Washing the Dishes

"Read my mind."
No, Jelly Bean, that is not appropriate, no matter how cute you are.

I recently read in a Petco survey of pet guardians that about one in five wash their pets’ bowls only once a month, but more astonishing is that one in 100 had never scrubbed their pets’ bowls at all, possibly rinsing them now and then but never really thoroughly washing them.

Hearing that, it’s no surprise that pet bowls were fourth on the list of the “germiest” things in the home in a 2011 germ study conducted by NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International. They collected data from 30 everyday household items swabbed by 22 families and measured contamination levels of yeast, mold and coliform bacteria (a family of bacteria that includes Salmonella and E. coli). Items included all the things we touch in every room of the house from surfaces to appliances to cell phones, and pet bowls, toys and bedding were included as well.

We wonder about “finicky eaters” and try to find ways to get our pets to drink more water. Eating and drinking out of dirty bowls may be part of what’s inhibiting them, and may even be making them ill. Just as pets can’t clearly tell us they hurt in some way, they can’t really tell us their bowls and dishes are really gross except by not eating and drinking from them.

How often to wash the dishes

Ideally, food dishes should be washed after every meal, and water bowls washed daily, and sanitized once a week.

We humans eat from clean dishes, and even if we may have a stack of dirty dishes at the sink to be washed, we get a new clean dish for the next meal. Yet we may put our pets’ food in the same dishes day after day, and top off the water daily or when we notice it’s getting low, but never wash the bowl. The furry members of our families deserve at least the same treatment of their dishes as we give to ours.

Daily washing should be done in hot soapy water followed by a rinse, or a sanitizing wash in a dishwasher, then allowed to air dry.

For either hand wash or dishwasher, scrape leftovers into the trash or rinse away any food that’s left on the dish.

If you use the dishwasher, make sure you use a cycle that sanitizes if you wash with your own dishes and utensils.

If you hand wash, most recommendations are to wash your pet’s dishes separately from your own dishes. Use a sponge, dishcloth or scrubber that’s dedicated to your pets’ dishes and give them each a thorough scrub in hot soapy water on all the surfaces, including surfaces that may not have touched food such as the back of the dish where it’s touched the floor, and around the edges where pets may have licked bits of food to corner it while eating.

Make sure you rinse well to remove any trace of soap, and you may even put a little vinegar in the rinse water to be sure it’s all rinsed away. I found no recommendations for detergent but just as we would avoid other products with ingredients that may make our pets ill, especially cats concerning ingredients like essential oils, read the label for what’s in the bottle. We humans seem to like everything with a fragrance but those fragrances don’t really appeal to our pets and may, in fact, keep them away from their dishes if a fragrance in the detergent lingers on the dishes. Try to use an unscented detergent or rinse in vinegar to help release any residual scent.

Sanitize weekly

Weekly sanitizing can be done in a dishwasher or by hand with bleach. If sanitizing by hand, first wash, then soak dishes using a tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of hot water for up to 10 minutes. That small amount of bleach really is sufficient to sanitize the dishes. Using more doesn’t make it sanitize better but can make the process more dangerous because even the fumes could be dangerous to you and your pets. Be careful using bleach that no pets or children can access it—oddly enough bleach is a very appealing scent to some animals and they will drink it, roll in it or deeply inhale it and the even fumes can make them ill and cause damage to tissues, not to mention what could happen if they drink or roll in it. If a bleach smell lingers on the dishes you can, again, rinse with vinegar water.

Hydrogen peroxide was developed as a safer sanitizer, leaves no scent and can be used on pet dishes and bowls, but takes far longer to kill any germs. After washing, spray down one surface of the dish and let it air dry completely for at least 20 minutes, then flip it over and spray the other surface and let that dry too.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has even stronger recommendations about handling pet bowls and pet food because of the risk of salmonella in pet food and the risk of cross-contamination. They recommend feeding your pet in an area other than the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination of your own food, to thoroughly wash your hands after serving their food, and to sanitize the sink and any items used to wash their dishes each time you wash them.

A few recommendations

I feed a raw diet about half the time and canned or fresh prepared food the rest. I have one set of food bowls with a few spares—I like to use tempered glass rather than ceramic because the glaze and ceramic itself can crack and hold germs—and wash after every meal. Just after I’ve served their food and while they are eating, I run the hottest water from my tap into an enamel basin in my kitchen sink and add dish soap. As they finish their meals I rinse any bits of food directly into the drain with hot water and drop the dish into the basin along with any utensils or containers that touched the food. I let them soak until all dishes are in the basin, then use the cat bowl sponge to wash them, pour the wash water down the drain and rinse the basin and run rinse water with a small amount of white vinegar. I spray all cleaning sponges with hydrogen peroxide daily.

The dishes actually sit in the basin all day because it keeps them out of my way and keeps them clean while I’m cooking other things in my tiny kitchen. When I feed the next meal I pour off the now cooled rinse water, rinse each dish and run new hot water to warm the dishes so their food smells more appealing when they approach it. The dishes cool as I serve the food that is room temperature or refrigerator cooled.

I have a number of water bowls around the house in addition to the fountain. I clean the fountain once each week and change and clean the other bowls daily. I use big heavy ceramic bowls that are difficult to tip or push around. I keep dish detergent in the bathroom because I often have fosters in there and always wash their dishes in that room to help prevent spreading anything to my population. I also use detergent to clean my art materials, brushes, sponges, linoleum blocks and my hands. I used to toss yesterday’s water into one of my plants but have none at the moment thanks to nibbling kitties, but will sometimes take the water outside and water those plants. I hate to waste water but usually I toss it, put the water bowl at the kitchen sink to be washed and put down a clean bowl I recently washed. I use a Brita water pitcher and fill the bowls and fountain with it.

While several other factors influence how pets interact with their food and water bowls, like shape, material, proximity to each other, and to other areas or activities in the house, keeping the dishes clean that you do use is basic care.


Coming Clean About How Dirty Your Pet’s Belongings Really Are


How to Clean the Germiest Home Items


Spot Check: You Probably Aren’t Washing Your Cat and Dog’s Food and Water Dishes Enough


Why You Should Clean Your Pet’s Food and Water Bowls Right Now


Pet Food and Treats—Tips for Keeping People and Pets Healthy and Safe from Salmonella


8 Spring Cleaning Tips for Pet Owners


Bleach Poisoning in Pets: What You Should Know


Is Bleach bad for my Cat?


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Weekly schedule of features:
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Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!




From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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