Disinfectants and Cats – What is Safe and Toxic

disinfectants safe to use around kids

Disinfectants are chemicals used in the environment (such as floors, kitchen benches, litter trays) to kill microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, parasites and fungi. They are an essential part of feline husbandry and help to keep cats and people safe from potentially dangerous pathogens.

When it comes to both cleaning our homes and decontaminating the environment (for example if there has been an outbreak of disease), there is no one product or method which can be applied to all microorganisms. Some may be susceptible to chemicals, others need heat to kill them (for example protozoal oocysts which are difficult to kill with bleach) or radiation (such as UV light).

Risks from using the wrong can include poisoning and chemical burns. The cat’s coat may come into contact with chemicals, which are then ingested during grooming, direct contact via the paw pads and inhalation. Yet so many households have potentially dangerous products not realising how toxic they can be to cats.

Why the need to disinfect?

Pathogenic microorganisms can be spread via direct contact (such as coughing, sneezing, mating, grooming etc), or indirect contact such as fomites. These are inanimate objects the microorganisms can be found on and include items such as food bowls, floors, walls, bedding, blankets, grooming equipment, door handles etc. It is the disinfection of fomites and the environment that can help to prevent or stop the spread of disease.

Many pathogens quickly die once outside the body, but some, such as parvovirus (responsible for panleukopenia) and ringworm can live for months or even years in the environment, calicivirus can survive for up to a month and cause infection in cats exposed to the virus in the environment.

  • Shelters, boarding catteries and veterinary surgeries obviously have a greater need to disinfect than most households as they have a high turnover of animals who are often stressed or sick (in the case of veterinary surgeries and shelters).
  • If you have an outbreak of an infectious disease or parasite, disinfecting the environment will be necessary.
  • Litter trays should be regularly disinfected. Mine are treated once a week with a weak bleach solution and then thoroughly rinsed out with hot water.
  • If you have an immunocompromised cat or person living in the house.

What’s the difference between an antiseptic and a disinfectant?

Antiseptics are used on living tissue such as skin, disinfectants are used on non-living objects such as floors, walls, kitchen benches and litter trays. This article is about disinfectants, for antiseptics safe to use on cats, read here. Disinfectants should never be used on cats.

Different pathogens require different disinfectants, there is not one disinfectant which can kill all pathogens. Bleach (see below) is a good all-round disinfectant when used carefully, but even that has its limitations. If you are dealing with an outbreak always speak to your veterinarian about the most effective disinfectant.

Red = Stop do not use

Amber = Use with caution

Green = Safe (follow instructions)

Do not use
Phenols (Dettol, Pine O Clean) These disinfectants are highly toxic to cats. Any product which turns white when water is added should not be used. These products should not be used around cats.
Clorox (Pine-Sol and Lysol) Causes kidney and liver cell necrosis.
Essential oils Many essential oils, especially tea tree oil should not be used around cats due to their toxicity.
Benzalkonium chloride Another common household disinfectant, mould remover, patio cleaner and acne treatment. This quaternary ammonium compound is classified as a cationic detergent and is toxic to cats.
Use with care
Hypochlorites (chlorine) A common chemical used in swimming pools, chlorine is relatively safe to use around cats in low doses. Chlorine gas is toxic to cats (and humans), as well as undiluted chlorine, which can cause chemical burns.

Most bleach products contain sodium hypochlorite (5-6%) and can be used to decontaminate, the amount used differs depending on the pathogen, but most commonly is 1 part sodium hypochlorite to 32 parts water.

Other hypochlorites include calcium hypochlorite and sodium dichloroisocyanurate.

Caution: Fumes can be irritating so ensure ventilation is adequate. Don’t mix bleach with other chemicals. 

Safe to use
Veterinary disinfectants

  • F10 Veterinary Disinfectant
  • Accel (accelerated hydrogen peroxide)
  • Virkon (potassium peroxymonosulfate)
  • Trigene
  • Trifectant (potassium peroxomonosulfate)
  • Nolvasan (chlorhexidine)
These products are commonly used in veterinary practices, catteries and shelters, but some may be available to buy online, from your veterinary surgery or local pet shop.

Caution: Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Ethanol Between 70-90% concentration for 1 minute. Higher concentrations are more effective.

Caution: This product should be allowed to dry before cats have access to the treated area.

Heat and steam Temperatures should reach a minimum of 121C, washing machines should be set to at least 60C. Steam cleaning can be used on soft furnishings which may be damaged by the use of chemicals.

There is not one method which will kill all potential pathogens. Bleach is a good all-rounder but must be used in higher concentrations to kill ringworm. If you are trying to treat or prevent an outbreak of a particular disease, speak to your veterinarian to find out the most effective disinfectant for your particular situation.

Parasitic worm eggs are resistant to bleach but may be killed with extreme heat from steam or fire.

Natural products:

Natural products have a place in the home, I am a big user of white vinegar to clean kitchen benches and I believe where possible, natural products should be used to reduce exposure to chemicals. But when it comes to actual disinfecting, will either use bleach (on hard surfaces) or the dishwasher for utensils which have come into contact with raw meat. Most natural cleaners will not be effective in killing pathogenic microorganisms in the event of an outbreak of disease which requires thorough decontamination in an environment such as a shelter or veterinary surgery or to clean litter trays.

White vinegar

White vinegar can work with a number of microbes which are relatively easy to kill but fail to kill more hardy and pathogenic organisms. It is a great product to use around the home and especially on kitchen benches where food is being prepared, I don’t recommend using it to disinfect during an outbreak of disease, to disinfect surfaces or equipment which has been in contact with raw meat, or rely on it to kill pathogenic strains of microorganisms (for example salmonella).

Citric acid

Another great and natural household cleaner, citric acid like white vinegar is able to kill some pathogens but only easy to kill ones. It is not effective against pathogenic strains.

Sodium bicarbonate

Another great and natural household cleaner, citric acid like white vinegar is able to kill some pathogens but only easy to kill ones. It is not effective against pathogenic strains.

Hydrogen peroxide

With so many uses, hydrogen peroxide (6-7%) is a must in the home. This product works well because it evaporates rapidly and is shown to be an effective disinfectant. I am not sure I would use it if I had a serious outbreak of disease, but it seems out of the ‘natural’ disinfectants, this one rates highly for its ability to kill microorganisms.

How to disinfect

Disinfecting with bleach

Dirt should be removed from the area to be cleaned before disinfecting as any organic matter (dirt, hair, food, feces, litter) will inactivate most disinfectants. This can be achieved with hot, soapy water and elbow grease.

A dilution of 1:32 is recommended when using bleach, although this may vary depending on the pathogen. For ringworm, it is 1:10. Use cold water when mixing bleach as hot water decomposes the active ingredient, making the product ineffective.

The bleach solution should remain on the surface for ten minutes before being rinsed off with clean water.

Other disinfectants

  • Read the instructions: Always follow the manufacturers (or your veterinarian’s) instructions in regards to usage and dilution. Each product is different.
  • Remove organic material: Dirt should be removed from the area to be cleaned before disinfecting as any organic matter (dirt, hair, food, feces, litter) will inactivate most disinfectants. This can be achieved with hot, soapy water and scrubbing.
  • Allow to dry or since off the product: Disinfectants should be allowed to dry before your cat is allowed to come into contact with them, others may need to be rinsed off.
  • Cleaning soft furnishings: Soft furnishings such as bedding and blankets should also be disinfected if they can’t be disposed of. The best method is to wash small furnishings such as cat beds in the washing machine, on a hot cycle. Air dry in full sun or add a safe disinfectant to a mister and spray, allow to dry before allowing your cat contact.
  • Storage: Disinfectants should be stored in a cool, dark and safe place out of reach of children and cats.

Safety guidelines

All cats should be removed from the room while disinfection is being carried out. Where possible open windows as many disinfectants can cause irritation to the airways and eyes in closed rooms (I learned this the hard way recently while cleaning the bathroom with the window closed to stop the cats escaping.

Goggles and rubber gloves should be worn when disinfecting to protect the skin and eyes.

Never mix disinfectants unless instructed to do so. Some can become extremely toxic when mixed.

Allow floors and surfaces to dry completely before allowing your cat to come into contact with them.

Remember too to replace cat products such as litter trays every year or so. As they become worn, small scratches develop which can be a great way for bacteria to reside.

Related content:

Antiseptics safe for cats

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