Toxic Disinfectants: What to Use and What Not to Use Around Your Pets

Date Published: 03/25/2020
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

Cleaning and disinfecting are more important than ever during the COVID-19 outbreak, but cleaning always need to be done no matter what. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about which cleaning products can be toxic to pets. In fact, many cleaners are okay around pets, especially if they are allowed to dry or the pet is only exposed to small amounts. But which common cleaning and disinfecting products can be problematic in our furry friends?

Remember to Read the Labels and Use your Thinking Cap

Many common cleaning and disinfecting products made for the surfaces in your home are not meant to be used on yourself. For example, don’t use wipes meant to disinfect surfaces on your skin. If something isn’t safe for your skin, don’t put it on your pet either. Never spray or wipe down your pet with cleaning products. Avoid getting cleaners into the eyes, mouth, or nose, just as you would with yourself. Read product labels and make sure they are safe for pets. Call your veterinarian if you are unsure if something is safe, or if you think your pet has had access to something toxic. You can also check online or phone (for a fee) the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control.

A group of German investigators has identified several commonly available disinfectants that should inactivate SARS-CoV-2. These include:

  • Isopropyl alcohol (70%), commonly called rubbing alcohol
  • Bleach can be diluted by putting 4 teaspoons of bleach per 1 quart of water or 20 ml of bleach per liter of water.
  • 0.5% hydrogen peroxide 
  • 0.1% sodium hypochlorite

Acidic Products

Acidic products can be found in certain cleaning agents, such as toilet bowl cleaners. They can cause pretty severe damage to any type of tissue they contact, especially if eaten or put in the eyes. Symptoms start to occur immediately and can include pain, crying/whimpering, trouble swallowing, vomiting, mouth and esophageal sores/ulcers, skin redness and sores, or eye redness and squinting. After calling your vet, offer water or milk if the product was eaten, or rinse the area (ideally for 10-15 minutes) with room temperature water.

Alkaline Products

These cleaning products include sodium hydroxide (lye), potassium hydroxide, ammonium hydroxide (household ammonia), and potassium permanganate. They are often used as drain openers, dishwasher detergents, and toilet bowl cleaners. These products can penetrate deeply into the tissues on contact and cause significant damage. Unlike acidic products, pain is not immediate, so symptoms may not be obvious at first. Signs associated with alkaline product ingestion include drooling, not eating, fever, oral redness and ulcers, trouble swallowing, vomiting, belly pain, and dark, tarry stools. Eye or skin contact can lead to redness as well. Call your vet and flush the mouth or contact area for 10-15 min with room temperature water.

Bleach

Liquid bleach is made of sodium hypochlorite. If it comes in contact with the skin or eyes, it can cause irritation such as pain or redness. It can also cause irritation along the respiratory tract if inhaled (sneezing, trouble breathing) and along the gastrointestinal tract (vomiting, loose stool, poor appetite) if eaten/drunk. Highly concentrated bleach (6% sodium hypochlorite or higher, may also be called “ultra bleach”) can cause pretty severe damage, such as ulcers in the mouth and GI tract if eaten. In addition to calling your vet, offer milk if the pet has eaten bleach. Bathe the pet in liquid dishwashing soap until the bleach smell is gone if it has gotten on the skin.

Bleach combined with an acidic cleaner is dangerous, as it can create hypochlorous acid and chlorine gas, which is toxic if inhaled. It can cause inflammation/irritation of the mouth, throat, and GI tract. This gas is also toxic to people.

Cationic Detergents (also known as Quaternary Ammonia Compounds)

Cleaning products such as all-purpose cleaners and sanitizers are commonly used cationic detergents. Sanitizers include surface disinfecting wipes; pool algaecides; some fabric softeners; some dryer sheets; some laundry detergents, especially liquid ones; and some toilet tank drop in products (these are only a concern if the tablet or capsule itself is ingested, but they're okay after being diluted in the toilet water). Household products in the U.S. that have cationic detergents have to list these under an ingredient list on the front label. Cleaners with no list on the front label would not have cationics or bleach in them. Even at low concentrations (2%), they can cause symptoms similar to alkaline products. In addition, weakness, twitching, seizures, collapse, and trouble breathing may be seen if eaten. Call your vet, then feed milk if product was ingested or use dishwashing liquid to remove the product from the skin.

Detergents (Non-Ionic/Anionic) and Soaps

Non-ionic and anionic detergents can be found in many types of soaps, such as hand soap and shampoo, and cleaning products such as hand dishwashing detergent. For the most part, the toxicity level in soaps is mild. These can cause irritation if they get into the eyes after which you may see eye redness or squinting. If eye irritation has occurred, you can rinse your pet’s eyes with room temperature water or saline solution. If these products are eaten, they can cause stomach upset, vomiting, and loose stool. If these symptoms are seen, call your vet immediately.

Hand Sanitizers and Alcohol

Isopropanol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is absorbed quickly by mouth and is readily absorbed through the skin, which can cause intoxication if enough is absorbed. Breathing in the fumes can also be problematic in small, confined areas. Ethanol and ethyl alcohol are similar types of alcohol, all of which can be found in hand sanitizer. Usually hand sanitizer has other ingredients to give it that jelly consistency, such as propylene glycol. Propylene glycol and ethanol or ethyl alcohol are NOT the same thing as what is found in antifreeze, which is ethylene glycol. Hand sanitizers do not cause antifreeze poisoning. In fact, most hand sanitizers are rarely an issue if eaten in very small amounts (e.g. a pet licking your hands after you put some on yourself). Signs of alcohol toxicity, although very rare, can include vomiting, wobbliness, twitching, trouble breathing, or becoming comatose. If these signs are noted, go see your vet as soon as possible. Keep your pet warm in the meantime.

Phenols

The levels of phenols in household cleaners are generally not toxic enough to be of concern anymore; if exposed, you generally find the kind of issues you see with anionic/nonionic detergents. Phenols can be found in antiseptics, germicides, household cleaners with pine oil products and disinfectants such as some cleaning sprays. They can cause problems in the GI tract if eaten. Direct irritation can be an issue if a pet walks on a surface that isn’t yet dry. Cats seem to be especially sensitive to these products. Pain, redness, and ulcers may be noted on the skin or paws with contact. Rapid breathing, tremors, twitching, and incoordination can be seen if the pet eats the product. Call your vet and bathe the pet with liquid dish soap if the product contacted the skin.

If You Are Unsure

The ASPCA Poison Control Center says that most cleaning agents can be used safely in homes as long as label recommendations are followed. In this scenario, better safe than sorry. If you are in doubt about using a product where your dog or cat can come into contact with it, be sure to check with an animal poison control center or call your veterinarian.

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