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Pet poison control calls rise with COVID-19–related cleaning

Accidental exposures, sanitizer use among calls to hotlines

By Greg Cima
Published on June 24, 2020

Pets are being sickened or hurt by cleaning, disinfectant, and sanitizing products as people try to guard against COVID-19.

Dog sitting on a floor being mopped

Dr. Ahna Brutlag, director of veterinary services for the Pet Poison Helpline, said hotline operators saw a spike in calls related to cleaning products starting in March—well above the usual spring cleaning bump. By mid-June, the volume of calls about cleaning and disinfecting products remained more than double the volume for the same period in 2019.

Dr. Tina Wismer, senior director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, said that, when comparing the first five months of 2019 and 2020, her center saw a 65% increase in calls related to potential poisonings from household cleaning products.

The problem isn’t limited to pets. An early-release article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates about one-third of survey respondents had engaged in high-risk cleaning or disinfection practices in efforts to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission, “including using bleach on food products, applying household cleaning and disinfectant products to skin, and inhaling or ingesting cleaners and disinfectants,” a summary states.

The article, published June 5, notes that another MMWR article published April 24 described increases in exposures of humans to cleaners and disinfectants when comparing poison control data for the first three months of 2018, 2019, and 2020.

“During January-March 2020, poison centers received 45,550 exposure calls related to cleaners (28,158) and disinfectants (17,392), representing overall increases of 20.4% and 16.4% from January-March 2019 (37,822) and January-March 2018 (39,122), respectively,” the April MMWR article states.

Most exposures accidental

From March through May, the Pet Poison Helpline’s overall call volume was up 43% from the same period in 2019. By mid-June, the overall call volume remained at a historic peak, Dr. Brutlag said.

“Our call volume is higher than we’ve ever experienced it before,” she said.

Most of the hotline’s calls about household chemicals related to accidental exposures, Dr. Brutlag said. Pets may drink out of mop buckets, lick their paws after placing them on cleaner-covered counter tops, eat food-coated wipes out of the trash, or drink from water bowls that were disinfected but not rinsed.

Some of this year’s calls were about pets exposed to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, occasionally used directly on pets. One caller, for example, put hand sanitizer on a Yorkie’s paws.

“The dog ingested quite a bit and actually did get quite sick,” Dr. Brutlag said. “What we see in other cases is alcohol poisoning from the large amount of alcohol that is in hand sanitizers.”

Dr. Wismer said most cases reported to the ASPCA center also involved accidental exposures, such as pets that walked across recently mopped floors or jumped onto wet counters.

“Fortunately, most of these exposures are from diluted or ready-to-use products, and only mild gastrointestinal upset and skin irritation are expected,” Dr. Wismer said.

Pet Poison Helpline operators saw spikes in calls about other products that might be connected with stay-at-home orders, such as alcohol, marijuana, paint, and bread doughs and yeast, Dr. Brutlag said. When people spend more time at home, they also have more opportunities to see when their pets get into danger, she said.

Risks of exposure

Dr. Wismer said the danger to pets can range from stomach upset to severe corrosive injury to a pet’s mouth, esophagus, and stomach.

“It’s important to ensure that you keep cleaning products up and out of paws’ reach and keep your pet out of the area when using any potential toxic substances,” she said.

In a video for pet owners, posted May 6 on YouTube, Dr. Brutlag described the risks of exposures to even small amounts of bleach and other harsh chemicals, as well as the risks that pets exposed to hand sanitizers may become disoriented, vomit, experience rapid drops in blood glucose concentrations, and even become comatose.

The video includes advice on keeping pets out of rooms where owners are cleaning, disposing of cleaners or wipes in closed-top garbage cans, and crating pets or otherwise removing them from a room during spills. Owners should consider buying pet-safe chlorhexidine-based cleaners.

Dr. Brutlag recommends that veterinarians brush up on their toxicosis and decontamination skills. Remembering how to induce vomiting in a dog or cat can help a veterinarian deliver immediate care, as can understanding how to treat topical exposures to bleach or flush the eyes of a dog hit with spray cleaner.

She also said the Pet Poison Helpline was hiring more operators to handle the high volume of calls from pet owners and veterinarians.

“We’re here, so they can call us, and we will help them out with those cases,” Dr. Brutlag said.

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center is available at 888-426-4435. The Pet Poison Helpline is available at 855-764-7661, and Dr. Brutlag’s video is available at YouTube.