I was in my early thirties when I had my moment of cleaning clarity. Soaking the countertop with some bleach-filled liquid and reading the back of the bottle to see what I needed to do to make sure I was safe, it occurred to me, “What about my cats who walk all over these surfaces and then lick their toe beans?”
That’s when I started paying attention to the cleaning products I was using around my pets.
Our dogs and cats have a different relationship with household products than we do. I imagine most of us aren’t walking across the coffee table or licking a treat up off the tile. They’re rolling around on the floor more than we are. And I’d venture a guess that very few of us are grooming ourselves with our tongues. But our pets are. That means whatever their bodies come into contact with can be ingested.
They also tend to breathe more deeply and rapidly than those of us on two legs. They’re taking in airborne particles that may seem harmless but can actually be incredibly toxic to dogs and cats.
We’re going to give you the information you need for your own “moment of cleaning clarity,” breaking down the hazards found in many off-the-shelf and DIY cleaning products and giving you some safe alternatives. The first part may sound a little scary. But hang in there — we have solutions and even DIY alternatives! You may even find that swapping out some of your old cleaners for safer versions will help your health as well.
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Cleaning Product Ingredients That Could Be Harmful to Your Pets
Ammonia (or ammonium hydroxide) is a nasty one. It can burn mucus membranes and cause breathing problems if inhaled. When licked, ammonia can burn the inside of the mouth, throat, and stomach. Not only is it used on its own, but it’s also an ingredient in many products such as oven, window, carpet, and drain cleaners, plus countertop sprays and degreasers. But things get really scary if you mix ammonia with bleach. This dangerous combo creates a poisonous gas that can be deadly.
Side note: ammonia also creates that strong smell you get from cat urine. That’s why many cats avoid using a litter box that hasn’t been cleaned recently. They’re avoiding ammonia.
Windex® Glass Cleaner with Ammonia-D, many Lysol® disinfecting products, Downy® Infusions, and Mop & Glo® are just a few of many household cleaning products that contained ammonia at the time this article was written. And, of course, ammonia is often used on its own or in DIY cleaners.
Another big offender is chlorine. You’ll find it everywhere — kitchen and bathroom sprays, laundry and dish detergent, and toilet bowl cleaner. It’s also commonly used around the house with a water dilution for disinfecting.
Think about any time you’ve used a chlorine bleach product. You’ve got the doors and windows open for ventilation. And half the time, you probably have your shirt collar pulled up over your nose. It can seriously irritate the respiratory tract. With cats and dogs breathing deeper and faster than humans and having much more sensitive noses, you can imagine how rough it must be on them. And remember, they’re walking across these surfaces and licking their paws. They may be drinking from the toilet bowl or from a trickle of water in the sink that you’ve just cleaned with a chlorine product. And there’s another deadly combo to watch for. Chlorine bleach mixed with vinegar creates chlorine gas, so toxic a variant was used to knock out Allied troops in the trenches during WWI.
Glycol Ethers are a chemical ingredient found in many household cleaners — even some labeled as “natural.” They’ve been found to cause digestive, liver, and nerve damage, not to mention being linked to lung and kidney damage and anemia, not just in animals but in people too. You’ll often find them labeled as “nonionic surfactants” or “glycols” on ingredient lists.
Formaldehyde — yes, the one used to embalm bodies — can be found in lots of household cleaners, hand soaps, and even pet shampoo. It’s actually a naturally occurring gas in our bodies. The problem comes from inhaling high concentrations in the air. Where do those airborne particles come from? They’re released in small quantities from products that use formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. If we’re breathing them in, so are our pets. That’s a lot to digest, figuratively and literally.
A quick search of the Consumer Product Information Database provides a lengthy list of products with formaldehyde, including, sadly, some pet grooming products and many household cleaners. Products from Palmolive®, Gerber®, and Softsoap® are on the list. And that doesn’t include other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals like DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and Quaternium-15. We can’t completely avoid formaldehyde gas. But it’s in our best interests to limit it where we can — for our pets and ourselves.
Here, we’re dealing with an antimicrobial agent that can be found in antibacterial cleansers, mold removers, household disinfectants, and patio cleaners. It can cause tissue damage, gastrointestinal irritation, and more if your pet licks or touches a surface where you’ve used products containing Benzalkonium Chloride. Lysol®, Scrubbing Bubbles®, Softsoap®, Clorox® Disinfecting Wipes, and Purell® are among those listed in the Consumer Product Information Database.
Fragrance (Phthalates and essential oils)
This is an excellent time to point out that even natural, organic ingredients can be toxic to our pets. Some of my favorite essential oils are now off-limits in my home because they’re dangerous for my cats, even though they’re perfectly natural and healthy for me. Whether you’re using essential oils in your own DIY cleaning concoctions or they’re an ingredient in a product you’re buying, it’s a good idea to do a little scent research so you can make safe choices. We also have some pet-safe essential oil recipes.
When it comes to Phthalates, you may not see them listed explicitly in cleaning product ingredients. But if you see “fragrances” or “perfumes,” there’s a decent chance Phthalates are one of the solvents used to dissolve those fragrances. This sneaky chemical can cause allergic symptoms and asthma. And there’s generally a lot of concern around how Phthalates disrupt things in our bodies. Again, if it’s dangerous to us, it’s often even more dangerous to our pets.
You may not be able to avoid all of these ingredients. But you can still help your dogs and cats by following the manufacturer’s instructions precisely and using proper ventilation. Remove your pets from the area until all surfaces are completely dry. Make sure food and water bowls, toys, and bedding are out of the area as well. And look for references to “pet safe” as you peruse the cleaning products aisle at the store.
Choose Pet-Friendly Household Cleaning Products
Now that you’re stressed out, take a deep breath, and let’s talk about safe alternatives. There are more and more pet-friendly cleaning products coming out every year. These are a few of our top choices from the shelf:
BioKleen designs their products with pets in mind, understanding their sensitivity to toxins, synthetic dyes, and artificial fragrances. They steer clear of phosphates, chlorine, ammonia, petroleum solvents, alcohol, butyl, glycol ether, brighteners, artificial color, and artificial fragrance.
Seventh Generation uses plant-based ingredients and is committed to transparency, listing all ingredients clearly on the package. This means you know exactly what you’re bringing into your home.
Force of Nature is an EPA-registered disinfectant and sanitizer that kills 99.9% of germs using only 3 ingredients: water, salt, and vinegar. Adding an electrical current forms two new ingredients that naturally clean and disinfect: hypochlorous acid and sodium hydroxide. I've been using this product for a few years and wouldn't go without it. Bonus - it's great for getting rid of odors on soft furnishings instead of using a fabric spray.
Pet Safety Note About Pine-Sol
We have been asked if Pine-Sol® is safe for pets. Our veterinary team has reached out to the manufacturer, the Clorox Company, and we'll update this when we hear back. But this is what we've uncovered from our research into Pine-Sol's ingredients. Their alternative to ammonia is C10-12 alcohol ethoxylates, which cleans but evaporates without leaving a residue. Other ingredients that make up more than 1% of the product are listed: glycolic acid, fragrance, caramel, dimethicone/silica/PEG distearate, sodium, C14-17 secondary alkyl sulfonate, and xanthan gum. Our vet team looked at the remainder of the ingredients and don't see any red flags when it comes to being toxic to pets; most ingredients are used in human cosmetics.
Now with all this being said, while none of the ingredients are directly harmful to pets, it's certainly not something you want them ingesting, and the smell could turn off some animals or trigger asthmatic reactions, which is possible with anything that has a strong scent.
Cleaning Products That Are Good for the Environment
If you want more information, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists cleaning products and grades them for their impact on the environment and their toxicity to humans. If you search for Pine-sol, you'll see their take on it. Please note: that the "top" products listed on their site are better for the environment but not always appropriate to use around animals, so stick to products like the ones we list above, which are at the top of the EWG list.
Pet-Safe Window & Glass Cleaner
For those dogs who love to lick windows, especially the windows in the car or the shower glass when having a bath, the best option is to use a pet-safe window cleaner that doesn't use dangerous chemicals. One of our colleagues uses a cloth on her windows that works well with just water and no cleaner! She swears it doesn't leave streaks. And the E-cloth brand has clothes for just about any cleaning need.
One of the safest glass cleaners on the EWG list is Sensitive Home Glass Cleaner. If you don't have any grime on your windows, you can use the E-cloth mentioned above and just use water.
Warning: Just because these products are safer for pets doesn't mean they are 100% safe. Pets should still be discouraged from licking these surfaces as much as possible.
Make Your Own Pet-Safe Household Cleaners
If you prefer homemade DIY options, look at using ingredients like:
- Distilled white vinegar: effective for killing bacteria and microbes. Anti-fungal properties also make it a good option for mold treatment.
- Baking soda: has long been used to absorb odors. It’s also mildly abrasive, so it’s great for scrubbing tubs, sinks, etc. Working alongside vinegar, baking soda can take on stubborn clogged drains and tackle grease.
- Hydrogen peroxide: true, it’s a bleaching agent. But it’s not damaging like chlorine. The breakdown process of hydrogen peroxide turns it into water and oxygen. It can be used in antiseptic and anti-fungal applications like killing mold and odors.
- Lemon juice: if you’re looking for something a little less potent than vinegar, it’s a great antibacterial and anti-fungal. You can take a lemon wedge after you've used the juice and rub it on wood cutting boards and surfaces.
These ingredients can be combined in several ways to clean different areas of your home effectively. Need some inspiration?
5 DIY household cleaners that are pet-safe
Pet-Safe DIY All-Purpose Cleaner
- Equal parts water and distilled white vinegar.
Works on tile, linoleum, vinyl, cabinets, appliances, sinks, and more.
Pet-Safe DIY Bathroom Cleaner
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
- ¼ cup hydrogen peroxide
- 1 tsp liquid soap
Combine in a spray bottle and fill to top with water. Spray surfaces and wipe clean.
Pet-Safe DIY Carpet Stain Remover
- Equal parts water and distilled white vinegar
- Add 1 Tbsp hydrogen peroxide
Spray stain and blot.
Pet-Safe DIY Cleaning Scrub
- Equal parts water, baking soda, and salt
Mix into a thick paste. Scrub and rinse well.
Pet-Safe DIY Drain Cleaner
- ½ cup baking soda
- 1 cup white vinegar
Pour the baking soda into the drain. Add white vinegar and let sit for 10 minutes, then pour boiling hot water down the drain. Repeat as necessary.
Safety Note: When making your own household cleaners, don't allow your pet to ingest the ingredients directly, as this may cause digestive upset or vomiting.
One Final Tip and a Few Helpful Resources
Now a small disclaimer. Even when natural scents are used, it’s still important to identify them and make sure they won’t irritate your pet’s sensitive nose. Go unscented when possible. And remember, cats don’t love citrus. Avoid using citrus products, especially around litter boxes and other areas you want your cat to frequent.
If there’s any chance your pet ingested, inhaled, or came into contact with a harmful toxin, call a veterinarian right away. Better safe than sorry!
Be on the lookout for these symptoms and signs – they will vary based on the type and quantity of the product ingested:
- Poor to no appetite
- Irritation of the skin and eyes
- Distended or swollen belly
- Corrosive-specific symptoms:
- Red, raw skin that may have blisters
- Inflammation of the mouth and eyes – burns and lesions in the mouth are possible
- Vomiting or retching
- Severe drooling and pawing at the face
- Difficulty breathing
The Consumer Product Information Database is a helpful resource providing lists of products containing specific ingredients. Their database is currently supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Department of Health & Human Services.