How to keep your pets safe around cleaning products

During the coronavirus pandemic, it's important to remember some ingredients can be dangerous for cats and dogs

By Karen E. Lange

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Millions of people are at home now in the midst of a pandemic, disinfecting and cleaning, taking cold and flu medications—with the potential they might unwittingly poison their pets.

The cleaning products consumers have carried home from stores, stripping shelves bare, can kill the virus that causes COVID-19 but can just as easily sicken or even kill dogs and cats. Cleaners with powerful odors that promise results should alert pet owners, particularly cat owners, to danger, experts say. The ingredients that make disinfectants effective make them toxic for companion animals: alcohol, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, chemical compounds that contain the word “phenol,” etc.

In the confusion and sometimes chaos of disrupted household routines and families living in close quarters while under “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders, smart cleaning can be a challenge. People must be extra vigilant, says Dr. Barbara Hodges, director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

“If you are washing the floor and the phone rings and you pick it up and go sit on the couch to talk, your dog or cat could be playing with that water, knocking it over, licking it,” Hodges says. “When you’re cleaning, you should only be cleaning.”

Over the counter medications such as acetaminophen—one of the pain and fever reducers people take for COVID-19 symptoms, under a number of brand names—can also endanger pets. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., accidental ingestions by pets of drugs like Tylenol were driving a rise in calls to the APSCA national pet poison hotline, the organization reports.

The easiest way to keep your pets safe and healthy as you try to keep yourself that way? Keep pets out of the room when you are cleaning. Do not leave disinfectants or cold and flu medications unattended. After you have used them, store them in a place that pets cannot reach. If you wet floors or counters with disinfectants and cleaners, keep pets away until they dry. Ideally, rinse floors with water.

These are the same precautions people should always take, but now they are more important than ever, says Dr. Tim Evans, associate professor of toxicology at the University of Missouri. “With increased frequency of use, there will be more opportunities for poisonings to happen.”

In January, even before the COVID-19 crisis, a popular disinfectant in the United Kingdom made the news when a dog walked across a wet, newly cleaned floor, licked her paws and was poisoned (she survived). Hodges says she has also seen a number of pets with contact dermatitis likely caused by potent carpet and floor cleaners.

Both cats and dogs are at risk, but cats are particularly vulnerable because they are small, their bodies do not handle toxins as well (since they lack certain liver enzymes), and they are constantly licking their fur, says Danielle Bays, senior analyst for cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States. Cats are also curious, inclined to get into seemingly inaccessible places and will explore new items with their nose or paws.

Dogs are often larger than cats, metabolize some chemicals differently and do not clean their coats, but they do lick their paws. They may also lap up or wolf down medications or cleaning products, especially liquids left in buckets. 

Think of your pets like young children, Hodges says. “Small amounts of things can really, really hurt them.” 

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