Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Dog owners are all familiar with that distinctive 'doggy smell' that can accumulate in a home, especially during winter when windows are kept shut and dogs come in wet or muddy from walks. We often become so used to the smell ourselves we fail to notice it until perhaps a visitor remarks on it, and then we feel bad that our home has a pong.
Many people resort to using air fresheners to fragrance their homes. These could be plug-in devices, sprays, incense burners, essential oil diffusers or scented candles. Anything to take away that smell and make a home fresh and pleasant to both themselves and visitors.
The problem comes when our dogs are exposed to these products. Many air fresheners are poisonous to dogs and they can react to them just by smelling them. A reaction can be subtle and may even be mistaken for the dog simply being tired, or getting old. In other cases, it can be serious and could lead to the dog dying. Before using air fresheners, you need to know the dangers they pose to your pet.
Poisons in Your Plug-Ins
Air fresheners use chemicals when they spray fragrance that changes the smell of your home. These chemicals are often simply referred to as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). The term VOCs covers a wide range of substances, some natural and some not. These include ethanol (alcohol), acetone and formaldehyde. What these chemicals all share in common is that they vaporise at room temperature and release a scent.
VOCs are essential to air fresheners as they help to quickly and easily distribute scent about the room.
The problem with VOCs is that they can be hazardous to the health of both humans and animals. In 2011, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reported that air fresheners were negatively impacting on 20% of the US population and 34% of known asthma sufferers. They had received reports of allergies and asthma worsening after the use of air fresheners in homes.
Some of the symptoms reported in people who reacted to air fresheners included;
- Eye irritation
- Breathing problems
- Mental impairment, such as problems with memory
What makes plug-ins particularly bad for pets is that they are usually located low to the floor, at dog height. This means a dog could inhale more of the VOCs from a plug-in than a person, especially if they tend to spend most of their time in a room where one is installed. They are also more sensitive to some of the ingredients, such as ethanol. Ethanol is a type of alcohol and is toxic to dogs in relatively small amounts. Ethanol poisoning can be fatal if left untreated.
Other VOCs in plug-ins that can have nasty side-effects include:
- Formaldehyde: known to be an irritant of the nose, mouth and throat when inhaled. Studies of both humans and lab animals have suggested inhaling formaldehyde in sufficient amounts could cause cancer.
- Naphthalene: this chemical is toxic to humans and animals, and is used as a pesticide to kill insects, but is also found in air fresheners. Hemolytic anaemia, along with damage to the liver and to the brain can occur from short-term exposure (such as inhaling the chemical), long-term exposure can lead to cataracts and damage to the retina. It is considered a possible carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
- Phthalates: these are suspected of causing reproductive issues and birth defects, along with a range of other issues. Research is still ongoing, but there is growing concern about this range of chemicals found in a vast number of products.
Over 100 different chemicals are used in air fresheners and many of them can have unpleasant consequences to human and animal health. Even fresheners labelled as 'green' or 'natural' are likely to contain VOCs—ethanol, after all, is a natural substance, yet very toxic to dogs.
Air fresheners are not required to list their ingredients, which makes it even harder to be absolutely sure what is in them.
Air freshener sprays contain the same VOCs as plug-ins, but are generally used less intensely. They can still harm pets if inhaled. Pets should never been in the room when an air freshener spray is used, and if furniture is treated, it must be fully dry before a pet is allowed near it. However, the fragrance will linger for some time and can still be inhaled along with nasty chemicals.
Scented candles also contain VOCs, along with other hazardous substances. Many are made from paraffin wax which, when burned, releases chemicals known to cause cancer. The wick can also be a source of danger. Some wicks contain or are wrapped in metal. When burned these emit toxic smoke. According to the Hayward Score, which aims to improve the health of your home, burning a candle with a lead-core wick can release five times the amount of lead considered hazardous to children.
Smoke inhalation is another real risk for candle users. British woman Farrah Lorrel Fraser, nearly died when she fell asleep in a room with a scented candle. She was saved by her dog Badger, who scratched at her door and whimpered, waking her up. Farrah had black soot lines coming out of her nose and was coughing up black phlegm. She required oxygen therapy and was at serious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Had Badger not woken her when he did, Farrah would likely have died.
Many owners looking for alternatives to chemical air fresheners and scented candles switch to burners or diffusers that use essential oils, or incense. Though these products are natural or organic, many of the most popular fragrances are toxic to dogs.
Marianne Whyte's dog became very sick after being exposed to scents released by an oil diffuser:
"Saturday night I got home late and my dog didn't recognise me. ...Sunday he was still acting weird. I realised that I had been running my new diffuser and decide to turn it off. Sunday afternoon he was feeling better."
However, the following day the little dog went downhill again, hid under a bed and didn't seem to recognise Marianne:
"I took him to the emergency vets. It turns out the tea tree oil I was using in the diffuser is toxic to dogs. Thankfully the test showed his liver was ok, but we weren't out of the woods yet. He was given fluids under his skin to get the toxins out."
Marianne's dog was lucky, but vets are seeing more and more cases of pets being poisoned by essential oils used in diffusers, burners or incense. The number of these oils that are dangerous to pets is extensive, some of them are listed and worth reading up on. Cats and dogs can be affected by different oils, so an oil that is not harmful to a dog could still make your cat sick.
To be fully safe, it is better not to use any of these forms of natural air fresheners around your dogs.
How Can I Keep My Home Smelling Fresh Safely?
There are several natural ways to freshen your home that will not harm your dog. The simplest and cheapest solution is to open a window and let in fresh air. This will circulate stale air and remove smells. If opening a window is not an option, you could invest in an air purifier that will remove allergens and other pollutants from the air.
Since soft furnishings can hoard bad smells, wash them regularly using a pet-safe detergent. Washing at a high temperature (around 60 degrees) will also kill flea eggs. For larger pieces of furniture which are not easy to wash, such as sofas, cover them with throws that are easy to remove and put in the washing machine. The same applies to pet bedding. Pick beds with removable covers that can be easily and regularly washed.
Doggy smells are a common reason for pet owners to want to freshen a room. These occur for a few reasons—they can be due to a pet not being sufficiently groomed, a skin condition, or caused when the dog has been out and gotten wet or muddy. Spending time grooming your dog removes dead hair and allows the skin to breathe, and in many cases, will eliminate that doggy odour. Some dogs who suffer from skin allergies may need to be bathed routinely or given supplements. Severe skin issues should always be treated by a vet.
Wet dog smell is a particularly pervasive odour, but it is not always possible to avoid walking in the rain. The first step to helping with this problem is to invest in a good waterproof coat for your dog. After a wet walk, wash paws in warm water to remove mud. You can use a little hibiscrub in the water if you wish, but make sure none remains on the paws for your dog to lick off.
Finally, invest in some good drying coats for your dog to wear after a walk or swim, to wick away any water and prevent it seeping into pet bedding, carpets or furniture. Having dog towels on standby after a walk is always useful, and means you can dry wet heads, ears and tails. You might also opt to limit access to certain rooms while your pet dries.
To add a fragrance to your home, you could dry using fresh flowers that have a scent, or dried herbs such as lavender. In the holidays, using oranges dotted with cloves is a very traditional way of adding a festive aroma to a room.
House plants help to naturally purify the air and some give off a pleasant perfume. When picking a house plant, check that it is non-toxic to your pet. Baking soda is another old-fashioned remedy to make your home smell nice. Baking soda absorbs smells, so placing an open box out of reach of a pet in a room will help to clear the air. You can also use it on carpets—sprinkle over the baking soda, leave for 15-20 minutes and then hoover it up.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.