Scents and Sensibility

In recent years, potpourri and scented candles, has become a popular way to fill our homes with special scents. Lilac or lavender, gingerbread or cinnamon - favorite fragrances can ease the tensions of a tough day.

  During the holidays, many of us relish being met at the door by balsam and bayberry. As pet owners, we also love being met at the door by our cherished companions.

Recently, one Pennsylvania pet owner was met by the chilling sight of her cat standing in a puddle of his own drool, his feet the color purple, gurgling with each breath and sticking out his tongue.

On a high shelf, the owner discovered an overturned container of liquid potpourri, with guilty paw prints leading away from the scene. The cat, a healthy 11-pound, 3-year-old neutered male, was rushed to the veterinarian, a victim of his own curiosity.

Potpourri - Hazardous to Cats

Potpourri comes in several forms. Solid potpourri contains pieces of dried plants, fruits, pine cones and more. Toxicity varies with the kinds of plants that are used, but potpourri generally results in an upset stomach.

Essential oils may be used to refresh the potpourri and renew the scent, and these oils can cause drooling and vomiting. Simmering or liquid potpourri, however, often contains cationic detergents, which can cause serious injury.

Cationic detergents, also referred to as quaternary ammonium compounds, are found in some household cleaners and fabric softeners, as well.

Their effects can be both localized and systemic (affecting several body systems), depending on the quantity that the animal ingests.
Cats are typically exposed to potpourri while exploring. They knock the liquid over and walk through it, or it splashes on their coat or skin. They then groom themselves. Dogs and ferrets are usually willing to taste the scented liquid right out of the container or to lick up spills courtesy of the cat.

The cationic liquid causes severe burns and blisters on the tongue, the larynx and esophagus.

How does a burning candle affect my pet? 
The toxins released into the air from a burning candle affect everyone in the household, including your pets. The effects on your pets are magnified because they are smaller and can’t process the toxins as quickly. 

Not to mention the fact that pets are usually more sensitive to smell than we are, so that festive, light gingerbread scent we’re enjoying is likely overwhelming to your dog or cat.

Rabbits, mice, and other small pets can also be adversely affected.

Birds are especially sensitive to indoor air pollution, of which candles are one source. Birds have extremely delicate respiratory systems so are unable to process the particulate matter that candles burn off.

The fumes from candle scents are often very irritating. Birds who have inhaled candle fumes can exhibit immediate health problems. Shaking, trembling, and wobbly legs are signs that your bird should be taken to the vet immediately....

  • Dollar store or super-cheap candles
  • Imported candles (stick with ones that are made in North America) 
  • Any candle that appears to have a metal-core wick (learn how to spot them)
  • Scented candles (unless they are naturally scented) 
  • Gel candles 
  • Cheap “aromatherapy” candles from brands like Febreeze and Glade. There is actually nothing truly therapeutic about the scents in these candles and much that is harmful....
Are there alternatives to burning traditional candles? 

Thankfully, yes. Keeper of the Home suggests options that are somewhat better, which include higher-end candles from reputable stores because they are more likely to include safe wicks and less likely to use artificial fragrances. 

Taper candles are least likely to contain lead wicks. The best option suggested is the beeswax candle. They are expensive, so may require more limited use in order to meet some budgets, but they are the healthiest choice. Beeswax candles are pure and burn clean. It is a natural wax (just be sure the candle is 100% beeswax and is not mixed with paraffin). 

Regardless of the type of candle you choose, always burn a candle in a well-ventilated area, and allow your pet the option of leaving the room or going outside. Our pets are as individual as we are, which means some pets will be more sensitive than others. Give them an “out.”

Typical clinical signs include
  • Drooling 
  • Vomiting, sometimes with blood 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Fevers sometimes as high as 107° 
  • Hair and skin loss 
  • Lesions on the paws 
  • Difficulty breathing due to swelling of the larynx 
  • Lungs may sound raspy, as in pulmonary edema 
  • Seizures and coma can occur in high doses 
If you notice any of the above symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately 

Shock can also occur. 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.

A veterinarian will treat the clinical signs with antibiotics, medication to help the oral and esophageal ulcers heal and supportive care for breathing difficulties and seizures.

Nutritional support is also very important, because many cats will not eat if their mouth is painful. Some cats require a feeding tube until the mouth is healed.

An exam with an endoscope (a flexible tube with a camera) is generally recommended a day or two after an animal ingests a cationic detergent.

If ulcers are 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.

As always, preventing problems is key

Candles, potpourri and other scented objects should be placed out of furry ones' reach. Liquids, in particular, should be placed in a cupboard or enclosed area to prevent cats or ferrets from knocking over pots while exploring.

The labels of simmering potpourris need not list active ingredients, and some may state "nontoxic," even though cationic detergents are present. For these reasons, it is safest to assume that all simmering potpourris contain cationic detergents and to protect your pets accordingly.

The bottom line is use common sense when dealing with scents in order to keep your pets happy and safe. And, when in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

Immediate Care

Call your veterinarian, the nearest animal hospital or
  •  Pet Poison Helpline 1-855-213-6680 or 
  • ASPCA Poison Hotline 1-888-426-4435
If you can find the container or label, bring it with you to the veterinarian.
If you suspect your pet has ingested any of the poisons listed above, please note the amount ingested and contact your veterinarian.

It is advisable you Print this article and hang it on the refrigerator. When an emergency happens, it seems  important phone numbers and/or emergency treatment instructions magically disappear.
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