Laundry liquids – a hidden killer?

Cat with laundry

We like our clothes and our bedding to be nice and clean, and smell appealing, so we tend to wash them very thoroughly. However, just soaking fabric in warm water does very little to remove stains and grease – so we use a wide range of cleaning products to help lift the dirt out of the fabric. The chemical components that lift the grease found in any laundry liquid are called detergents. Unfortunately, these are highly dangerous, and potentially fatal – especially to cats.


Why are they so dangerous?

These chemicals are designed to dissolve fat, grease and oil – a group of chemicals also known as lipids (that’s why they work so well to clean things – they dissolve the lipid stains and lift them out of the fabric). However, an animal’s cell membranes are also made of lipids, so if exposed, the detergent dissolves the cells, causing burns. This, by the way, is why you should wash your hands thoroughly after handling laundry liquid – although skin provides some protection, prolonged contact can still dissolve it!


How do cats get exposed?

There are four major routes of exposure for cats.

The first, and most obvious (!) is that the cat walks through a puddle of spilled liquid, getting the stuff on their paws and coat. This dermal exposure can result in burns, typically to the paws, but although it’s painful and requires veterinary assistance, it is rarely life threatening by itself.

However, how do most cats respond to getting something on their paws? They try and lick it off! This leads to mucosal exposure, as the soft, delicate tissues in the mouth and throat are burned by the detergent. Often, it will be swallowed as well, causing burns down the gullet and into the stomach and, sometimes, intestines as well. This is much more serious, and may be life threatening, especially if the detergent gets into the bloodstream, where it can cause damage to the brain and lungs.

The worst form, however, occurs most commonly with the “liquid capsules” – those little pockets of detergent in a clear film case. The problem with these is that cats think they make great toys – until one of them bursts, spraying the detergent across the cat’s paws, mouth, and face – this frequently results in eye exposure as it goes into their eyes, or respiratory exposure as the cat inhales the contents of the capsule. This last is very, very dangerous, as it results in severe and often fatal burns of the windpipe and lungs.


What are the symptoms?

To some extent, it depends on the route of exposure.

  • Dermal exposure results in progressively worsening:
    • Redness of the skin
    • Irritation and pain
    • Skin sloughing and open sores
  • Mucosal exposure may result in:
    • Pain and rubbing at the face
    • Mouth ulcers
    • Sore throat with coughing and retching
    • Excessive salivation
    • Swollen tongue
    • Lethargy or depression
    • Complete or partial loss of appetite
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal discomfort
    • Sometimes diarrhoea
    • Fever
  • Eye exposure is often the fastest in onset, causing:
    • Conjunctivitis or redness of the eyes
    • The eye being held tightly shut
    • Severe weeping of the affected eye(s)
    • Swelling of the eyelids
    • Ulcers and burns on the surface of the eye
    • Potentially, blindness if not rapidly treated
  • Respiratory exposure usually leads to:
    • Increased breathing rate
    • Difficulty catching breath
    • Breathing with the mouth open
    • Blue gums
    • Collapse and death
  • In addition, there may be more general symptoms, caused by systemic toxicity:
    • Sleepiness, depression or coma
    • Weakness and collapse
    • Seizures
    • Breathing difficulties

It’s important to remember that in many cases, symptoms may take hours or even days to develop – so just because the cat seems fine now, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way!


Can it be treated?

There is no specific treatment for detergent poisoning. First aid revolves around removing as much of the chemical as possible from the skin and eyes, by washing with lots and lots of fresh water.

If the detergent has been swallowed, however, it’s important not induce vomiting, because it will cause more damage coming back up!

The mainstay of treatment is supportive – keeping the cat alive and comfortable to give them a chance to heal. This usually involves pain relief, intravenous fluids (to maintain hydration, especially as they often don’t want to eat or drink), wound management of any burns, and the use of medications such as sucralfate to soothe any burns in the mouth or intestinal tract, or eye drops for burnt corneas. If the cat’s lungs are affected, oxygen therapy is essential, although the prognosis is poor if they are struggling to breathe.


Should I avoid washing my clothes and bedding?

Of course not – but make sure your pets (and children, for that matter) can NEVER come into contact with the liquid! It’s also wise not to use capsules in a household with pets or small children.


If you think your cat has had contact with any form of cleaning liquid or detergent, contact your vet RIGHT AWAY, even if they seem fine.


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