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I recently went over to a friend's home for the first time in a while. The first thing I noticed walking in the door was the unmistakable smell of cat urine. By the end of the evening my eyes and throat were burning. (They have had these cats for years, this is the first time it's been a problem for me.)

They have announced an intention to start regular hosting of social events. How can I tactfully suggest that they air the house out better beforehand? As it is I would not feel comfortable bringing friends over there.

(Note: I created a new account to ask this question, for the obvious reasons.)

[Edited 2 months later to add:] As I mentioned in an answer below, I raised the issue directly and my friends were already aware, and expressed gratefulness for my honesty. A subsequent vet visit led to the longer-term solution: one of the aging cats has arthritis, and once she was given a litter box with lower sides started using it consistently.

  • How old are the friends? Have they recently had kittens? Any particular events that might have caused this problem? – Lio Elbammalf Nov 24 '17 at 18:15
  • Is this friend someone you've know for a while, or a newer friend? Is their home otherwise clean? Is their cat older or infirmed? – apaul Nov 24 '17 at 18:15
  • You might want to take a look on this answer: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/7186/49 Basically, this is a situation that is very difficult to address without offending your friend. That answer will solve your problem: make it sounds like you are doing them a favor by telling them the problem they haven't aware yet. – Vylix Nov 24 '17 at 18:18
  • If you think that solve your problem, you can flag your question as duplicate of that question (because the answer solve your question, too!) – Vylix Nov 24 '17 at 18:20
  • Possibly one of their cats is ill? Would that be a valid question? – Bookeater Nov 25 '17 at 8:19
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The worst kind of outcome is everyone spending the evening silently retching, because they are too embarrassed to mention it, and you are too afraid to offend them.

I guess you are too worried about being polite. Since you say the smell is new and not a typical feature of their place, it means it is new to them too, thus they will notice. Also it is quite difficult not to notice this particularly pungent smell.

Last time this happened with one of my friends, I simply relied on my well-known tact:

(sniff the air) "Whoa, where's the body? Need help chopping it up?"

It turned out they had ran out of cat litter and been unable to buy some due to working overtime. They knew it stank, actually they were annoyed by the smell too. This may very well be the case for your friends, too.

No-one was offended. In fact they were relieved that the awkward moment was over, and rushed to open the windows. Everyone agreed that being a bit cold was better than the smell.

  • 9
    For your well being, I really hope your friend is not a murderer – clark Nov 26 '17 at 7:14
  • 2
    I helped him clean his basement and didn't find any skeletons ;) – peufeu Nov 26 '17 at 21:57
  • 2
    This blunt force approach really cracked me up and made my morning that little bit more interesting, thank you. – Groggo Nov 28 '17 at 10:01
18

I like to approach this in the form of a question. "Do you smell something?" That way, if they're aware of it, they don't necessarily feel judged, and it opens the door to discuss it if they're not aware of it. If they're not aware, slowly guide them toward awareness without being too rude. And any time the conversation moves in a direction where you feel your statement would be rude, ask it as a question.

The ideal case:

"Do you smell something?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry, my cat decided to protest the new litter this morning and we ran out of carpet shampoo"

The less-than-ideal case:

"Do you smell something?"

"Uh, no, what does it smell like?"

"Cat pee, I think?"

"Oh, uh. I don't smell it, I think it must be something else."

"Can you help me find it? I think it's coming from this way."

Ultimately phrasing something as a question is a great way to take the edge off of a question, but it does make it easier to deflect if the other person is intent on deflection. This seems like a start, though - and if deflection occurs then maybe being direct would become your best approach. Even then, to keep the edge dulled, don't make statements of fact, but statements about yourself. "I'm worried that people might have trouble with this smell," instead of, "This house stinks and no one will want to be here."

5

You could try to gently steer the discussion in that direction, when you are talking about the (upcoming) social events. In this case, you needn't be direct, but rather like a curious/interested friend:

  1. Mention how you think it's great that they want to host social events. This is a good start into the discussion
  2. Ask how the cats will be doing under these circumstances, maybe even with a laugh. Something along the lines of whether they will like it or what they plan to do with them in this case. Now the topic is on the table and the more gentle you phrase it, the more they will be at ease talking about it. This is then the entry point to a discussion about the general problem.

It now depends on their reaction

  • will they start discussing their thoughts about it and what they plan to do? If yes, that's good and you may be able to throw in a general comment about cat smell. They may take the bait and think about it, without you sounding like you were actually speaking from experience with it ("Yes, you are right! I hadn't thought if it yet. It may become a problem indeed!")
  • if they don't want to discuss it ("No, this won't be a problem!"), you may have to become a bit more direct. This is hard to accomplish and remain totally tactful, but you may soften the blow even more by mentioning how you noticed the cat smell and that not everyone may like it. Now the cat is out of the bag, but you didn't describe the more detrimental effects it had on you. So it's still not too embarrassing and they are aware of that problem. If they care, they will act. You, on the other hand, told them about it and they can hardly be angry with you over it.
3

If, by best way, you mean charitable, then:

The best way to tell someone their house stinks calls for discretion and formality. Considering how this is their house, the place where they live, any increase in the everyday odor that they smell will most likely go unnoticed if insignificant, or ignored if it is significant, but any guest will immediately notice a difference in scent simply because it is not their house.

For any situation, discretion should always be used as this can be quite sensitive. You might, at some point during your visit, ask the host/hostess or owner of the house if you can speak with them for a moment in private. You may then proceed to charitably explain to them that their house has an odor that is noticeably disturbing:

Excuse me, I don't mean to be rude, but I wanted to let you know that there is an unusually strong odor that has been bothering my nose.

It is always charitable to at least let the owner or host of the house know such a thing for the sake of other's and their own. Anything that smells bad is usually not good. For example, if you smell mold, you wouldn't hesitate to get your roof or walls checked for mold. Cat feces and urine can be health issues, less so perhaps than mold, but nonetheless. The stronger scent may simply be because they moved the litter box next to the airways. That would be bad for everyone.

Even if the least of someone's house problems is the odor, it is a good thing to do to tell them privately that there is an odor problem so that the owner/host can do something about it for any future guest they may have, and for themselves. You may even save their lives.

1

tl;dr: host was already aware and thanked me for mentioning the problem.

I ended up raising the issue directly, without beating around the bush, in text with one of them. A condensed version:

Me: There's no really tactful way to say this, but when I walked into your house Thursday pretty much the first thing I noticed was the smell of cat pee, and by the time I left my nose and throat were burning and itching. I know your kitties are getting old and probably not as careful as they once were, and I assume it's happened so gradually that you just got used to it, but if you're going to start hosting again it would be a good idea to air the house out a bit ahead of time.

Host: Thanks for letting me know. I've started working on it.

Me: I'm glad I didn't offend you.

Host: I appreciate that you are willing to tell me.

Me: And I do like your kitties when they aren't too scared of crowds to come out of hiding ;-)

Host: Fluffy has started to pee in odd places. [...] Daily cleaning of litterboxes hasn't helped.

Me: Cats sometimes pick where to pee as a way of expressing an opinion.

Host: Yes, that seems to be happening more, recently.

1

This answer is prompted by concern for the cats. If the house smells of cat urine, a possible reason is that one or more of the cats has an urinary tract infection (URT) and is peeing outside the litter box. I would say:

Are your cats OK? I had a similar problem with one of my cats, and our vet prescribed a shot of an antibiotic that worked like magic! Of course, this shot doesn't work on all bacteria, but it worked for my cat's infection.

This has the virtue of being true *, being possibly helpful, and not directly blaming the person.

If the people ask what I mean -- possibly they have a stuffed up nose and can't smell anything -- I'd say that I noticed a fairly strong smell of cat urine and the cat might have an URT. One should say this without sounding accusing; if their feelings are hurt, I'm sorry, but if the cat has an URT or some other physical problem, the cat is hurting.

  • True if I said it. If you haven't had that experience, you might want to say that someone I know had... and modify the rest of the sentence accordingly.

Addendum: I just noticed that the OP answered her own question; I upvoted it because I admire her direct approach. I'm leaving this answer anyway because a trip to the vet is indicated.

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