The Nickel Pincher: Natural Solutions for Pet Odors

Removing pet urine stains and odors can save your furniture, your carpets, and a little cash.

June 16, 2010

Hey, accidents happen.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When I was growing up, we always had a couple of outdoorsy dogs, way too many cats, and a wide array of barnyard birds…and my mother was, as I am now myself, a casual housekeeper and a proponent of letting kids be kids and pets be pets. We all loved her for it, but it didn't make for a tidy or well-behaved crew.


Now that it's winter time, even the most conscientious of housekeepers will inevitably come nose-to-nose with wet-dog smell or a pet "accident" resulting from an unwilling dog walker who really doesn't want to go for a walk in 18 inches of snow. Luckily, you can remove pet urine and odors without spending a lot of money or resorting to toxic cleaning products—which don't work any better than safe ones anyway.

Dealing with Four-Legged BO

To paraphrase an old saw, pets should be seen and not smelt. Keep litter boxes tidy (I, gasp, resorted to an electric scooping box when I had an elderly puss who could no longer go outside, and it made a huge difference) and bathe dogs as needed with a mild, unscented shampoo, and your pets should be reasonably inconspicuous to the nose. Consult your vet about extremely malodorous animals, as the smell may be a sign of an infection or other condition. Food allergies can affect a pet's body odor: Try switching to a low-allergy natural pet food for a few weeks to see if the BO improves.

Skip commercial air fresheners. They are full of toxic chemicals you don't want to breathe, and they just cover up odors without getting at the root of the problem. Set out small dishes of white vinegar or baking soda to absorb odors near smelly litter boxes or pet beds, and if you feel the need to add fragrance, make your own air freshener by mixing 20 to 30 drops of your favorite essential oil(s) into one cup of vodka. Use a spray bottle to mist it into the air or onto funky-smelling objects (though not the animals themselves).

Accidents Will Happen

The first line of defense against pet accidents is your choice of floor covering: Forget the wall-to-wall carpeting. It's high-maintenance stuff anyway, and most of it is made of synthetic materials with dubious off-gassing tendencies. Dust mites love it, and it makes cleaning up pet accidents (and people spills) 100 times more difficult. If you want rugs on your floors, stick with natural-fiber area rugs that you can either take outside and beat clean or hose off, or toss into the washing machine and line-dry.

If you have wall-to-wall carpets, or any type of floor that has unsealed cracks or porous surface, you have to be extra diligent about getting accidents blotted up ASAP so that nothing gets a chance to soak in, which complicates your clean-up task many times over.

Hard Surface Clean-up

Clean up solids and liquids promptly. The longer something sits, the greater the chance of its staining or damaging the finish. Use natural cleaning solution, like my Almost Everything Cleaner, to clean off any residue. If a pet keeps using a favorite location, you may want to treat the area with an enzyme-based pet-odor neutralizer to get rid of the traces you can't smell but that make your pet recognize it as the "right" place. I've used gallons of a product called Nature's Miracle over the years.

You may be able to reduce or even remove dark stains on wood floors by pouring hydrogen peroxide on them, covering them with a moist rag, and checking every 10 minutes or so. Either add more hydrogen peroxide if the stain remains or blot the area dry if it is gone. Once everything is dry, you can sand and refinish the surface if it's necessary.

Soft Surface Clean-up

When your pet messes on carpets, mattresses, or furniture, remove solids and immediately blot up as much of the moisture as you can with newspaper or old towels. I find treading on the absorbent material speeds the process. If you and your pet are in "training" mode, put the soiled paper where you want him/her to potty in the future. Rinse the soiled area (remember the accident may have spread sideways in the carpet padding, so go a bit wide); thoroughly clean with cool water (hot water or steam may set the stain) and blot that all up with more clean towels. A wet-vac or shop-vac is great for getting up the majority of moisture before blotting dry. If you're very quick in getting to it, this may be all you need to do.

In most cases, though, you'll need to do more to completely remove the odor and reduce the chances of repeat soiling. If you can't pinpoint where a lingering smell is coming from, buy or rent a black (ultraviolet) light, which helps reveal invisible stains. Enzyme-based cleaners are particularly helpful in removing pet urine. Before applying, use plain water to flush out and blot off as much of the soaked-in substances—including cleaning products that may have been applied previously, which may interfere with the enzyme cleaner—as possible.

Be especially careful on natural-fiber fabrics because enzyme cleaners may damage them; test on a small, inconspicuous area first. To use, just saturate the affected area with a generous amount of enzyme cleaner (about the same volume as the original accident contained), let it soak in and sit for at least the minimum time suggested on the bottle and then blot the area dry. Use a fan to finish the final drying so you don't end up with mildew to boot.

A note about enzyme cleaners: They can do wonders to eliminate odors, but some common cleaning enzymes, called proteases, can trigger asthma attacks. If someone in your home is asthmatic, stick to using clean water and a wet-vac on the stain. You can rent an extractor (a wet-vac on steroids) from a local store to help the process. Before using it add a few cups of white vinegar to the water to help clean the stain and to prevent someone else's toxic cleaning products from winding up in your carpets.

Some badly abused areas or objects may never be odor free again: You may have to remove and discard carpet and padding, or even sections of wood floor that have been saturated multiple times, but it's worth giving these remedies a try before giving up.

Washable Items

Launder pet-soiled linens, clothing, and other washable items that will fit in your washing machine using your normal detergent plus a cup of vinegar or half a cup of baking soda, washing soda, or borax, or with a detergent formulated to launder diapers. Line-dry them in the sun and the odor should be gone. If peeing on a bed is a recurrent problem, drape a rubberized sheet over the covers to protect bedding, or try a covering with a crinkly waterproof tablecloth, which will not only protect the bed but may also be unattractive underfoot to the pet.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on