Snap, crackle — OW! We’ve all experienced it. Maybe those of us in northern climates more than in southern ones. It’s that shocking moment when you touch something or someone and get a lot more than you bargained for: static electricity!
Pets in metal cages aren’t immune either. A volunteer approaches, opens the kennel, reaches in and instead of a nice scratch behind the ears, kitty receives an unpleasant surprise.
This problem came to my attention recently when a well-known and respected shelter addressed this in their newsletter. Out of concern for the cats (especially the more shy and easily spooked ones), they suggested volunteers rub their hands with a fresh dryer sheet before opening a kennel and approaching the cat. The dryer sheet’s main ingredient would deter such shocks, thus making the experience pleasant for feline and human alike.
This was a bad idea. A potentially dangerous idea.
Dryer sheets and Static Electricity
Please don’t blame the shelter. They had the best of intentions at heart. They were just uninformed. And they have since issued an email advising against this practice, for all the reasons you’re about to read.
Fabric softening dryer sheets — and scented potpourri oils, too — have an ingredient that’s toxic to cats. It’s a cationic detergent most commonly listed as a quaternary ammonium cation or quaternary ammonium compound.
That’s the commercial name for a chemical compound called dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate. It’s found in many major brands, including Bounce, Gain, Downy, and Snuggle, to name a few.
And it’s actually harmful to all species, not just cats. Cats are just more susceptible to its toxicity, because of their grooming habits.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, it takes less than a two percent concentration of this chemical to cause harm. Over the past several years, the Animal Poison Control Center for the ASPCA has treated more than 125 cases of toxic exposure to cationic detergents in cats.
What do cationic detergents do?
Cationic detergents cause corrosive damage. This damage can present locally on the skin, and it can present systemically as respiratory distress. If your cat licks the residue of a dryer sheet off her fur through grooming, she could end up with mouth ulcers, a swollen tongue, or acute stomatitis.
Scented potpourri oil, the kind often heated over a candle or in a pot, can cause extreme respiratory distress.
Dr. Sara Huber of Johnson County Animal Clinic recounts one such incident, which she calls “very scary.” One of her regular patients was a middle-aged, spayed cat who accidentally knocked over a container of potpourri oil. The oil spattered onto her fur. When she groomed herself to remove it, the cationic detergent in the oil caused severe respiratory distress.
The owner came home and found her cat lying on her side, struggling to breathe. She rushed her to emergency care. The cat was transferred to Dr. Huber’s clinic the next morning.
“She was very critical initially,” Dr. Huber recalls. “On her radiographs, she had what looked like non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema [swelling]. I could hear crackles and the pet was very dyspneic [labored breathing].”
The cat ended up in an oxygen tent on IV medication and fluids. She was in the vet’s care for several days.
After initially stabilizing her, they then gave the cat several baths with Dawn dish soap. “Obviously, if a cat continues to groom and inhale an offending agent, it will continue to cause problems,” Dr. Huber pointed out.
Prevention is key
Keep dryer sheets up in cabinets, away from prying paws. And once used, discard them immediately.
And if you want to see if your brand uses cationic detergents in their ingredients, don’t flip to the back of the box to find out. You’ll need to locate their product’s MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet), a document companies are required by law to provide. Here are a few, to get you started: Snuggle MSDS, Gain, Downy, and Bounce.
As far as potpourri oils are concerned? Just say no. As far as I’m concerned, the risk is too great. And about those nasty electric shocks you risk sharing with a shelter pet? Dr. Huber recommends plain old water. “A little water sprinkled on your hands will counteract the shock. And it’s much safer to have around!”
Well, safer for the kitties at least. How many of you did this when you were kids: Scuffed your feet real good on a rug in front of the kitchen faucet while it was running, and then reached out to touch the stream of water?
Yeah. Water’s a conductor. So touching it basically discharges the stored electricity in your body. So Huber is right: Dip your fingers in water, or spritz a little on before touching a cat, and if there’s a shock, you’ll get it, not the kitty!
Read more about cats and science by Lisa Richman: