When you're combating indoor pet odors, out of sight is far from out of scent. Even if you can't see the mess, you (and your houseguests) can certainly smell it. Unfortunately, many household cleaners only temporarily mask the pungent smells of the various unpleasant items your pet may deposit on your carpet or hardwood floor.
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Fortunately, your home doesn't have to smell like the local zoo. Our experts from the fields of veterinary medicine, chemistry, and professional housecleaning offer some no-miss methods to remove stubborn pet stains and their lingering odors.
Understanding The Science of Stench
To beat pet funk, you need a basic understanding of the chemistry behind the chief odor offenders: urine, feces, and vomit (if none of those apply, see our list of other Surprising Pet Odor Culprits). Because these substances contain odorous organic acids, ammonia, amines, and mercaptans, they smell strong and foul. As they linger, not only do their own odors evolve into the air, but new ones may be formed through the interaction with the bacteria in your home environment, explains George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist specializing in body odors at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Attacking pet messes with certain household cleaners such as solutions containing ammonia can worsen the stink and cause more soiling by the pet, says Patrick Melese, DVM, a San Diego veterinarian and diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. "Because ammonia is so close to the ingredients found in urine, an animal can mistake a cleanup with ammonia with the residual odor of urine. He then sees the area as a place to pee. Certain home remedies such as vinegar act primarily as a disinfectant that often only temporarily inhibits the environmental bacteria from producing the odor."
Another common mistake: attempting to clean soiled carpets with heat-based steam cleaners. "Steam cleaners work great to remove ordinary dirt," says Kerry Muhovich, DVM, a veterinarian and animal behavior education coordinator at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, one of the oldest and largest animal humane shelters in the US. Unfortunately, steam cleaning also puts moisture into the carpet padding, which causes the bacteria to multiply.
It will take away the odor for several days, but the smell can return and be stronger than before you cleaned it. Read on to find out how to properly clean your pet’s accidents.
Major Mess Removal
Timing is key. The faster you can remove a fresh accident, the less odor will be left behind, says Debi Peterson, president of Debi Does Dirt, a professional housecleaning company in Denver.
Use a paper towel or plastic bag to lift up poop. Dispose of it in an outdoor container with a lid that's out of smelling distance from your pet. Follow the steps below if an odor remains.
Urine presents more of a challenge. Our experts offer the following procedure.
Step 2: Neutralize the odor. Apply a pet stain enzymatic cleaner such as Nature's Miracle to the site. Pool the solution, and place a wet towel directly on the site. As the towel dries, it will pull up the urine and remove the odor. (Be sure your application reaches the padding.)
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Then be patient: Enzymatic products can take up to 2 weeks to clean successfully. Use the "apply it and forget it" rule.
Step 3: Bring on the baking soda. For urine-soaked bedding and other machine-washable materials, add 1 lb of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) along with the detergent.
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Wash in cold water. Baking soda absorbs odors and discourages bacterial growth. Do not use hot water, because heat can set the odor in the fabric.
Step 4: Replace the pad. As much as 90% of the urine may have absorbed into the carpet padding, but you may be able to save money by replacing just the padding instead of the carpet. Hire a professional to peel back the carpet, replace the padding, and restretch the carpet.
Become an Odor Detective
Old pet messes, especially urine, can be difficult to pinpoint.
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You may need to get down on your hands and knees to be as close to the odor source as possible. Sniff out those smelly spots, says Dr. Melese.
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Once you've ousted all offensive odors from your house, it's time for preventive tactics that make your indoors less appealing as bathrooms to your pets.
For dogs, take the time to thoroughly re-housetrain your pet. Until you're absolutely sure he gets it, limit his indoor boundaries, especially when you aren't home. Close off certain rooms, and crate-train him. "You need to teach your dog that the entire house is his den and that no room in the house is okay for him to go to the bathroom in," says Dr. Muhovich.
In the meantime, to stop your dog from urinating on your bed or other soft furniture, cover his chosen place with a vinyl, flannel-backed tablecloth. The material is inexpensive, machine washable, and, best of all, unattractive to your dog.
For cats, remove poop and urine clumps from the litter box daily. At least every 2 weeks, clean the box with mild dishwashing soap and warm water. If possible, let the box air-dry in the sun.
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"The sun kills a lot of germs, and it's better than bleaching the box, because the odor from bleach can be a turnoff to your cat," says Dr. Muhovich. "Always have a spare clean litter box to fill with fresh litter while the other box is drying."
--Pet expert Arden Moore is the award-winning author of The Kitten Owner's Manual and Real Food for Dogs (both Storey Books, 2001) and a graduate of The Humane Society of the United States's "Pets for Life" national companion-animal training program.