Toxic Fragrance

Our love affair with fragrances is long standing. We love holiday scents, the fresh smell of spring and the relaxing aroma of lilac, lavender, gingerbread or cinnamon.  Fragrances can relax the tensions of the day away in minutes.

As much as we love our fragrances to relieve the stress of the day, being greeted at the door by our loving pets has to rank first. Having just experienced the loss of a pet-child of twelve years, I can tell you, there is nothing worse than walking into a home and not being greeted with that unconditional love and enthusiasm.

What starts out as curiosity can quickly end up being a medical emergency and/or death. Potpourri is available in a number of forms, from liquid drop essential oils, dried leaves and steams to wood and pottery chips. Even candles can cause health problems if ingested.

It is the liquid essential oils used to refresh potpourri and scent that are the most lethal, depending on the plants pressed to make the oils.  Some will cause a mild stomach upset, drooling and vomiting. Others more extreme illnesses. Every home needs to be checked for toxic fragrance.

It is the toxic fragrance simmering burner oils or liquid potpourri that contain cationic detergents, also known as quaternary ammonium compounds, like the ones found in household cleaners, dish and laundry detergents and liquid fabric softeners, that can cause extreme burns, medical problems and death.

Puppies want to test and taste everything, so when a toxic fragrance is spilled they will lick it up instantly – after walking through it of course. Once on their paws, they will start the licking process and ingest more.

According to Dr. Charlotte Means, D.V.M. , “The cationic detergent causes severe burns and blisters on the tongue, the larynx, esophagus and possibly the paws. Typical clinical signs include drooling; vomiting, sometimes with blood; muscle weakness; and fevers sometimes as high as 107°. Hair and skin loss, as well as lesions on the paws, can occur”.

Dr. Means also points out, ” Signs may resemble those of overexposure to organo-phosphorus or carbamate insecticides, which are used in sprays to kill ants, flies and garden pests, and well as fleas and ticks on pets. It is critical to obtain the correct diagnosis, since the treatment for each toxin is radically different”.

I suggest that if you are in doubt about what your pet has ingested, pick it up and take it with you to the veterinarian visit. Better safe than sorry and sometimes, time is of the essence when it comes to saving your pets life.


Dr. Means suggest giving a small quantity of milk  to an asymptomatic animal to help reduce the effects of the burn. Do not induce vomiting, it can cause esophageal or oral burns. Be sure to gently bath your pet to remove the chemicals from it’s coat.

Take your pet to a veterinarian soon as possible and they  will treat the clinical signs with antibiotics, medication to help the oral and esophageal ulcers heal and supportive care for breathing difficulties and seizures.

Nutrition should be a concern, since pets may not eat due to the burns in their mouth and throat. Some may need a feeding tube until their mouth is healed.

Dr. Means suggests an exam with an endoscope (a flexible tube with a camera) a few days after the first veterinarian visit to check on the ulcers in the esophagus.  “They can leave a stricture (scar) as they heal. Strictures, in turn, can cause subsequent problems with swallowing and eating. An endoscopic exam allows the veterinarian to be prepared for stricture formation” explains Dr. Means.

Prevention Is The Key

I know, prevention takes time and thought, not to mention common sense.  When it comes to protecting your pet from harm, that should not be an issue. As for the common sense, do your research. Learn about the things you should be concerned about. Our pets are a part of our family.

Learn to read labels, but also know that labels so NOT have to list active ingredients. In fact, Dr. Means warns ” some may state “nontoxic,” even though cationic detergents are present”.

Information curated by Holly Ralston Oyler (that’s my mom – this was a bit over my head)

Dr. Charlotte Means, D.V.M.,
ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center
Dr. Means, a veterinary toxicologist, is a member of the staff at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

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