Ammonia (NH3) is an invisible compound gas. When a cat’s metabolism breaks down urea, it produces ammonia as a toxic waste eliminated through urine. A small amount of ammonia exposure to humans is common, as ammonia is also found in cleaners, textiles, woodworking, soil, air, water and other animal waste. Cat litter is absorbent enough to contain ammonia in clean litter boxes, but larger quantities that accumulate in unkempt conditions can pose some risk, especially to the elderly and young children, and persons with compromised immune systems or already developed respiratory ailments, like asthma.
The risk of ammonia to human health depends on the concentration and duration of exposure. Significant risk is more common in industrial situations, when persons are exposed to large concentrations of ammonia over long periods of time. While a cat may live upwards of 20 years, thus exposing its owner to years dealing with a litter box, concentrations of ammonia in clean litter is minimal. Nevertheless, knowledge of symptoms will help minimize risk.
Respiratory exposure is the most common route of ammonia exposure. If inhaled, ammonia can cause acute symptoms such as headaches, coughing, sore throat, dizziness, runny or burning nose, and a burning respiratory tract. Higher concentrations of ammonia exposure can cause bronchial conditions (such as shortness of breath, pneumonia and asthma), pulmonary edema, and in severe cases, death. If exposed, move to a well ventilated area. Eye exposure to ammonia fumes can cause itching, burning and tearing, and in severe cases, blindness. If exposed, rinse eyes well with water. Skin exposure can cause itching, burning, and stinging, and in severe cases, blistering and frost bite. If exposed, wash area thoroughly with water and soap. Ingesting ammonia can cause damage to the stomach, mouth and throat, and can cause systemic poisoning. If exposed, drink water or milk to dilute the concentration of ammonia. If significantly exposed or just concerned, contact a medical professional for further medical help or information.