By David F. Kramer
As parents and caregivers, one of the earliest lessons we learn is the concept of “baby-proofing”—keeping toxic substances and dangerous situations well out of the way of our children. As pet parents, we need to do the same. But unlike children, instead of this being a temporary obligation, it’s something we’ll need to do throughout the lives of our pets.
Unfortunately, some of the things we do to improve our environment, such as cleaning or using chemical air fresheners, can pose serious dangers to our animal friends, whether furry, feathered, or scaled.
So, do pet owners need to throw away their room sprays, plug-ins, candles, oils, and solids? That’s a question that’s not so easily answered. However, there are some ways to play it safe when using these products in the home.
“If we are putting some kind of chemical into the air merely to mask scents, then we have to be concerned about the negative implications on our pets,” says holistic veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney of California.
Sadly, most forms of air fresheners, whether room and furniture sprays, solids, and even the seemingly safer alternative of scented candles can be very toxic to humans and even more so to animals that might ingest the substances accidentally or not have the wherewithal to avoid them in the first place when they’re being used.
According to Dr. Mahaney, one of the main offenders in the ingredient list for most air fresheners are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at room temperature due to a low boiling point. This causes these compounds to easily evaporate from a solid or liquid form into the air. This transformation is called volatility. In other words, volatility is just what air fresheners are meant to do: break down from one form and dissipate into the air, thereby changing its scent.
Unfortunately, this is the same volatility that occurs in paints and varnishes, fossil fuels, benzene, formaldehyde, refrigerants, aerosol propulsion, cigarette smoke, and the dry cleaning process. You wouldn’t open a can of paint in your living room to
improve the quality of the air, but this isn’t too far removed from what happens when you break out an air freshener.
These substances can cause a laundry list of maladies, like asthma and cancer, and can affect the blood, brain, heart, liver, kidneys, skin, and the respiratory and nervous systems of both people and their pets.
According to a study cited by LiveScience.com, a test of the top selling air fresheners and laundry detergents showed that these products released a litany of chemicals when used, and in all cases at least one of the chemicals was considered to be toxic.
For those who seek a more natural, non-toxic approach, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in the homeopathic movement—an alternative medicinal approach that uses substances from nature. On its face it seems reasonable enough; eschew the manufactured chemical and embrace what the earth has to offer.
For the air freshener industry, the latest “natural” catch phrase is “essential oils.” Despite this touchy-feely name, these products are by no means entirely safe. Essential oils are also defined as volatile, and while these substances are created from flowers, bark, berries, roots, seeds, and woods, and do have some potential medicinal and positive effects, they can still be very toxic to people and animals, even when they are used properly.
“Essential oils, which are included in many air freshener products, can be very toxic, especially to cats. If you simply have to have essential oils in the home, make sure they are kept in a location where your cats cannot come into direct contact with them,” says veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates of Ft. Collins, Colorado.
“Also, birds are more sensitive to potential airborne toxins than are other animals, so I generally recommend a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach with the use of air fresheners around them.”
When it comes to using these products around our pets, a little information is your best weapon of defense. “Read the instructions on the side of the bottle and be sure you are spraying the recommended amount,” says Dr. Mahaney. “When you walk into a room that’s been heavily sprayed with air freshener, what does it do to your eyes and lungs? If it’s doing that to you, it’s also going to do that to your pets.”
So, how do you know if the products you use around your home are relatively safe? Dr. Mahaney recommends doing some research on the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center Website. This resource covers all sorts of toxins that your pet might encounter, from air fresheners, cleaning products, human and pet medications, foods, plants, and other substances. In case of a poisoning emergency, there is a 24-hour hotline at (888) 426-4435, although a $65 consultation fee might be required.
Obviously, in the case of a true emergency, it is far more important to get your pet to a vet than just consult with one by telephone.
According to Dr. Mahaney, the signs and symptoms of the negative effects of air fresheners range from the immediate to a few hours or days after use. When you first use them, a pet might immediately withdraw from the area or cower. A pet might cough, sneeze, produce a nasal discharge, or suffer from vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or lack of appetite.
However, these dangers don’t come from the air alone; they can also be caused by contamination from where they fall, where a pet might step, roll, or lick, or from products such as carpet shampoos and cleaners that are specifically made for surfaces.
“If you’re going to spray something that’s going to leave an aroma, I suggest that you don’t give your pets access to it,” says Dr. Mahaney. “If you’re cleaning, you don’t want to leave a significant residue—they could walk across it on a carpet and potentially lick it off their paws.”
Ingesting an air freshener can be even more dangerous than simply breathing it in. Any long-term usage products, such as solid or plug-in air fresheners, need to be closely monitored, and extra care needs to be taken when you dispose of them. If your pet is inclined to go through the trash, you might want to dispose of spent air fresheners directly in an outside trash receptacle.
“If an animal ingests an air freshener, I worry primarily about its effect on the gastrointestinal system,” says Dr. Coates. “The active ingredients and/or the packaging could cause vomiting, diarrhea, etc.” And that is not confined to chemically scented products. “Essential oils can not only affect the GI tract, but they also are associated with neurological problems like agitation, weakness, unsteadiness, and tremors in dogs—and especially in cats.”
“Anything with a fibrous nature to it can cause digestive distress and may be absorbed through the small intestine and get into the blood,” says Dr. Mahaney. “Cats have had increased feline asthma as a result of living in households where there are air fresheners, incense and cigarette smoke—or even just the aroma of cleaning products.”
For expectant mothers, all possible care needs to be taken. Research has suggested that VOCs such as Toluene and Xylene can potentially cause childhood cancers, leukemia, and brain damage, so there’s no reason not to believe that this is also a risk to our pregnant pets. The proper usage of air fresheners and any potentially toxic stuff in them will ensure that future generations of our furry friends will be happy and healthy.
When it comes to 100% safe ways to clear the air, there are still a few alternatives in our modern world. Some types of potpourri (although these still need to be kept out of a pet’s reach so it is not ingested) can be a pretty safe bet, and you can create do it yourself home scents by boiling flowers, fruit rinds, and other natural organics. Or you could try the comfort trick real estate veterans have long used: Replace the funk with the smell of cookies, bread, or apple pie. Creating a sweet smelling home is as good an excuse as any to bake.
Are there any products that are safe for making the house smell nice while being safe for pets? Dr. Mahaney recommends the Glean+Green family of products. Clean+Green manufactures a wide array of products for pets, including air fresheners and fresheners for carpets, flooring, furniture, cars, and litter boxes—and even a de-skunking spray.
They also have products for homes with birds and other small animals, which tend to be more sensitive to chemicals than larger pets. The active ingredients in these products include sugar derivatives, botanical extracts, and hydrated cellulose, and may provide a safer alternative to conventional air fresheners. However, these products are pet-specific and may not be appropriate for use all around the home.
Still, Dr. Mahaney wonders why pet owners need to resort to scented products at all. “Why are we freshening our air?” he asks. For a truly effective method of clearing the air, he says, proper ventilation is still king.
So can somebody just open a window in here?