Anyone with a cat recognizes the strong familiar scent of ammonia lurking its way from the litter box. While the odor is less than desirable, ammonia from cat urine poses minimal risk for humans, as long as the litter box is kept clean and protective measures are taken to avoid exposure.
Ammonia and Cat Urine
Ammonia (NH3) is an invisible compound gas. When a cat's metabolism breaks down urea, it produces ammonia as a toxic waste eliminated through urine. A small amount of ammonia exposure to humans is common, as ammonia is also found in cleaners, textiles, woodworking, soil, air, water and other animal waste. Cat litter is absorbent enough to contain ammonia in clean litter boxes, but larger quantities that accumulate in unkempt conditions can pose some risk, especially to the elderly and young children, and persons with compromised immune systems or already developed respiratory ailments, like asthma.
Ammonia In Perspective
While ammonia is a toxic corrosive, and high exposure to ammonia can have devastating affects, such concentrations are rare from litter boxes. A healthy cat's urine only contains .05 percent ammonia. According to the New York State Department of Health (DOH) persons are at the greatest risk of exposure due to household cleaners (which contain between 5 to 10 percent concentrate), the accidental release of ammonia at industrial and commercial sites (which contain upwards of 25 percent concentrate) and as an agent in a terrorist attack.
The risk of ammonia to human health depends on the concentration and duration of exposure. Significant risk is more common in industrial situations, when persons are exposed to large concentrations of ammonia over long periods of time. While a cat may live upwards of 20 years, thus exposing its owner to years dealing with a litter box, concentrations of ammonia in clean litter is minimal. Nevertheless, knowledge of symptoms will help minimize risk.
Respiratory exposure is the most common route of ammonia exposure. If inhaled, ammonia can cause acute symptoms such as headaches, coughing, sore throat, dizziness, runny or burning nose, and a burning respiratory tract. Higher concentrations of ammonia exposure can cause bronchial conditions (such as shortness of breath, pneumonia and asthma), pulmonary edema, and in severe cases, death. If exposed, move to a well ventilated area. Eye exposure to ammonia fumes can cause itching, burning and tearing, and in severe cases, blindness. If exposed, rinse eyes well with water. Skin exposure can cause itching, burning, and stinging, and in severe cases, blistering and frost bite. If exposed, wash area thoroughly with water and soap. Ingesting ammonia can cause damage to the stomach, mouth and throat, and can cause systemic poisoning. If exposed, drink water or milk to dilute the concentration of ammonia. If significantly exposed or just concerned, contact a medical professional for further medical help or information.
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Keeping your cat's litter box clean is the key to avoiding ammonia exposure from your pet. Change litter frequently, and remember, only one litter box per cat. Clumping litter needs to be removed daily, or at least several times a week, and then replaced with fresh litter. Absorbent, non-clumping litters like crystals, pine, newspaper, cedar, corn and wheat-grass are effective in containing some urine and ammonia, but after about a week, can no longer absorb liquid, gases and odor. Ideally, litter boxes should be cleaned weekly, with soap, water, and a diluted bleach solution, and rinsed and dried completely. And, always make sure there are at least a few inches of litter in your cat's box. When cleaning your cat's litter box, for added protection you may consider using gloves to protect skin, goggles to protect eyes, and a mask to avoid inhalation.
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While the smell of ammonia from a litter box can be daunting, there is no reason to give Fluffy the boot. Take the above precautions, and both you and your cat will be healthier and happier.