How can I get my mother to clean up after her pets?

7 answers | Last updated: Jul 12, 2016
Uncle leo asked...

My 75 year-old mother lives with one dog and two cats. Her house reeks of urine and feces because she rarely cleans the litter box.  I love taking care of her and shopping for her but can only spend a few minutes there at a time. I have asked her over and over to open a window or something but she seems fine with status quo. Any advice?

Expert Answers

Laura Juel is an occupational therapist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She works in the Outpatient Occupational Therapy Program and the Duke Driving Program for older drivers.

If the litter box is not an issue for your mother, then chances are she is not going to change her behavior.  I recommend that you look into some specialized odor control cat litter to help reduce the odors. Some cat litter is flushable, so if the box is located in the bathroom with a scoop and a reminder note to clean, you may have a better chance at follow through. If the home has soiled rugs and furniture, the smell will not be easy to get rid of. Check out your local pet supply store for odor eliminator products.

Animals can be a important addition to to an older person's quality of life, but it is also important that your mother keep her home safe and sanitary. Check in with her to make sure she's as content with the situation as she seems. It could be that she is overwhelmed by her pet care duties, but isn't sure what to do about it, and doesn't want to loose any of her beloved pets. Talk to her about the work and expense involved in taking care of animals -- food, basic preventive care, and exercise, and ask her how she feels she's managing.  See if together you can come up with an alternative solution, i.e. have the animals live outside or in the garage, gate off part of the house, pay a teenager in her neighborhood to help with pet care, or get rid of at least one of her animals. Try to come up with a written plan of action and set a deadline to reassess.

But beyond the unpleasantness of her living situation, my greater concern is that if your mother is having difficulty taking care of the animals, she may also be having difficulty taking care of herself. Take a closer look at her self-care routine, medication management, and finances to see if they are being addressed. 

If your mother seems to be managing well in other areas, and you can't agree on a clean-up plan, I recommend that you call her an hour prior to your visit and ask her open a window.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

It's a shame when you are more concerned about the "smell" of her pets, when as mentioned before, if she cannot clean up after her pets, she can't clean up adequately after herself. I can't clean up well after my pet either but then again I can't adequately care for myself, yet all my daughter worries about is the dog smell. Maybe priorities need to be reassessed.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I think you have more issues than dog smells. My father had 9 and counting cats in a vacant flat. I didn't even know about that until it came up in passing, and I spent months trying to clean up and get cats, semi feral, placed. He had two litter boxes and was clueless about changing them, replacing litter, etc. and the cardboard he had on the floors only soaked it all in.Where there is smell, there is bacteria and mold spores - not healthy, not pleasant. Unfortunately, smell is one of the senses that elderly lose.

If you can't care for yourself, you need a talk with your daughter. Maybe she is concerned you will ask to move in with her, and she has her own concerns and anxieties -- lord knows, I still do, but walk away when I can't deal with my father. By focusing on the smell, she cuts off any discussion of living arrangements.... unless you want to be living alone. That's fine too. Maybe you need some assistance every few days to help with cleaning chores.

Like I said, you have more issues that need to be resolved between you two than a pet, and there are two or three lives depending upon its resolution.

Abby h answered...

Disclosure: professional dog trainer (and cat owner)

Another good resource: your local pet shelter (they often see abandoned pets because of litter problems and would probably love to talk about ways to avoid someone bringing your mother's pets in).

Number of litter boxes: Cats need at least as many litter boxes as there are cats (possible 1 or 2 more). Sometimes cats don't share. Sometimes cats do something in one box and something else in another. And, sometimes just because it is convenient for humans does not meant it is convenient to the cat. So, does she have enough boxes? Are they in the right locations.

Food: Where is the food in relation to the nearest litter box? If nearby, move the food. Cats don't like to eat near the litter. You can use this if the cats potty some place you don't want them to continue to by placing small jar lids of kitty food near that spot.

Not cleaning or using the wrong product: A black light will tell you where to clean pee and poop. Hint: If it is still there (even if I can't see it, it must be ok to continue to use the potty here), other products should be used to clean this up. I have often been told people are using bleach, blue liquid when I ask them what they are using to clean. Go to the pet store and look for something enzyme in the ingredient list (higher is better). This can, by the way, often be used in a steam cleaner for carpet (always rinse about 20 more times than you "think" it should be - I'm a landlord in my non-pet life). The good enzyme cleaners work on blood, poop as well as pee (I keep an extra bottle by the washing machine). My other extra bottle is used for throwup (kills that smell).

Is the dog housetrained?
Ah, sometimes it isn't always the cats. Often small dogs are not - mobility issues of owner, belief that small dogs cannot be housetrained, residual uncleaned places (look with the black light especially in areas not used often like formal dining rooms) because the owner only thinks the dog is housetrained can complicate things.

Health of the pets Are they in good health (are they seeing the vet)? You don't always have to take a pet to a groomer to be washed. I rinse the cat and I have dogs who are wash and self dry (easy clean). I find that moving slowly, having a shower mat (no slips for even young pets) help. The dog gets a shower but the cat does better with a bath but rinsed off with cups of water.

Remember that as one ages, one tends to lose the sense of smell so that for your mother, she may not really smell it.

Finally, is it a sanitary issue as in creating problems in her health? What you want to watch for is the hoarding (too many pets, not taking care of their physical health and needs).

As a side note (I'm a trainer of the human who owns the pet), it often is more effective to praise her for any small steps she makes in the direction of changing her behavior instead of comments like "it's about time". Humiliation doesn't work in the long run.

Ask her if you can wash the cats, the dog this weekend or can I bring the family so we can all use this enzyme cleaner to help make it clean everywhere instead of a generic "let me know if you need help". She may not know how to let you know she needs help because she may be afraid that it may indicate she can't handle day to day issues or that she may need to be in a nursing home. Aging is difficult as it is a series of losses of control.

Dogfishcat answered...

It takes only 90 seconds to scoop the litter box with scoopable litter, putting it in a recycled plastic grocery bag and putting it outside. I sccop my cat box every day sometimes twice a day. Once you make up your mind to bring with you your recycled plastic garbage bags, scoop the litter box yourself when you visit your mom right before you leave and tye off the bag and dispose of it outside you will help her and help yourself at the same time.

Dores answered...

I understand where you are coming from. My Grandmother is 84 and had 2 dogs and 1 cat. The dogs peed all over the house and she was unable to keep up with it. We got her a cleaning lady but that was only once a week and cost $280 per month. It helped but the dogs pissed daily so not enough. Mean while I had 2 cat and married a man with 3 cats. He rarely cleaned the litter biz and it became a constant battle for 1 of the cats also began peeing outside the litter box. Back to my Grandmother...... It started gettibg to the point that she was overwhelmed with her 3 bedroom house, dogs& cat. It was decided during a family meeting with my Mother& Brother that I and my family would move in with my Grandmother to take care of her & the animals. My husband and I invested $28k and built and addition onto the house so we could all fit comfortably. It wasnt until I moved in that I realized just how fragil her mind & body had become. If your mom was usually a clean person who maintained her house and thdn changed to not caring or noticing the stench of cat pee then it might be more than you think. Older people tend to not ask for help and not caring can be a sign of depression. Im in no way a saint! I am now cleaning up after my Grandmother, 4 cats, 2 dogs, potty traing a toddler& unfortunately my teenager& husband arent much help. Its impossible not to get frustrated and mad sometimes. I have to sweep & mop their pee daily and sm always concerned that my house might smell. I get so tired of it all. I know that I am doing the right thing but sone days i want to just run away and let everyone if them go to hell. I cant ask my elderly Grandmother to get rid of her pets. They are her babies snd it woukd just destroy her. My husband has had 1 of his cats for over 10 yrs and will not get rid of any of then. We havd fought endlessly about it. I would get rid of my cat: at this point. I am over run by animals. Its sooooo hard.

A fellow caregiver answered...

The cat or dog would simply be put up for adoption, or put down. Absolutley nobexcuse to have your living space compremised.