Problem: Our Tenant Is Making Our House Smell Like Cat Urine

Our advice columnist to the rescue
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Q: My wife and I own a townhouse, and we rent the basement to a tenant who is generally exemplary, except she evidently has no sense of smell, which is unfortunate because she owns a cat. The overwhelming stench of cat urine often wafts up into our home. The smell is bad enough that we’ve stopped inviting people over for dinner. I’ve sent two very polite e-mails alerting her to the problem, but the odor persists. According to city law, we as landlords don’t have many rights in this matter. We can’t kick her out, and we can’t make her get rid of the cat. What do we do?

— R.P.
Washington, D.C.


Dear R.P.,

This is a serious problem, because it’s highly likely that your tenant has grown inured to the smell, and therefore believes you are simply harassing her with a false claim. But here are a variety of options. You could take a tit-for-tat approach: either she cleans up the cat urine or you take up clogging. You could take a civic-activist approach: run for city council and, once elected, change the laws governing the responsibilities of tenants. You could take a biomedical approach: feed the cat antidiuretics. But this may cause severe discomfort for the cat, who is, in a way, an innocent bystander. Alternatively, you could feed the cat asparagus, which may neutralize the smell of urine. But preparing an asparagus dish that the cat would enjoy eating would be a time-consuming challenge. A simpler option would be to counter the cat urine with a substance whose smell you yourselves might enjoy, such as marijuana, or borscht. But your best bet will be to find a corrupt allergist willing to attest that you suffer from sudden-onset cat allergy, which might give you some standing to order your tenant to clean up, or eventually have her removed from the apartment. One final thought: Stop sending e-mails and knock on her door. She might appreciate that. Cat people are often desperate for human interaction.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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