Is Cat Waste Harmful?

Danger lurks within.

Danger lurks within.

Cat waste is gross -- this much we know. A breeding ground for life-threatening bacteria, cat waste can also be harmful. You won't need a HAZMAT suit, but the potential perils of handling cat poo are great enough that you'll want to be extra-hygienic when tasked with litter box duty.

Bacterial Growth

Harmful pathogens may form if you don't get rid of cat waste. Bacteria may start to grow on and in the waste; if it's left outside, it may attract pests such as flies. You can't compost with it, because it won't get hot enough to break down the dangerous pathogens and therefore will contaminate rather than enrich the heap. Basically, unlike your cat, his waste has no redeeming qualities. On the contrary, it represents a health risk to children, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.

Pregnancy and Parasites

Cat waste can be especially harmful to pregnant women and their babies. It's because of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, often called just toxoplasma. The average person is at minimal risk for being contaminated by toxoplasma. But when you're pregnant, the parasite can harm your baby if it gets into your system, causing brain damage or other birth defects. This is why pregnant women are cautioned not to scoop out the litter box -- the risk is limited but not worth hedging.

Brain Infections

Of course, pregnant women aren't the only people in harm's way when handling cat waste. A study published in July 2012 showed that women infected with toxoplasma -- pregnant or not -- experienced neurological changes. Specifically, they were found to be more at risk of attempting suicide. As toxoplasma levels rose, so did suicide risk. While consultants on the study hesitated to make presumptions based on their findings, they did indicate a "predictive association." In other words, you can never be too careful when cleaning out the box.

Don't Forget Kitty

Cat waste can be especially harmful for humans, but don't forget about your loved one who spends every day walking around paw-deep in the stuff. Cat waste isn't necessarily harmful to cats other than in the sense that it grows bacteria. Letting the box collect too much waste can discourage your cat from using it, which isn't a good thing for anyone. Clean out the box daily to ensure that you and Kitty are healthy, clean and safe.

Scrubbin' the Tub

Even if you scoop out the box daily, your doodie duties don't end there. Every few weeks -- or more frequently, depending on how many cats you have -- you should empty the whole box and start from square one. Dump out all the contents of the litter box and wash it out with a mild, low-odor detergent. Wearing gloves is a good idea, too. Refill the box with a few inches of fresh litter. Make cleanliness a priority every time you scoop out the box. If you're worried about inhaling bacteria or the dust clouds litter kicks up, wear a mask when you scoop. And please, don't just toss that poop-encrusted scoop on the carpet next to the litter box. Give it a hot-water rinse and, if need be, wash it with the mild detergent. It takes just a minute, and you're way better off for it.

About the Author

Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

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