How to Disinfect Your Home Without Harming Your Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are more concerned than ever about keeping their spaces clean, but some may forget to read and heed warning labels on cleaners
  • The Pet Poison Helpline reported a 100% increase in phone traffic from panicked pet owners due to pets inhaling, ingesting or having skin contact with common but poisonous household cleaners
  • Bleach and ammonia are common cleaners that are potentially lethal to pets, but mixing them with other substances can make them even worse
  • Experts say highly reactive chemicals may be effective in killing bacteria and viruses, but that’s also what makes them respond to others, creating new toxic chemicals
  • While large dogs may also be affected, small dogs and cats are much closer to the source of toxins on the floor after cleaning, disinfecting or deodorizing, and may be increasingly harmed over time

Since the first warnings of the dangers of COVID-19 emerged, the U.S. has been inundated with advice from doctors, scientists and government officials regarding how people should behave to avoid contamination.

Besides the handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing that humans have been advised to practice, it only makes sense for pet owners to think about how to protect their pets' sensitive skin, organs and nasal passages if you're using harsh cleaners in your home.

But some have forgotten to read and heed the warning labels on cleaning and sanitizing agents, and pets as well as humans have been harmed because of it. Remember, a dog's sense of smell is thousands of times greater than a human's, and their chemical sensitivity potentially much greater (they don't shower regularly to remove the accumulated chemicals).

In fact, since the first reports of what's been termed a pandemic, Pet Poison Helpline has reported a 100% increase in phone traffic from panicked pet owners due to exposure to common household products that ended up injuring a vulnerable pet, from cats and dogs to birds, reptiles and numerous other exotic species.

Sadly, that can happen more easily than some people may think, especially when it comes to bleach, hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, observed Bluefield Daily Telegraph, based in West Virginia. According to Ahna Brutlag, DVM, a senior veterinary toxicologist:

"People are very concerned about their families during this COVID-19 crisis. That includes their pets. When we started receiving calls from panicked pet parents regarding possible poisonings related to COVID-19 cleaning fears, we felt we needed to educate the pet loving community on the safest way to do it."1

Everybody wants their home to be clean, but harsh and even toxic chemicals are being used on a more frequent basis in more households, and accidents do happen. For example, someone with an open jug of bleach on the floor next to their washing machine might not realize how easy it would be to knock over.

Brutlag says if a dog or cat walks through the spilled substance, it could cause skin irritation since it can be absorbed so easily into their paw pads. But if the animal licked its paws while self grooming, the chemical's contact with their delicate internal organs could lead to stomach irritation, diarrhea, vomiting and worse.

Some Cleaners Are Harsh, but Mixing Them Can Be Deadly

Bleach is potentially toxic on its own, but mixing it with many other cleaners can create noxious fumes. Potentially deadly combinations include bleach with ammonia, which creates chlorine gas; bleach with vinegar, which creates a chlorine gas so toxic it was used in World War I; and bleach with rubbing alcohol, says Vy Dong, professor at the University of California Irvine and head of the Dong Research Group.2

Alexander Lu from Dong Research Group notes that bleach is comprised of "highly reactive chemicals that make it effective at killing bacteria and viruses, but its high reactivity is also what makes it respond to other chemicals, which can result in new toxic chemicals."3

While both toilet bowl cleaner and bleach are commonly used in the bathroom, they can be a lethal combination due to the fumes created. Use one or the other, and again, make sure you have good ventilation and that your pet isn't in the room. Dong had this to say about various chemical combinations:

"Molecules are like people with their own personalities and how they behave depends on who they are around ... unless you understand the personalities of all the molecules in your bottle, don't try this at home."4

They may seem tame in comparison, but even a combination of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar forms a chemical called peracetic acid, which is corrosive enough to break down surfaces, as well as being toxic.

Hand sanitizer can become a hazard because of its high alcohol content, Brutlag says. If an animal should swallow enough of it, symptoms could arise in as little as a half hour, necessitating a call to either the animal's veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline.

Rubbing alcohol, especially concentrated alcohol levels from 70% to 99%, may be good for cleaning, but mixed with bleach it turns into chloroform, which can cause unconsciousness, and chloroacetone, another tear gas. Both are described as "toxic and dangerous."5

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Many Cleaners Are Potentially Dangerous

Steps you can take to avoid problems include placing your dog in his crate (and your cat in a closed room) while using chemical-based cleaning products on your floors, bathrooms or laundry. But some might use such cleaners on the cages themselves. The ASPCA notes that it's the dilution of bleach in water that's important:

"Pet parents are often curious about the risks associated with cleaning their pets' cages and toys with bleach. The bottom line is this: cleaning your pet's cage or toy with a properly diluted bleach solution, followed by a thorough rinsing and airing out, is not expected to cause harm. If the odor of bleach seems overwhelming, open windows and use fans to air the room."6

One reason pets are so susceptible to chemical odors is because their systems are more sensitive, so the level of exposure for them is much higher than it is for humans. Even if you have a large dog — and especially if you have a cat or small dog — they're much closer to the source of the toxins that are on the floor. Breathing them constantly would be not only unpleasant, but increasingly harmful over time.

Other substances many homeowners with pets wouldn't think twice about using include carpet deodorizers that are shaken or sprayed on and left to sit for a period of time before vacuuming. Pets can easily walk through the room and inhale it or get it on their paws, and ingest it secondarily to grooming.

One way to protect both you and your pets is to make sure you thoroughly wipe down any surface with pure water after using conventional disinfectants. I use a medical-grade colloidal silver product around my house (proven to address aggressive viruses and bacteria) to safely address bacteria and viruses without risk to me or my furry family members.

If you opt for conventional chemical cleaning agents with poison control warnings on the label, make sure you (and your pets) have plenty of ventilation. Further:

"While we're stuck at home trying to sanitize everything in sight, it might be tempting to get creative with mixing household chemicals to try to get your home as clean as possible. However, mixing household cleaners can be dangerous due to the chemical makeup of the unique cleaners … It's highly recommended to stick to using one household cleaner at a time per surface to avoid mixing chemicals."7

Better yet, opt for only natural cleaning products in your home, here's a link to a Facebook Live I did about effective and non-toxic household cleaning products you can feel good about using around animals.

If you are still using conventional chemical cleaning products and notice changes in your pets, don't hesitate to call the Pet Poison Helpline8 at 800-213-6680, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for information regarding potential poisoning of all animal species.