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Dr. Patrick Mahaney Debunks Cat Litter Myths for AOL PawNation

Does using scented litter allow you to scoop your cat's box less frequently?  Should pregnant women avoid litter box duties all together? Learn answers to these feline-hot topics and more via my contribution to AOL's PawNation: Cat Litter Myths Debunked.
Most pet owners will admit that while their cat companions are wonderful, intelligent and talented, they can sometimes be a little confusing. And by a little, we mean a lot. Thankfully, there are experts who can help us better understand our furry friends. Celebrity veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney is here to answer your questions about what litter box practices are best for your cat.
MYTH: Because of the toxoplasmosis found in cat litter boxes, pregnant woman cannot own cats. 


This one is a tricky question. There are differing opinions between medical practitioners, both human and veterinary.

Potential health risks associated with toxoplasmosis exist for pregnant women (and immunocompromised individuals). Toxoplasmosis is a single-celled organism, known as a protozoa, which some cats carry and shed in their feces.

There is a public health concern for pregnant women who may be exposed to toxoplasmosis.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, “Women newly infected with toxoplasma during pregnancy and anyone with a compromised immune system should be aware that toxoplasmosis can have severe consequences.”

Additionally, humans can contract toxoplasmosis by swallowing the parasite in the process of: 1. Cleaning a cat's litter box when the cat has shed toxoplasma in its feces.

2. Touching or ingesting anything that has come into contact with cat feces that contain toxoplasma.

3. Accidentally ingesting contaminated soil (e.g., not washing hands after gardening, or eating unwashed fruits or vegetables from a garden).

Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should talk to their healthcare provider about having blood tests for toxoplasmosis. Regarding behavior around cats, pregnant women should wear rubber gloves while changing the litter box (or gardening) to prevent direct contact between toxoplasma and the skin.

MYTH: Using a scented litter allows a cat owner to go days without cleaning the box.


That’s definitely a myth. Scented litter does not permit cat owners to neglect their litter-box-cleaning responsibilities.

In general, it’s best that cat owners scoop the litter box at least every 24 hours. Not only is this a good sanitary practice from the standpoint of minimizing bad odors, but you can actually help to reduce the spread of infectious organisms.

Bacteria, viruses and parasites can all be spread through an animal's feces or urine. Feces can spread all three, while urine is more closely associated with the spread of bacteria.

If your cat sheds toxoplasma oocysts in his feces, 48 hours must go by in order for the oocysts to become infective. Therefore, scooping your cat’s litter box at least every 24 hours and immediately discarding the feces and urine in a sealed container away from contact with your other animal and human family members is the best means to prevent spread of infectious organisms.

MYTH: Litter boxes do not need to be washed out, just scooped from time to time, to stay clean. ANSWER: 

The belief that just scooping and not fully cleaning litter boxes will be sufficient is definitely a myth.

Fully cleaning out the litter box means that all litter, urine and fecal material are completely discarded and the box is cleaned with an antiseptic cleaning solution.

The frequency with which cat owners should perform a full cleansing of the litter box varies from house to house. In multi-cat environments, the litter box is going to accumulate urine and feces faster than a single-cat household. As a result, more frequent scooping of the cat waste and complete discarding/cleaning of the box will be needed.

Make a calendar entry and reminder to perform a full cleaning of your cat’s litter box at least every 14 days (twice monthly).

MYTH: Clumping litter is unsafe for cats.


The belief that clumping litter is unsafe for cats has some truth to it.

Clumping litter is made from clay from volcanic ash and contains sodium bentonite, a natural clumping which in itself isn’t directly toxic.

If you cat ingests clumping litter, the abrasive

nature of the clay can irritate the stomach and intestines and lead to decreased appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Additionally, if the litter clumps inside your cat’s digestive tract, then a foreign body and obstruction may be created that could need surgical intervention to resolve.

MYTH: If I live in a multi-cat household, it is OK to have one box, as long as I scoop it daily.


The perspective that multiple cats in one household should all be using a single box is definitely a myth greatly needing to be dispelled.

In the best interests of all household cats and the humans with whom the cats share  their environment, having multiple options where feces and urine can be appropriately deposited is vital.

In a multi-cat household, there should be at least one litter box per cat per house.  If there’s only one box, then there are many reasons a cat may choose to eliminate outside of the sole litter box.  The most common reasons are:

1.Lack of clean place to void waste- By nature, cats are fastidious creatures that instinctually urinate and defecate on a preferred substrate (usually loose, granular material that is used to also cover waste).  If there’s no clean place to void in the litter box, then another location (your gym bag, pillow, clean laundry basket, etc.) may be chosen.

2.Lack of access to the litter box- If another cat’s presence deters one cat from having access to the box, then an alternate site will be chosen to urinate or defecate. Similarly, human error can play a part; if a door to the room having the litter box is closed, then your cat will be forced to seek out another site to eliminate.

3.Physical ailments- Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), back and joint pain, anal sacculitis, digestive tract abnormalities, and other ailments can negatively affect a cat’s normal tendencies to eliminate in the litter box and cause them to choose other locations.

So, although the presence of a second litter box in the living room of your New York City-sized (i.e. small) apartment may seem somewhat unsightly, it’s much better that your two cats have another option besides merely the box in your bathroom.

Thank you for reading this article.  Your questions and comments are completely welcome (I’ll respond). Please feel free to communicate with me through Twitter (@PatrickMahaney) and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine by liking Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets on Facebook. Copyright of this article (2013) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.
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