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5 min read

Are Hand Sanitizers Poisonous to Pets?


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 04/12/2022, edited: 04/18/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the use of hand sanitizers has skyrocketed as people have sought to limit the infection. By some estimates, sanitizer use has risen by over 400%. The increased presence of these substances in the environment has also increased the potential for accidental pet ingestion and poisoning. 

As with many pet-related health topics, there is a lot of information floating around among pet parents about hand sanitizer toxicity. Much of it has arisen from social media posts or from unqualified sources. The bottom line is that hand sanitizers can be poisonous to pets based on a few factors. 

Let’s look at some of the facts we’ve collected from reliable sources about why hand sanitizer isn't for pets.

a collection of hand sanitizer dispensers and bottles next to a surgical mask

What makes hand sanitizer poisonous to pets?

We use hand sanitizers to keep our hands disinfected and clean, but for our pets, the effect just isn't the same. But what is in it that makes it toxic for our animals?

Alcohol is the primary substance in hand sanitizers, and it appears in different forms. The most commonly used alcohol is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, which is found in beer, wine, and liquor. Another is propylene glycol. The most toxic alcohol, however, is methyl alcohol (methanol) which is contained in antifreeze, a well-known pet toxin. Methanol should not appear in hand sanitizer. 

Hand sanitizers also contain varying concentrations of alcohol, from 60% to 95%. The higher the concentration of alcohol in the sanitizer, the less a dog or cat will have to ingest for it to be toxic. And the more alcohol a pet consumes, the more ill they can become.

Another factor in how poisonous a hand sanitizer might be actually involves the pooch or purr baby themselves. Small or young animals carry a higher poisoning risk, as do animals that have health issues, such as liver disease. The alcohol in hand sanitizer is detoxified in the liver and any reduction in the organ’s functioning will allow more of the substance to remain in the blood, circulating to other organs like the brain. 

If your pet ingests hand sanitizer, you may see symptoms of alcohol poisoning, such as lethargy and decreased coordination, vomiting and diarrhea, drooling, difficulty breathing or even tremors! 

purse with hand sanitizer, phone and mask spilling out on table

How do pets accidentally ingest hand sanitizer?

Hand sanitizer has become so prominent in our lives that we hardly notice it. The substance is everywhere – supermarkets, doctors’ offices and hospitals, vet clinics, and our homes. Many people carry it with them in their cars, or clipped to backpacks, handbags, or totes. Any of these places that a pet can get to are danger zones for a possible poisoning.

Imagine you left your backpack, handbag, or tote on a chair when you came in from being out. Dogs and cats are naturally curious about objects with your scent on them. They might root around in your bag until they find the bottle of sanitizer, or bat around the one clipped to your bag which looks like one of their chewable toys. And chew they will. Although plain sanitizer doesn’t taste very good, there’s a chance your fur baby may consume some of it. 

Bottles of sanitizer can also be found near sinks, where cats love to play! Just a dab that dropped and sits on the countertop can be enough to catch your kitty's eye and warrant a paw tap or a few licks.

man with backpack that has a hand sanitizer bottle clipped to it

What about scented hand sanitizers?

Scented hand sanitizers can contain essential oils which may be more pleasing to people and can sometimes attract our pets, but these oils make preventing accidental ingestion even more important. Several of the oils, such as tea tree oil and pennyroyal, are very toxic, and their ingestion could result in a poisoning or irritation of the skin or mouth. Even the stomach and intestines can become inflamed. A small lick of wet sanitizer with essential oils can cause toxicity.

Some companies offering scented hand sanitizers also manufacture wipes that contain products that smell like food, which may attract pets who lick or chew on them if given the opportunity. With scents like Strawberry Pound Cake, they might be hard to resist. Fortunately, sanitizer wipes contain only about 67% alcohol, but eating a whole one will deliver a big dose of the substance. There is also a concern for a gut obstruction.

Woman at computer using alcohol hand sanitizer with cat nearby

Is using sanitizer dangerous to your pets?

The misconception that using sanitizer on your own hands will poison your pet has been proven to be false. Several authorities such as the Pet Poison Helpline have stated that, although calls about sanitizers and other cleaning products have risen significantly since 2019, they’re the result of accidental ingestion rather than from licking hands. Petting and snuggling after using hand sanitizer won’t harm your doggos and felines. 

Is hand sanitizer safe for a dog’s skin and paws?

Veterinarians and poison control agencies agree that pet parents shouldn’t use hand sanitizer directly on pets’ paws or skin. Not only might they lick the substance while it’s still wet, it may cause severe drying of the skin and paws. Doing so may result in burns, infection, pain, and sloughing of the skin. Cleaning paws should be done with running or sprayed water and a mild dilute detergent, or baby/pet shampoo. Don’t fur-get to rinse thoroughly!

Take care not to spill sanitizer on your cat or dog’s coat too. If this happens, immediately wipe it off with a wet washcloth and dry it with a towel so they won’t lick it. 

Hand sanitizer dispenser sitting near kitchen sink

How to treat alcohol poisoning from hand sanitizer

The first thing to do if you suspect or witness your cat or dog ingesting hand sanitizer is to contact your veterinarian or emergency veterinary clinic. They may want you to bring your pet in after they hear about what type of sanitizer was consumed, how much, and the alcohol content. If essential oils are present, they need to be mentioned as well. Depending on how much of the sanitizer was ingested, the vet may recommend inducing vomiting at home, followed by the administration of activated charcoal.

If your cat or dog has had a significant amount, is small or young, or has liver disease, it’s best to take them to the clinic. In addition to stimulating vomiting and administering activated charcoal, the vet may provide supportive care which might include oxygen, medication for tremors, anti-vomiting medication, and IV fluids for hydration and to flush the toxins from the system.

The best way to keep your pets safe from alcohol or essential oil poisoning is to keep sanitizers out of reach and not leave them around where curious paws and jaws can get into them. If you use them, wait for your hands to dry – about 30 seconds – before you snuggle your pet. 

Got more questions about your pet’s vulnerability to alcohol poisoning? Chat with a veterinary professional today to get the lowdown on the dangers of hand sanitizer ingestion.

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© 2024 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.