Bleach, ammonia and pine-based cleaners have saved many lives as antiseptics and kept cold and flu viruses from spreading, but much of the time they are way more than you need for everyday cleaning at home.

The effects on our pets:

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 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 also drift up into their eyes. Cats get an extra dose 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.

Their bodies are smaller than ours, their organs function differently, and we need to keep this in mind when we use potential toxins in our house. If it’s safe enough for our pets, it’s safe enough for us and our children and elders too.

Vinegar as a cleaner and antiseptic:

Keep straight white vinegar handy in a spray bottle or water it down 50/50 for general cleaning too. Cider vinegar works just as well but may discolor surfaces—it’s the 5% acidity that does the work. Vinegar’s acidic nature will help to dissolve residues on faucets, sinks and tubs and fingerprints left behind by sweaty hands. 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, clean marble, finished or painted wood, laminate countertops and composite wood surfaces.

Baking soda instead of cleanser with bleach as a mild abrasive:

Baking soda is a gentle but effective abrasive that helps to dissolve substances as well as wear them away without damaging most finishes and also has a mild bleaching effect on stains. It can be used on glass, marble, finished wood, laminate countertops and composite wood surfaces; test a small area first. Sprinkle baking soda all over the surface and rub with a damp sponge, or make a paste on the sponge and spread it over the surface, let sit on residue buildup, then rub and rinse, wipe dry and buff with a towel.

Other abrasives and cleaning methods:

You can also use regular old table salt as a mild abrasive in place of baking soda for cleaning pots and pans and especially cast iron. Include vinegar in this scouring regimen to clean mineral residues and baked on food from casseroles with either combination. And another tip learned from my days as a cook and waitress—coffee carafes as well as other glass or ceramic containers with hard-to-reach interiors can be cleaned by sprinkling salt into the container and dropping in three or four ice cubes, letting them sit for a minute or two then swirling around to scour off all that residue with the salt as the abrasive and the ice cubes helping scrub, then swish around hot soapy water.

When to use bleach:

Don’t ever use straight bleach; 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.

In both cleaning and food preparation, there are times when bleach is necessary. Keep a 1:10 bleach solution handy in a clearly-marked spray bottle in the kitchen if you ever work with raw meat, even organically produced meat or wild game. Clean all surfaces and your hands afterward with soap or an antiseptic unless you wear gloves during preparation. Also keep a spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide under the sink to spray on any cutting boards, knives and utensils, let it sit and fizz until it’s finished to make sure it’s done its work.

After cleaning litter boxes, rinse with a 1:10 bleach and water solution to kill parasites or feces-borne diseases clinging to the inside, pour directly down the drain, let the box air dry, and then water rinse with a little vinegar to neutralize any bleach that might possibly be left behind.

And if you have a pet or a person who has a virus or contagious disease, washing your hands with soap and water and rinse anything they use with the bleach solution such as eyedroppers, thermometers and litter boxes and even the floor around the litter box. Wiping down faucet handles or other surfaces with the bleach solution where your hands may have transmitted the virus isn’t a bad idea.

Cleaning the drain:

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—vinegar is acid and baking soda is basic, and when mixed together they work very hard to neutralize each other in a fizzy battle. At least once per month, pour a half cup of baking soda into the drain, rinsing it lightly into the drain with a drizzle of water, then slowly pour a pint of vinegar into the drain, 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. Follow up with a rinse of hot water.

A few resources:

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; I’ve consulted with this one since I began canning and preserving food.

After a devastating flood in my home town in 2004 I learned I’d always used bleach incorrectly. 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”,

This article on comparing the uses of bleach and vinegar as natural disinfectants: This or That: Bleach vs. Vinegar to Kill Germs,

This site covers using hydrogen peroxide in place of bleach:

In case of emergency:

ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center 888-426-4435,

Pet Poison Helpline 800-213-6680,


This article was provided by our friend Bernadette E. Kazmarski. To see Bernadette’s photographs and original artwork, or to read more of her writings, her website links are listed below.  

Portraits of Animals, the extraordinary in the ordinary, celebrating the art in everyday life,  

News and information about cats and other animals at The Creative Cat,

A daily photo and passing thought at Today,