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Poisons affecting the skin

02 May 2021
10 mins read
Volume 12 · Issue 4
Figure 1. Hair loss on the limb of a cat during recovery following exposure to laundry washing detergent. The container had fallen from a work surface and spilled on the floor near where cats were sleeping. They had detergent on their legs and feet but were not treated promptly and developed chemical burns. One cat was euthanased with severe respiratory signs and the other recovered.


All homes contain substances capable of causing serious injury if they come into contact with the skin. These substances include detergents, acids and alkalis found in many cleaning products, and petroleum distillates such as white spirit and petrol. Asphalt used in road surfacing can also cause local effects, particularly if it is still hot when contact occurs. The risk of effects on the skin from these chemicals is increased if decontamination in delayed. The method of decontamination will depend on the substance involved but in many cases simple bathing is sufficient. Removal of oily or greasy substances may require the use of a commercial degreaser and sticky material may need to be softened with oil or fat to facilitate removal. Decontamination after contact with corrosive substances may require prolonged and repeated water irrigation to ensure thorough removal. Another potential source of dermal injury in pets is exposure to psoralen-containing plants (such as hogweed, Heracleum spp.) in combination with ultraviolent light (sunlight) which can result in erythema, blistering and dermatitis. In this case, management is supportive with avoidance of sunlight.

The skin is the body's largest organ and has multiple functions. It acts as a barrier against the environment, is involved in the regulation of body temperature and provides an animal with a sense of touch. Oil glands in the skin secrete sebum that coats and protects the fur, helping to keep the skin moisturised and pliable. There are differences across breeds in the hair coats of cats and dogs and, of course, some breeds lack hair. Hair length or lack of hair will need to be considered when deciding on decontamination plans for pets with skin contamination. Many household products contain chemicals which can cause adverse effects on skin and some plants also pose a more serious risk.

Detergents are very common household chemicals. They are found in a variety of cleaning products such as washing up liquids, toilet cleaners and fabric washing products and come in the form of liquids, powders and liquid capsules. The severity of the effects depends on the quantity, concentration, duration of contact and type of detergent involved. Non-ionic detergents are generally less irritating than anionic detergents (Gloxhuber, 1974). Toiletry products containing detergent such as shampoo and shower gel, will be less irritating than cleaning products that contain detergent, as they are intended for use directly on the skin. Cationic detergents, such as benzalkonium chloride and didecyldimethyl ammonium chloride, are found in household disinfectants and patio cleaners and are very irritant to tissues.

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