My Secret Method For Getting Rid of That Cat Smell

Writing fiction and being owned by cats seem to be related forms of madness.

Writing fiction and being owned by cats seem to be related forms of madness.  Here is Hemingway with his sons and cats.

Glenn Reynolds recently linked Althouse reporting on an interview with Patti Smith. The interviewer said the house smelled of cats, and every surface was covered in plastic. This led me to getting lost in the comments with people making all sorts of suggestions, the most prominent of which was “get rid of the cats.”


As someone similarly afflicted and unable to take that step because I take my Chinese Obligations seriously, I thought I’d write this for anyone having similar issues.

So, this is “What I saw at the cat-pee wars — or how to deal with your cats marking territory when you don’t want to get rid of the little monsters.”  (Without having to cover your entire house in plastic, which is apparently Patti Smith’s solution.)

Besides being a writer, I am a (crazy) cat lady. The two often go together, and the field, particularly science fiction and fantasy, is full of crazy cat ladies and gentlemen.

I’d like to place the blame for this on Robert A. Heinlein who not only was owned by several cats, but who also wrote about cats and thereby instilled an early love for the critters along with a love for futuristic fiction. However, truth be told, if you expand it to the field of all fiction writers, the fault for the cat mania would be Hemingway’s and his polydactyl and avowedly freely-spraying cats.

Needless to say if you are having a problem with your cats scent marking or peeing out of place, the very first thing to do – if you haven’t – is to have the males neutered.

My male indoor cats have always been neutered at a relatively early age.  Notwithstanding which, we have had marking problems with both the old firm – i.e. our first batch of cats — Pixel, Randy, Petronius and DT and the new firm – the new batch of four (my husband won’t let me have more than four at one time) – Miranda, Euclid, D’Artagnan and Havelock.


In both cases, the marking seemed to originate in a rivalry between two alpha male cats, to whom neutering did not seem to make much difference.

With our first batch of cats, the culprits were Pixel – a marmalade boy who looked like the perfect stuffed animal, and who, in fact, was too smart for his own good – and Petronius, big and black and probably part Bombay.

This is Havelock who looks like a stuffed animal, but is one of the main combatants in the marking wars.

This is Havelock who looks like a stuffed animal, but is one of the main combatants in the marking wars.

At the time the peeing out of place started, they were about six years old and we were living in a Victorian which I’d just started remodeling. Between that and two small (human) boys and the cats peeing wars, I went a little insane and relocated the cats outside. At the time we lived in a mountain village, on a road with very little traffic. We also had a garage that went deep into the hillside, and which kept temperature at about six degrees year around. I put a cat door on the door to the garage, and the cats divided their time between it and our very large covered porch.

After about three years, they seemed to calm down and we brought them inside again, where they lived the rest of their lives – another 12 years for Pixel – with no inappropriate elimination issues.

Unfortunately when the current batch started inappropriate urination – aka the p*ss wars – mostly between the two dominant (neutered) males, D’Artagnan and Havelock, we were not in a position where it was feasible or even a consideration to make them outside cats. For one, we live on a high-traffic street. For another there is no shelter from the Colorado winters. For a third, the neighborhood is ruled by not-our-cat Greebo – we named him and feed him, but he was born feral and would never consent to be indoors – who runs off all other cats, including his own litter-brothers.


Also, because of when it started, we didn’t notice. We weren’t using our living room – being very busy with various projects – so we didn’t even notice what the cats were up to till I had occasion to enter the room, got a nose full of “ew” and noticed our sofas were very yellow. By this time, not having been corrected early on, the cats had decided the sofas were the place to go.

We got rid of the sofas and got new ones… and couldn’t stop the cats peeing on them. I did everything, including taking the sofas to the front porch and hosing them down. Repeatedly. You see, I didn’t want to buy new sofas, because I was afraid the cats would destroy them again.

Our friends suggested we get rid of the cats. Rationally we should have. Emotionally it’s something else. The cats don’t know they’re doing wrong. They are actually very affectionate and love us. They simply don’t understand eau de chat doesn’t improve our surroundings.

Also, this house had both cats and dogs in it before, and I suspect their marking happens in places that were already marked. In any case, we made a commitment to these cats and didn’t feel comfortable disposing of them as though they were things. For one, it might give the kids ideas about what to do with me when I’m also old and possibly incontinent.

My husband suggested giving up on sofas. I considered it.

And then I came up with an idea.

D'Artagnan too looks like a squeaky toy, but unfortunately he's an alpha (neutered) male.

D’Artagnan too looks like a squeaky toy, but unfortunately he’s an alpha (neutered) male.


I had a bolt of vinyl fabric in the basement which I’d bought for a project that didn’t pan out. I also had several pieces of upholstery fabric bought at a discount in the thrift store.

Since I couldn’t make diapers for the cats, I made diapers for the sofas. This meant fabric with impermeable vinyl backing, cut to fit the sofa with a flap over each arm.

We got rid of the defiled sofas and bought very cheap ones, in case this didn’t work out.

It sort of worked out. I mean, I had two sets of these. When they got hit, I could wash them, but the sofas would not get hurt.

And then I was browsing Amazon for something to use (yes, we used relaxing scents and everything else. Nothing worked) and I came across these motion-activated automated cans that hiss and send a jet of air at the cat when he crosses the field of scanning.

We now own seven. The sofa covers very rarely get hit. Maybe once every six months. Even then, the frequency is decreasing.

There are other problem points, but we’re dealing with those one hissy can at a time, and overall things seem to be getting less fraught. Perhaps this happens between cats of a certain age (five to six) and then decreases. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, if you’re having inappropriate cat elimination issues and nothing else works, here’s a checklist of things to try:

There are no guarantees, but these tips just might restore harmony to your own clowder of cats

There are no guarantees, but these tips just might restore harmony to your own clowder of cats

First, particularly if the cat is new and scaredy, try confining him or her in a small room with his/her favorite toys for a few days. Sometimes just calming down works.


Second, if that doesn’t work, consider you might have a finicky cat. These cats refuse to pee in litter that’s even a little soiled. I used to do boxes six times a day. These days we own two litter robots (bought from an unexpected royalty check). When these are working properly, you can’t even tell there are cats in the house. However, they’re unusually sensitive and a little too much or too little litter can cause them to stop cycling. Normally I find out about this by finding a yellow spot somewhere. If your cat eliminates inappropriately, the first thing to check is litter box problems.

Third, check the cat for Urinary Track Infections. We know that is not usually the issue, but we check it anyway, if nothing else is working.

Fourth, consider minimizing the problem and expense with something like impermeable covers for sofas and other furniture. If you live in a house where another cat had issues, waxing or REALLY cleaning the floors might help.

Fifth, use one of the cat-pee neutralizers from one of the pet stores. Some work better than others. I’ve also had good results with straight hydrogen peroxide, if your material can take it.

Sixth, when all else fails try the cans that hiss at them.

Sixth, remember it’s likely this is just a phase and once it passes, your cats will start behaving like gentlemen again.

Of course I can’t promise anything – but in our own house things seem to be getting less fraught — or at least smelly! — and, unlike Patti Smith we’re not resigned to living in cat-induced-squalor.


These coping strategies just might help you cope until the storm passes, and save your cats from becoming those sad little creatures in ads on Craigslist.



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