130 degrees or higher, and the bedding should be dried for 20 minutes on high heat.” She says cat bedding can be washed less frequently, but that fur should be removed weekly with a brush or tape roller.
Go ahead and shower your pets with love and attention. Just remember to wash your hands after playing with, feeding, or cleaning up after them. “This cuts down on the spread of any disease that requires ingestion as the mode of transmission,” Stelow says.
The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water to decrease the chance of contracting any number of zoonotic diseases, including E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and ringworm.
Try keeping a bar of soap or dispenser in different areas of the home to make it easier to remember to wash your hands.
You wouldn’t eat food that’s been sitting out overnight, so why should your pet?
Dry dog food can become contaminated with salmonella, according to the CDC, and if transmitted to people, can cause severe illness. Younger and older adults, and those with compromised immune systems, are especially vulnerable.
Poulsen says dry food should be stored in airtight containers. Ditto for wet food, which should also be refrigerated because “once opened, it will support bacterial growth at room temperature.”
If you feed your pet raw foods, you need to use even more precautions, Poulsen says. “Raw foods need to be handled very carefully because if they are not, they carry higher risk of heavy bacterial contamination that could cause illness.”
He also advises against storing open food outside or in a garage. “Open food will attract rodents, which could contaminate the food with feces and parasites.”
Think countertops, cutting boards, and faucet handles are the germiest places in your home? They have nothing on pet bowls, named fourth germiest item in the home by NSF International.
When pets eat and drink from their dishes, their saliva transmits bacteria, according to Foodsafety.gov. If not cleaned properly, the bacteria could grow and cause illness in pets, as well as for children who play with the bowls.
How often should you clean your pet’s bowls? Poulsen recommends putting them in the dishwasher or washing them by hand, but “If your pet leaves chunks of food in the bowl, this may need to happen more frequently to avoid high bacterial growth.”
Other experts, like those at Foodsafety.gov, recommend washing food bowls every day between meals and water bowls every day or two.
You need to be especially diligent about cleaning self-watering bowls, since mold can accumulate and lead to gastrointestinal issues or discourage your cat from drinking, says Olson. “The filters get gunked up with nasty mold, and that’s not good for any animal.”
Outfitting your pet with proper flea and tick prevention—not the homemade variety—is vital for your pet’s health and yours.
Keeping fleas at bay reduces the chance of your developing a disease like bubonic plague, which is often the result of infected flea bites.
A good flea and tick regimen can also prevent the spread of Bartonellosis, a disease popularly referred to as cat-scratch fever, says Meier.
Bartonellosis is caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae, which Meier says is spread through infected cat bites and scratches that break a person's skin. Most cats don’t show signs of infection, but in rare instances they can develop heart problems. People exposed to the bacteria can have redness and pus at the entry site, along with other symptoms like fever, lethargy, and headache.
“Regularly applying a flea preventive can prevent the transmission of cat-scratch fever,” she says.
Pet parents can also wash their dog’s paws with mild dish soap or baby wipes when they come in from a walk or outdoor playtime. This helps to avoid trekking in bacteria and parasites, while protecting your dog from allergens and parasites at the same time.
If you suffer with allergies or asthma (and even if you don’t), regular vacuuming is a must— especially if you live with pets. Cats in particular produce Fel d 1, a protein found in their urine, saliva, and skin cells that cause allergies in some people.
You aren’t the only one who suffers when allergens aren’t kept to a minimum. Meier says cats and dogs are often allergic to dust mites and molds (just like us). She recommends a regular vacuuming routine to reduce the level of allergens in the household.
Carpets and floors should be vacuumed at least once per week using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, Meier says. “Urine, vomit, and stool stains should be treated with an enzymatic odor eliminator, and carpets should be steam cleaned every six to 12 months to kill bacteria, dust mites, and fleas.”
Another item that made NSF’s list of dirty places was pet toys, which can attract coliform bacteria, yeast, and mold. Dr. Zenithson Ng, a board-certified vet and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, says not cleaning pet items can lead to localized skin infections if your skin is in constant contact with the dirty item.
NSF recommends that hard toys be cleaned with hot soapy water and disinfected with a mild bleach solution. And remember to rinse thoroughly.
You can toss your pet’s soft toys in the washing machine, says Meier. But “they should be replaced if they are damaged or worn and pose a risk to the pet (for example, they can ingest polyester stuffing from a gutted toy). And collars should be washed in a washing machine every four to six weeks to coincide with grooming.”
Picking up dog waste is nobody’s favorite chore—which is perhaps why pooper scoopers remain in business—but Stelow says it should be done as quickly as possible, especially if children play in that area.
“Children are more likely than adults to put their hands in their mouths without washing them, increasing the chances that small amounts of fecal matter from the yard will make it into their systems.”
In addition, anyone who is immunocompromised due to disease or chemotherapy needs to exercise caution.
A few of the diseases you can pick up from exposure to dog poop—some of which can be life threatening—according to Canada’s Public Health Leader, include E. coli, salmonella, giardia, roundworm, and toxoplasmosis.
Remember to wear gloves, and use a poop-removing tool or earth-friendly dog waste bags to avoid contact with feces.
What you clean with is as important as how often you clean. Some household cleaning products, according to Meier, are poisonous to pets. Examples, she says, include drain cleaners, concentrated dishwasher detergent, lime-removal products, oven cleaners, and concentrated toilet cleaners.
Olson recommends opting for natural cleaners, especially for use on your carpets and floors. “Chemical cleaners can irritate your cat’s respiratory system.” This includes “baking soda cleaners that get sprayed in the carpet, which also can cause asthma-like reactions in cats.”
Regular soap and water will typically be adequate, says Ng. For heavy soils, he says a diluted bleach solution is an excellent disinfectant.
For convenience, you might also want to look at natural cleaners created specifically for pet owners. Some rely on natural enzymes to remove pet stains and odors, and grapefruit seed extract to disinfect surfaces.
In general, Meier says, “Take the same precautions with your pets and household cleaners as you would for yourself.”
If you live with animals, keeping a clean home is essential for their well-being and yours. Doing some basic housekeeping chores can help prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases, and keep your pets healthy. You don’t need to toil away for hours to make a difference, either. Following these simple tips promote good health and a grime-free home.