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How I overcame the stink of my neighbors' neglected litter box

Not everyone keeps the litter so clean.

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My husband says I have a nose like a bloodhound. So when our hygienically lacking neighbors got a cat, it caused me some angst. 

Our cat-less neighbors on the other side once told us that the walls of the townhouse we rent are insulated with nothing more than crumpled-up newspaper advertisements dating back to the 1970s. All that was separating us from our neighbors, it seems, are some cracked sheetrock and grocery circulars advertising wondrously cheap prices. 

Normally townhouses are pretty private feeling, but because of shoddy construction in the '70s—other features of which are thin walls and finger-sized gaps around vents and common piping—the neighboring houses exchange noises and smells.

The cat-owning neighbors are two working parents of four kids. The matriarch has told me that she is often too tired to attend to daily chores like scooping litter.

Normally that wouldn't be any business of mine. But they made it my business since one of those neglected chores is a hygienic imperative, especially in close quarters like ours.

The stench was strongest coming from our basement closet, which has saloon-like slatted folding doors. This closet was built in such a way that the sheetrock comprising one wall was cut too short, and did not quite meet the other wall perpendicularly. In other words, there are large gaps in the shared wall. 

On warm days, or days when kitty ate something that didn't agree with him, the stench went through these gaps, through the saloon door slats, up a nearby set of stairs, and into our living room, bathroom, and kitchen. That might seem like an awful long way for an odor to travel, but because of the long stink cycles that would crescendo and then abate, it seemed obvious that they weren't refreshing their litter box more than once per week.

I later learned that they were embarrassed about the smell, but not enough to attend to it daily. And perhaps also they had become noseblind to their own pet. 

Because we didn't have a great relationship with these neighbors, we first tried some unilateral solutions on our side of the wall. 

Baking soda

I purchased a dozen or so boxes of baking soda at 44 cents each, unsealed several at the top, and shoved them flush against the wall.

It was an unsuccessful intervention. It turns out baking soda is no match for the power of this cat's poop. 

Odor-eliminating bags

I went on to buy two hangable charcoal satchels. These are meant to bind with smelly particles, pulling them out of the air as it passes by. The ones I bought are supposed to work for spaces up to 90 square feet, much bigger than the closet. They did nothing.

UV-C air sanitizer

At the same time that I bought the bags, I got a UV-C air sanitizer and odor reducer for $31. This was a useful little device made for small spaces. The tower swallows a stream of air with a little fan; the air is then internally exposed to UV-C radiation; and the radiation damages the DNA of stinky bacteria, killing it. 

This improved the air quality around the closet, but if I wanted similar results across the whole affected area, I would have had to buy four larger devices at around $100 each. 

A typed letter

One morning in April we saw that our largest vegetable pot on the shared balcony had been used as a kitty bathroom. 

It was the cat crap heard 'round the world.

We fired off a letter: "Since [kitty] first became our neighbor we have quietly tolerated the stench of litter box... Now that it's physically in our space, I'm afraid we can't continue to turn a blind nose to it."

The matriarch called me to respond. She offered to replace the big pot—if I could produce a receipt. She professed to being embarrassed about the smell. But she also seemed to feel that since some days were less smelly than others, it wasn't much of a problem.

A strip of carbon filter covers a crack in the closet wall, and a box of baking soda does little.

Courtesy of the author

Jury-rigged carbon filters

I ended up coming across aftermarket 16 x 48-inch carbon sheets that one would usually cut to fit an air purifier. I had a different use in mind.

I cut a sheet with kitchen scissors and shoved the pieces inside whatever cracks in the shared wall of the closet that I could. I taped them over the smaller cracks.

Success! Two days later the air was fresh.

The filters last about two months. I imagine they would work similarly well if applied to a door gap to block hallway odors.

A notecard

Conditions markedly improved, but unfortunately diplomacy was still necessary. One stinky summer day we sent them a handwritten note on a cute card with some pleasantries, but also reminding them to please refresh the box. We took a photo of it to keep as a written record. They seemed to respond a lot better to the note than the typed letter.

We still have potently stinky days, but not as many.  And when those charcoal filters are freshly applied we tend not to smell anything. 
 

 

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