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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Detergents, Soaps, and Shampoos

By Sharon M. Gwaltney-Brant, DVM, PhD, DABVT, DABT, University of Illinois

Exposures to products containing anionic and nonionic detergents generally cause mild GI irritation that responds well to symptomatic care. All animals are susceptible.


Mild detergents, soaps, and shampoos contain anionic and nonionic detergents; products included in this group include human and pet shampoos, liquid hand dishwashing soaps, bar bath soaps (except homemade soaps, which may contain lye), many laundry detergents, and many household all-purpose cleaners. Most are of moderate pH, but agents with pH >11 (eg, electric dishwasher detergents) are alkaline corrosives and should be treated as such (see Corrosives).


Anionic and nonionic detergents are mild irritants; many have been pH adjusted to have minimal dermal irritation, although ocular and mucosal irritation is possible. There is no appreciable systemic absorption of these agents, and toxicity is limited to ocular, oral, or GI irritation, which is usually mild and self-limiting. Cats exposed to undiluted shampoos or other products containing sodium lauryl sulfate may develop significant respiratory compromise after inhalation during grooming, including dyspnea, increased bronchial secretions, and mild pulmonary edema. Although the exact mechanism of this syndrome is not known, it may relate to interference by the detergent with normal pulmonary surfactants.

Clinical Findings:

Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are the most common signs. Secondary dehydration and electrolyte imbalance may develop in rare instances due to protracted vomiting or diarrhea. Mild ocular irritation is possible, with lacrimation and blepharospasm. No significant lesions beyond mild local irritation are seen. Cats grooming after application of sodium lauryl sulfate–containing products may develop moist respiratory sounds, cyanosis, and dyspnea within 1–3 hr of exposure.


Dilution with milk or water may reduce the risk of spontaneous vomiting. Vomiting is usually self-limiting and responds to short periods of food and water restriction. In severe cases or in animals with sensitive stomachs, antiemetics may be required (eg, metoclopramide, 0.2–0.4 mg/kg, PO, SC, or IM, qid). Rarely, parenteral fluid therapy is required to correct electrolyte or hydration abnormalities due to protracted vomiting or diarrhea. For ocular exposures, irrigation of eyes using tepid water or physiologic saline for 5 min will usually suffice. For cats that have respiratory compromise, supplemental oxygen and general supportive care are recommended; in most cases, signs resolve within 24 hr.