Keep Your House Smelling Good Without Hurting Your Cat


I envy people who live in climates where the air is relatively clean and windows can be open year round. I’m not a fan of air conditioning, and I wouldn’t like keeping my house cold to escape oppressive heat. Those of us in colder climates must keep windows closed for part of the year. So how do we keep the house smelling good? Also, what’s safe and not safe for cats? During long winters, cooking smells (or even kitty and animal smells) can be trapped in the house. We have a kitchen that is basically right next to the living room, with no wall separating the two. Sometimes, food smells feel as if they stay a little too long.

I’ve long wondered what is and isn’t safe for my cats – who are indoor, are much smaller than humans, and could be easily overpowered by scents and chemicals we don’t even think about.

Keep it clean; don’t let odors build or linger

I don’t like harsh chemical cleaners or air fresheners, and part of my strategy is simply to keep things as clean as possible using methods that are as safe as possible. My husband and I have a lot of allergies so we have no carpets, and I clean things up quickly and try to keep them that way. I do use free and clear soap when cleaning, and as little of it as possible. I keep the cats in mind and don’t want them to get into anything that might harm them.

The vacuum is also my friend. I have a Dyson, which keeps up on the cat hair, hopefully keeps odors from accumulating, and has a good filter.

Cute kitten on red vacuum cleaner by Shutterstock

I avoid any chemical means of freshening the air (commercial air fresheners, even most scented candles). Even candles that smell good to us could be harder on the cat’s delicate respiratory system. My vet, Dr. Sally Shuetler of East Haven Veterinary Service in Vermont, agreed. In general, “humans have a much higher tolerance than cats do for odor bombardment.” Humans easily get used to (and build up a tolerance) to a particular “good scent” ( like a scented candle, for example) that can overpower cats. Shuetler said odor sensitivity can show up in cats as “itchiness, sneezing, and irritability.” Shuetler sees an increase in indoor cats with allergies, especially during the winter months.

Consider a cat’s worldview

Shuetler said a cat’s perspective is vastly different than ours. They are in very close contact with the ground on our living space. Particles and dust filter to the ground and settle there. Your cat, just because of her size, can ingest this stuff that we don’t give a second thought (dust, chemical residue from air fresheners and sprays). Even using a fabric softener on your laundry can affect your cat. Cats might ingest or breathe the residue from these products if you’ve laundered your pillowcases, for example, and the cat likes to lay on the pillow.

Avoid chemicals and use things that are safe and fairly inert. We also use free and clear laundry detergent, and I’ve never used fabric softeners. Once you get used to not using this stuff, you’ll find that it overpowers YOU (in a grocery store aisle, for example), and that’s probably a lot like what it feels like for your cat.

Red cat on a pillow by Shutterstock

Try air filters

Again, this is a preventative measure, but a safe way to keep odors under some control without using manufactured scents. There are many good air filters on the market in a variety of sizes and prices. If you have a small place, for example, a good small filter might do the trick. Packaging info and specs will usually indicate the square footage that a filter can cover.

What we love might not be so great for our cats

Shuetler used the example of lavender. It’s a scent that humans love, for example, and we can get used to more and more of it. But lavender “oxidizes into byproducts that are harmful for cats.” Shuetler suggested avoiding any of the stronger mints and more oily scents if there are cats in the house. These options are too powerful for cats and could be detrimental to feline health.

Zorro would rather be as close to us as possible — much more fun than sprawling on the floor.

We have a wood stove, and I sometimes put a pot of water on top of the stove with a few cinnamon sticks and/or whole cloves in the mixture. (Keep the cinnamon sticks and cloves away from curious kitties! Cloves can be toxic.)

As the water gets hot, the smell is lovely. Ginger could be added as well. Shuetler concurred that these gentler air fresheners are probably the best way to go, if anything needs to be used at all.

“Use products and options that are as light as possible,” she said.

How do you safely keep the air “fresh” in your living space? Do you use prevention, do nothing, or have another creative option?

More by Catherine Holm:

About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.

9 thoughts on “Keep Your House Smelling Good Without Hurting Your Cat”

  1. Jessica L Greve

    This article doesn’t give many suggestions for items that can be used to freshen the home. I want my house to smell good but I don’t want to hurt my cats. I also am due to have my baby in a couple weeks. I know I can’t use most of the essential oils. I know I can’t use synthetic sprays or candles. What can I use?

      1. I’ve read on veterinary websites that cinnamon and clove are especially toxic to cats because of how their liver works.

  2. I really enjoy a scent in my house….lavender, eucalyptus and other scents but I have recently been learning about essential oils and cats….does anyone know of a safe way fill my house with a scent? Thanks

  3. One commenter mentioned fresh cut flowers as a healthy alternative. However, many flowers are toxic to cats. And lillies are utterly lethal (even just a sprinkle of pollen in fur reportedly can kill). So they too should be researched before introducing into kitties’ environ.

  4. activated charcoal sachets, open containers of baking soda, white vinegar spray. if people like/ and aren’t allergic to flowers I’m guessing those could be used as an air freshener/ scenter too since you can’t get much more natrual than some fresh cut flowers.

    1. Loree St. Claire

      I live in a very small space with two almost full-grown kittens. I have two cat boxes here and when I’m trying to sleep and they go crap, I can’t sleep through that. I bought some supposedly pet friendly Fabreeze (non-aerosol) spray. Does anybody know if that’s harmful? I just got it yesterday and haven’t even had a chance to use it luckily

  5. I run a holistic pet sanctuary and we do our best not to use anything which can harm pets. We use baking soda and peroxide in a spray bottle to clean anything greasy or stinky. I make sure it’s wiped to be completely dry before letting pets on the surface. After giving it time to deodorize, freshen, and even whiten it can be wiped or rinsed but this isn’t necessary unless pets will have contact. I would love if you added to your article the suggestion not to use bleach products around cats. Peroxide and baking soda seem to work almost as well, but take longer to work. Sometimes playing with the ratio or warming up the solution can help it whiten stains in sinks/tubs/etc. If used on areas where cats will definitely walk or lay down, a light wipe with a water soaked rag to rinse some of it away might be helpful. It shouldn’t be toxic once dry but too much on their skin can dry it and cause irritation. I used this for urine stains, blood stains, and to clean the mineral buildup and odorous residue in litterboxes.

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