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Household Hazards

By

Sharon M. Gwaltney-Brant

, DVM, PhD, DABVT, DABT, University of Illinois

Last full review/revision Oct 2020 | Content last modified Oct 2020

Hazardous chemicals—such as products containing alcohols, bleaches, or corrosives—often found in the home can be sources of poisoning in pets. It can be difficult to determine the specific chemical consumed and the amount swallowed. Often a diagnosis must be based on the history of possible exposure and the development of specific signs.

Alcohols

All species are susceptible to alcohol toxicosis. Ethanol is present in a variety of alcoholic beverages, some rubbing alcohols, drug elixirs, and fermenting bread dough (see Food Hazards : Bread Dough). Methanol is most commonly found in windshield washer fluids. Isopropanol is twice as toxic as ethanol and is found in rubbing alcohols and alcohol-based flea sprays for pets. Overspraying pets with alcohol-based flea sprays often leads to toxicity.

Alcohols can be absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract or the skin. They reach peak levels in the blood within 90 minutes to 2 hours. Signs generally begin within 30 to 60 minutes of ingestion and include vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, lack of coordination, depression, tremors, and difficulty breathing. Alcohols are very strong central nervous system depressants. Severe cases may progress to coma, dangerously low body temperature, low blood sugar, seizures, slow heart rate, and depressed breathing. Determination of blood alcohol levels may help to confirm the diagnosis of alcohol intoxication.

Severely affected animals must be stabilized and need supportive treatment, including regulation of body temperature and administration of fluids to increase urine output and elimination of alcohol. Medications are used to correct metabolic abnormalities, control seizures, and maintain or stimulate breathing. For animals that are not yet showing signs, vomiting may be induced in the first 20 to 40 minutes after ingestion. Activated charcoal is not often recommended. Bathing with mild shampoo is recommended for significant skin exposures.

Chlorine Bleaches

Exposure to undiluted chlorine bleaches may result in throat, skin, and eye irritation or ulceration as well as significant irritation of the respiratory tract. All species are susceptible. Caged birds are at increased risk of death from fumes of bleaches and other cleaning agents.

Chlorine bleaches are primarily used as household cleaners and pool sanitizers. Pets may be exposed by chewing on containers, drinking from buckets containing product, or swimming in recently treated pools. Products with low concentrations of bleach tend to be mild irritants. Products with higher concentrations of bleach may burn the skin. Diluting bleach with water according to the label directions often reduces its corrosive potential. Mixing household bleach and ammonia produces a highly toxic gas that can cause severe breathing distress within 12 to 24 hours of exposure.

Ingestion of dilute household bleach products rarely causes more than mild vomiting, excessive drooling, depression, loss of appetite, or diarrhea. Concentrated bleach products may cause significant corrosive injury to the gastrointestinal tract. Drinking or breathing significant amounts of chlorine bleach occasionally results in metabolic abnormalities. Breathing a large amount can result in immediate coughing, gagging, sneezing, or retching. In addition, animals exposed to concentrated chlorine fumes may develop fluid in the lungs within 12 to 24 hours. In eye exposures, the eyes may water excessively, and the eyelids may swell and close tightly. Sores can develop on the cornea. Skin exposure can result in mild skin irritation and bleaching of the hair coat.

If the animal has ingested chlorine bleach, giving milk or water is advised. Do not give activated charcoal, and because bleach is corrosive, vomiting should not be induced. Fluid treatment may help. Animals that have been exposed to fumes should be moved to an area with fresh air. Fluid in the lungs should be treated as needed. Bathing with mild shampoo and thorough rinsing is recommended for significant skin exposures. Eye exposures should be treated immediately by flushing the eye with saline solution. Your veterinarian will stain the cornea to detect any corneal injuries.

Corrosives

Corrosives cause local tissue injury that can result in full-thickness burns of the skin, cornea, and lining of the gastrointestinal tract. All species are susceptible. Heavy hair coats may provide some protection from skin exposure.

Corrosives are either acidic or alkaline. Common acidic corrosive products include anti-rust compounds, toilet bowl cleaners, gun-cleaning fluids, automotive batteries, swimming pool cleaning agents, and etching compounds. Common alkaline corrosive products include drain openers, automatic dishwasher detergents, toilet bowl cleaners, radiator cleaning agents, alkaline batteries, and swimming pool algaecides.

Acids damage tissue immediately and are generally painful on contact, which helps to limit exposure. Alkaline agents also damage tissue immediately, but they are not painful on contact, potentially resulting in prolonged exposure and deeper and more extensive burns. In addition, burns from alkaline agents may take up to 12 hours after contact to become apparent. Burns to the esophagus are more common with alkaline agents, and may be seen with or without significant mouth burns.

Signs after ingestion of corrosive agents include vocalization, drooling, lack of energy, excessive thirst, vomiting (with or without blood), abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, and ulceration of the mouth, esophagus, or stomach. In severe cases, shock may develop quickly after exposure. The tissue may initially appear milky white to gray but gradually turns black as scabs form. Dead tissue may fall off within days of exposure. After inhaling a corrosive agent, the animal may develop difficulty breathing, a bluish tinge to the skin and mucous membranes, and fluid in the lungs. Skin exposure may result in significant burns, with pain, redness, and separation of damaged tissue. Eye exposure may cause the eyes to water excessively, the eyelids to swell and close tightly, and damage to the cornea (clear surface of the eye).

Because corrosive agents act so quickly, much of the damage occurs before treatment can be started. Animals having difficulty breathing, in shock, or with severe, metabolic abnormalities must be stabilized. For recent mouth exposures, water or milk should be given immediately to dilute the corrosive agent. Vomiting should never be induced because of the risk of causing additional corrosive damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Likewise, the stomach should not be flushed because of the risk of tearing the weakened esophagus or stomach. Attempts to chemically neutralize an acid with a weak alkali (or an alkali with a weak acid) are also not recommended because the combining reaction produces heat that can result in heat burns. Activated charcoal is ineffective and can damage mucous membranes and delay wound healing.

Supportive care your veterinarian may provide includes monitoring for breathing difficulty and administering medications for pain and inflammation. In animals with significant burns to the mouth and esophagus, it may be necessary to place a tube through the body wall into the stomach to provide nutrition while affected tissues heal. Skin or eye exposures should be managed by flushing with large amounts of water or saline. Eyes should be flushed for at least 20 minutes, followed by special staining to determine the extent of damage to the cornea. Standard topical treatments for skin or eye burns are provided as needed.

Alkaline Batteries

Ingestion of alkaline batteries poses a risk of both corrosive injury to and obstruction of the digestive tract. Dogs are most commonly involved.

Alkaline batteries are found in many household electronic products, including remote controls, hearing aids, toys, watches, computers, and calculators. Nickel-cadmium and lithium batteries also often contain alkaline material. The alkaline gel in batteries causes tissue damage by liquefying the tissue on contact. The resulting burns can penetrate deeply into tissue. Lithium disc or “button” batteries can lodge in the esophagus and generate a current against the esophageal walls, resulting in circular ulcers that can lead to perforation. Some battery casings contain metals such as zinc or mercury, which pose hazards of foreign object obstruction and metal toxicosis if they remain in the stomach for a long time. Additionally, small batteries (especially disc batteries) can be inhaled and pose a choking hazard.

In foreign object obstruction, signs include vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, or urgent, painful, and unsuccessful attempts to defecate. The mucous membranes of the mouth, esophagus, or stomach may sustain burns. Perforation of the esophagus or stomach can lead to infection or severe blood loss.

For batteries that have been swallowed without being chewed, inducing vomiting may force the battery out. However, if there is any possibility that the battery casing has been punctured, vomiting should not be induced because of the risk of leakage of alkaline gel. If you suspect that your pet has eaten an alkaline battery, seek veterinary care as soon as possible. In addition to providing supportive care, your veterinarian may use x-rays or endoscopy to diagnose the problem. If the battery has been punctured or is not passing through the digestive tract on its own, surgery to remove it may be needed.

Cationic Detergents

Exposure to cationic detergents can result in corrosive tissue injury and can affect the entire body. All species are susceptible. Cats are at increased risk of exposure by mouth due to grooming habits. Cationic detergents are found in a variety of algaecides, germicides, sanitizers, fabric softeners (including dryer softener sheets), and liquid potpourris. Cationic detergents are locally corrosive, causing skin, eye, and mucous membrane injury similar to that of alkaline corrosive agents. Whole-body effects range from central nervous system depression to fluid in the lungs.

Signs of oral exposure include inflammation and ulcers in the mouth, inflammation of the pharynx, excessive drooling, swollen tongue, depression, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, and increased breathing noises within 6–12 hours of ingestion. A fever and evidence of inflammation seen on a complete blood count are common. Other effects include metabolic abnormalities, central nervous system depression, low blood pressure, coma, seizures, weakness, muscle spasms, collapse, and fluid in the lungs. Skin contact can cause skin irritation, redness, ulcers, and pain. Eye exposure can cause inflamed conjunctivae, swollen and tightly closed eyelids, increased tear production, and injuries to the cornea.

Your veterinarian can provide supportive treatment, including medications for any specific signs, such as seizures. Due to the potential for corrosive injury to mucous membranes, inducing vomiting and administration of activated charcoal are not recommended. For recent mouth exposures, milk or water can be given to dilute the agent. Mouth burns should be treated the same as other corrosive injuries (see above). Skin and eye exposures should be managed by thorough flushing of the affected area with water or saline, followed by topical treatment. Pain relievers may be needed.

Detergents, Soaps, and Shampoos

Exposures to products containing anionic and nonionic detergents generally cause mild gastrointestinal irritation that responds well to symptomatic care. These products 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. Some of these, such as electric dishwasher detergents, are also alkaline corrosives (see above). All animals are susceptible.

These agents are not well absorbed by the body, and toxicity is limited to irritation of the eye, mouth, or gastrointestinal tract, which is usually mild and resolves on its own. Vomiting and diarrhea are the most common signs. Dehydration and metabolic abnormalities can develop in rare cases after prolonged vomiting or diarrhea.

Dilution with milk or water may reduce the risk of spontaneous vomiting. Vomiting usually resolves on its own after short periods of food and water restriction. In severe cases or in animals with sensitive stomachs, medications that prevent vomiting may be required. Rarely, fluid treatment is needed. Eyes should be flushed with water or saline for 5 minutes.

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