Toxic Cleaners

This was written for my JRN 472 class in February 2011.

Fido is not himself today. He won’t eat and there is a strange rash on his face. Turns out, the cause of this may be right under your kitchen sink.

According to a list on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ website, household cleaners are among the top 10 toxins of 2010 for pets. The ASPCA compiled the list based on calls received by its Urbana, Illinois-based Animal Poison Control Center. The center received more than 167,000 calls in 2010 alone.

“Household cleaners are irritating to pet’s skin, eyes, intestine and respiratory system,” said Dr. Rex Bailey, DVM, a veterinarian at Michigan City Animal Hospital in Michigan City, Indiana. “They can cause ulcerations of the eyes or intestine and sores on pet’s skin and feet.”

Bailey added that these chemicals can cause infections and asthma and, if the cleaner is too acidic, it can be potentially fatal to animals. But how do animals come in contact with these harmful chemicals?

“Most animals are exposed to these toxins by either drinking them directly or licking their paws after stepping on a surface that has been cleaned. Some animals, however, have local reactions on their skin from merely coming in contact with the chemicals,” said Dr. Tim Mason, a veterinarian at Lewis Animal Hospital in Toledo, Ohio.  “Of note, some animals may be more sensitive to these chemicals than others, so some pets in the family may be fine while others have a violent reaction.”

Mason added that some pets simply have allergies to certain cleaning products, even if they are non-toxic chemicals. For instance, Dr. Mason treated a cat with a “nasty” skin rash caused by exposure to Febreze air freshener. He said these allergic reactions are a concern for veterinarians.

Not all chemicals affect pets in the same way.

“The two things that determine the toxicity are the ingredients and the concentration,” said Dr. Tina Wismer, DABVT, DABT, senior director of Veterinary Outreach and Education for the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center.  “Cleaners that contain high concentrations of acids, alkalis or cationic detergents can cause corrosive injury to the mouth or skin.” Signs of injury include drooling, vomiting, swelling of the mouth, displaying visible signs of pain and lack of appetite, according to Wismer.

Even natural and homemade cleaners can be dangerous to animals. Dr. Mason says they usually pose less of a potential threat because of the lack of “caustic chemicals” that is typically found in traditional cleaners. But, he adds, they still have the potential to cause allergic reactions, as Febreze did with his feline patient.

Dr. Wismer cautioned that not all natural cleaners are necessarily safe. She said some ingredients found in natural or homemade cleaners, like baking soda, can “cause electrolyte problems and change the pH of the blood.”

No matter what the chemical is, the best way to protect pets from potential harm is to simply keep them out of the room while cleaning.

Dr. Bailey said, no matter if the cleaner is a traditional, natural or homemade product, the area that has been cleaned should be rinsed with water before exposure to household pets. This could prevent the effects of toxic chemicals on animals.

“The most important things are to keep animals out of the area until the cleaned area is dry and to follow label directions,” said Dr. Wismer. “Do not leave buckets of mop water out where animals can drink from them.”

Brandy Gerber of Ida, Michigan, is already taking precautions to protect her pets. Gerber, who owns two dogs, does not know which specific chemicals can harm her animals, but she takes precautionary steps while cleaning just in case.

“As it is now, if I’m using certain cleaners I’ll either put the dogs outside, or make sure they can’t get into the room with me,” said Gerber. She added that she loves her dogs and would take any step to keep them safe and healthy.

If your pet does come into contact with toxins, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center runs a 24-hour hotline for pet owners who fear their animals may have been poisoned. The number is 1-888-426-4435 and some fees may apply. To learn more about pet toxins, visit http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control.

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