SPRING CLEANING OR ANY TIME we can always reduce the amount of chemicals we use in our home by using everyday materials like vinegar and baking soda for regular cleaning. Here are a few tips for methods I have used for years as well as a flyer to download and print out to have handy when you want to try a pet-safe alternative.
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I’ve had more than one cat who loved the smell of bleach, but Namir really acted on his indulgence. As soon as I began to scour the tub with cleanser, he would appear on the landing outside the bathroom door, nose bobbing in the air, a faraway look in his eyes as he followed the scent and he’d hop into the tub if I didn’t stop him.
I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s darned difficult to rinse the last of the cleanser out of your tub or sink without leaving a residue, and even when I’d locked Namir out of the bathroom long enough to let the tub dry because he tried to get into the tub with the cleanser, he was in it as soon as he could get there, rolling around and breathing in the residual fumes.
It’s a wonder he lived as long as he did. But a friend apparently lost a young kitten to bleach poisoning years ago after the kitten walked across a wet floor each night where she’d used bleach water to clean and disinfect.
Pets and toxic substances
We’re bigger, we stand up, we don’t have our faces in the tub, the sink, the toilet (hopefully) or the floor, all these surfaces we clean with chemicals, and what barely affects us can have a profound effect on cats, dogs, bunnies, ferrets, birds and other pets. Our pets are right there, walking on the surfaces we’ve cleaned and absorbing substances into their bare paw pads and, well, bare private areas when they sit down. Their sensitive noses are breathing in the fumes, which are also drifting up into their eyes. Their bodies are smaller than ours, their organs function differently, and we need to keep this in mind when we use chemicals in our house.
Cats get an extra dose of chemicals in addition to what they absorb through their paws and skin and respiratory system because they bathe themselves, and lick any residues off their fur. When I saw a white residue dusted onto Namir’s fur and realized it was cleanser grit from the tub, I decided to change my tactics because I knew I’d never keep him 100% safe from encountering the cleanser residue, or the cleanser anywhere it could be found since it was the smell he was after.
Breaking old habits
Bleach, ammonia and pine-based cleaners have saved many lives as antiseptics and kept nasty cold and flu viruses from spreading simply by killing whatever nasty germs they touch, but much of the time they are way more than you need for everyday cleaning at home. And commercial cleaning products often contain these substances as well as other chemical ingredients used to enhance the product’s effectiveness, and commercial perfumes and dyes which can be toxic on their own.
You can safely and effectively use household products like vinegar and baking soda to do much of the work and save quite a bit of cash and even packaging, holding on to the big guns of bleaching out stains and antiseptic cleaning for spot areas instead of using them all over.
Years ago I began fostering kittens in my bathroom because it’s the safest room for them, free of power cords on the floor, throw rugs they can get tangled in, tight spots to get lost in and things they can knock down on themselves (the lid’s been kept down on the toilet for at least 30 years for the safety of curious kittens and thirsty adult cats). Keeping chemicals and residues out of the bathroom was especially important for the little furballs.
Plus, Mr. Sunshine has taken over where Namir left off with the bleach attraction, and the Fantastic Four, all grown up now, enjoy the accommodations of the tub, and famously pose in the mint green sink, still considering the bathroom their playground.
And as an artist I tend to cover my world with art materials, with acrylic inks and paints in the bathroom sink and splashed on the walls, chalk and oil pastels mixed with oils from my fingers on light switches and door frames, ink spilled on the floor, spray adhesive in the tub and glue on a table top. As careful as I am, I only have two hands and both of them are usually covered in something, and just the regular use of these things imparts them into my workspace, which is my home. Except for occasionally spot cleaning a stain, I don’t use anything stronger than vinegar and baking soda.
Vinegar as a cleaner and antiseptic
I always keep straight white vinegar handy in a spray bottle, but you can water it down 50/50 for cleaning as well, and cider vinegar works just as well—it’s the 5% acidity that does the work. Use it as you would any “glass and all surface cleaner” to remove dirt from your windows or the glass on your pictures, clean your countertops and shine up your chrome faucets, and remove those pastel fingerprints from the doorframe.
Vinegar’s acidic nature will help to dissolve residues on faucets, sinks and tubs and fingerprints left behind by sweaty hands.
I use it to clean my picture glass when I’m framing as well, knowing that it won’t leave streaks on the glass, and it’s gentle enough to use on most frames as well.
But not just for wiping things off, I also use vinegar to clean my floors and walls and anything else I’d use a bottled cleaner for, including the parade of litterboxes, though this is one place where I follow up with a rinse of bleach (see below).
Baking soda instead of cleanser with bleach
In the kitchen where I worked as full-time cook before college, we didn’t use cleanser to clean the day’s food residues from the stainless sink and enameled countertops, we used baking soda paste, and that was my first step in cleaning the tub. Sprinkle baking soda all over the tub and scour with a damp sponge, or make a paste on the sponge and spread it over the surface, let sit on soap or residue buildup, then scour and rinse, wipe dry and buff with a towel and it looks brand new. It’s a gentle but effective abrasive that helps to dissolve substances as well as wear them away without damaging the finish.
This works in my brand new enameled tub as well as my vintage mint green ceramic sink, and my nearly prehistoric one-piece enameled sink, counter and cabinet unit in the kitchen and the unknown alloy in the post-WWII stovetop, all areas where any of my cats may walk, bathe, sleep and play (though I try to keep them off the stove).
If one of them happens to hop into the tub to play with me while I’m cleaning or on the sink to watch what I’m doing, we’re both safe from chemicals and fumes.
As a gentle and safe abrasive, baking soda can be used on all sorts of surfaces including glass, marble, finished wood, laminate countertops and composite wood surfaces and some rigid plastics, like small appliances and composite porch furniture and shelving units, though you should test a small area before you clean the whole thing. I’ve used it to clean glazed ceramic items and glass vases which have mineral residues built up from plants and cut flowers, or just years of dirt from being in storage—or even unearthed in my back yard.
Cleaning the drain
Between my hair, long, coarse and curly and strong as piano wire, lots of cat hair from cats playing in the tub and sink, and art materials such as excess paint, ink or adhesives, I have simply always kept after my drains or I’m unpleasantly sorry one day when I’m stuck with a mess in the sink and my hands covered with block printing ink.
Rather than the caustic substances in most drain openers, the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar will quickly dissolve most of what might block your drain with no harmful fumes in a neat little science experiment in your sink or tub. Vinegar is acid and baking soda is basic, and when mixed together will work very hard to neutralize each other in a fizzy battle.
At least once per month, pour about a half cup of baking soda into the drain, rinsing it lightly into the drain with a drizzle of water from the faucet, then slowly pour a pint of vinegar into the drain about a quarter cup at a time, letting it fizz up and slow down before pouring the next amount. As the vinegar works its way into the drain it will react with the baking soda, cleaning residue off the insides of the pipe and working its way through the trap. When all the vinegar is in the drain, simply let it sit and work for at least 15 minutes, or until you can’t hear any more fizzing from the drain at all. You can follow this up with a cup or two of boiling water—probably the most dangerous substance in the whole procedure—to rinse the drain of anything that might have been loosened. I have a good old hot pot upstairs to heat water for beverages and craft projects, and I doubt that I’d ever carry boiling water upstairs otherwise.
One or two of my cats always carefully observe the drain cleaning activity, squinting as the vinegar and baking soda fizzle together and glancing at me to make sure I’m paying attention to what I’m doing.
Other similar substances
You can also use regular old table salt as a mild abrasive in place of baking soda, such as cleaning pots and pans and especially cast iron. You can include vinegar in this cleaning regimen without the fizzy chemical reaction and clean mineral residues and baked on food from casseroles with either combination.
And another tip learned from my days as a cook and waitress—those Bunn carafes had openings in the top too small for anyone’s hand, but sitting all day on the burner made a mess in the bottom and even on the sides. We’d sprinkle salt into the pot and drop in three or four ice cubes, let it sit for a minute or two and swirl that around to remove all that residue with the salt as the abrasive and the ice cubes providing pressure to scrub, then swish around hot soapy water. This works for your coffee carafe as well as other containers with hard-to-reach interiors.
When to use bleach
In both cleaning and food preparation, there are times when bleach is necessary.
After cleaning the litterboxes, I always follow up with a 1:10 bleach and water solution that I mix in the box, tilt it around so it coats all the sides, then pour directly down the drain, letting the box air dry, preferably outdoors if the weather is right. I rinse the box once after this, usually adding a little vinegar to neutralize any bleach that might possibly be left behind, and make sure it’s completely dry before I sprinkle a little baking soda all over the bottom and pour the litter in. Just this little rinse with bleach can help keep internal parasites and diseases transmitted by feces especially from persisting on the surface of the box.
If you ever work with raw meat, even organically produced meat or wild game, you should clean all surfaces and your hands afterward with an antiseptic unless you wear gloves during preparation. Because I also can and freeze foods I keep a 1:10 bleach solution in a little spray bottle under the sink (bottle “B”) so that I can spray down my utensils and work surface before I begin, and I often use it for these quick cleanups.
But I also keep a spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide under the sink (bottle “H”) to use most of the time. In this case I use hydrogen peroxide on my cutting board, knife and hands, though you need to let it sit and fizz until it’s finished to make sure it’s done its work.
And if you have a pet or a person who has a virus or contagious disease, washing your hands with soap and water and rinsing anything they use with the bleach solution such as eyedroppers, thermometers and litterboxes and even the floor around the litter box, or wiping down faucet handles or other surfaces where your hands may have transmitted the virus with the bleach solution isn’t a bad idea. Don’t ever use straight bleach in this instance, always use the bleach solution. It’s strong enough to kill the germs you need to kill, but not so strong that coming in contact with the residue or the fumes will hurt you or your pets.
Masking that vinegar scent
After a lot of years, I’m actually a little tired of the smell of vinegar, and no matter what kind you use it always smells like, well, just vinegar. I’ll sometimes follow up with a lemon juice solution to help dispel the scent, and sometimes I’ll make a pot of herbal tea to fill the air or safely burn a candle.
A few resources
You can find information on these topics just about everywhere and we know most claims are true, but I try to find actual scientific research behind the articles. Not surprisingly, government websites with post-disaster information such as FEMA and the CDC are a great resource as are cooperative extension services from state agricultural universities such as the Penn State Cooperative Extension http://extension.psu.edu/; I only note this one because it’s the one I’ve consulted for years, since I began canning and preserving food.
I had always used bleach, but only learned about the correct use of the bleach solution for cleaning after a devastating flood in my home town in 2004. Here’s a link to a page from the Centers for Disease Control that outlines uses for bleach after natural disasters and in disease control and a lot of other information: Cleaning and Sanitizing with Bleach After An Emergency, http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/bleach.asp
An interesting article on Rodale.com comparing the uses of bleach and vinegar as natural disinfectants: This or That: Bleach vs. Vinegar to Kill Germs, http://www.rodale.com/natural-disinfectant
I use this site as a reference for using hydrogen peroxide (this page discusses cleaning cutting boards): http://www.using-hydrogen-peroxide.com/home-uses-for-hydrogen-peroxide.html
Pet poisoning emergencies
ASPCA Online Poison Control Center including plants, medications, cleaning products and most other toxins your pet could come in contact with: www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/
Both of the hotlines below are available 24/7/365 providing live consultation for animal poison emergencies. The credit card charge covers the initial phone consultation and any follow-up consultation you or your veterinarian may need for your case. For instance, if you call and find out that the toxin your cat has come in contact with needs to be treated by a veterinarian, you can give your case number to your veterinarian and they can also call the hotline for ecommendations on treatment. There is no further charge.
ASPCA ANIMAL POISON CONTROL CENTER 888-426-4435, www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/
$65 credit card charge covers the initial phone consultation and any follow-up consultation.
PET POISON HELPLINE 800-213-6680, www.petpoisonhelpline.com
Affiliated with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, $35 credit card charge.
Read other articles in the “Living Green With Pets” series.
And download a flyer with this information you can print out and save for handy reference.
Above, the Five—really, there are five there—cavort in the brand new tub as the bathroom was being renovated, and I gave the tub its first cleaning. Click here or on the image of the flyer to download or print a PDF of the basic tips included in this article.
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
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