There are a couple of topics that bring out the animal in pet groomers. They include expressing anal glands, ear plucking, the use of Dawn™ dishwashing liquid, and the latest; bleaching pets for creative grooming. I have friends on both sides of this very heated debate. So, when someone asked me to write a blog on the safety aspects of creative grooming, I’m pretty sure I had the “deer in the headlights” look on my face. I do not dye any of my pets and am unfamiliar with the process and products. I’m approaching this from an ingredient stand point and those effects on both cats and dogs. To assist me, I enlisted the aid of Dr. Justine Lee.
Dr. Lee is a board certified emergency critical care veterinary specialist, one of four hundred worldwide. She is the Associate Director of Veterinary Services at Pet Poison Helpline as well as a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care (DACVECC). Dr. Lee has been published in numerous veterinary journals and received the North American Veterinary Conference 2011 “Small Animal Speaker of the Year.” She is also the author of “It’s a Dog’s Life...but it’s Your Carpet” and “It’s a Cat’s Life...You Just Live In It”
Let’s start with cats. The latest is creative cat grooming. The problem with this lies in that cats have an altered glucuronidation pathway in their liver. It prevents them from metabolizing drugs, chemicals, essential oils, plant botanicals, etc. This results in the potential build up of chemicals in their body, which can result in poisoning and underlying health problems-particularly when used long term or chronically. Over time, it can become fatal. Typical ingredients found in both permanent, semi-permanent, and washable dyes include hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, detergents, and alcohols. Again these chemicals are not well metabolized by a cat. Natural dyes are not safe for cats either as they often contain essential oils or plant botanicals.
Once these ingredients are applied to the cat, they are absorbed by the skin. Rate of absorptions will vary depending on concentrations and time of exposure. Washing these products off will not fully mitigate their effects. Some of these ingredients at higher concentrations can corrode and rupture esophageal linings, nasal cavities, and damage corneas. Another concern is that cats are fastidious groomers and may lick at the products applied to their fur allowing them to ingest toxins.
So, what are the options for creative cat groomers:
- Non toxic colored chalk. The exception to this is if the cat has an underlying health problem where high calcium intake is a problem, such as kidney or parathyroid disease. Remember, cats are fastidious groomers. There is a difference between colored chalk and artist chalk. As a general rule, colored chalk uses dyes and artist chalk uses pigments for color. Most pigments are made from minerals that are toxic to cats, even those that may be non toxic for people. Read the label and consult with your vet before using artist chalk.
- Food dye. (Similar to what you find in the baking aisle of a supermarket)
- Unsweetened Kool Aid™ or other unsweetened powder drink mixes. Do not use them if they are of the sweetened variety as it may contain xylitol. Xylitol causes low blood sugar and liver failure in pets. While cats are not known to be as sensitive to xylitol as dogs, it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid use of those products. Remember, cats are fastidious groomers.
A note regarding food dyes and unsweetened drink mixes. They should not be stabilized with alcohol as cats cannot metabolize even small amounts of any type of alcohol.
Onward to dogs. Dogs are similar to us in that they can metabolize many of the chemicals found in dye products in reasonable amounts. The biggest difference lies in that their hair is different from ours and these products can strip and damage their coats. That’s a totally different article. Hydrogen peroxide and ammonia are irritants or corrosives depending on the concentration of the product.
There are many factors that go into the safety of these ingredients.
- The concentrations of either hydrogen peroxide or ammonia is important. Higher concentrations may not be metabolized and can be dangerous long term, particularly those dogs with underlying health problems. Like cats, these chemicals at higher concentrations can potentially corrode and rupture esophageal linings, nasal cavities, and damage corneas. The products may also feel irritating on the skin of dogs. So, what determines higher concentrations? That’s a question that is best answered by your veterinarian concerning your particular pet.
- The dog must be healthy. A dog that has an underlying medical condition, is pregnant or nursing, is very young or very old, will not be able to properly metabolize ammonia or hydrogen peroxide.
- Time in between dyeing. The rate of which these ingredients are metabolized will vary from dog to dog. Their livers and kidneys need time to process and recuperate. When in doubt, you should consult with your veterinarian when it is safe again for that particular pet.
- Natural products that contain essential oils and plant botanicals are not safe either as they can result in severe toxicity. Any pet can have a reaction to what may be considered a normally safe oil. As I write this, I am on steroids because of a reaction to tea tree oil.
Options for creative groomers include:
- Non toxic chalk. The exception is if your dog is a licker and had an underlying medical condition where high calcium intake could cause a problem. Like cats, many of the minerals used for pigment in artists chalk may be toxic to dogs. Consult with your vet to verify it’s safety.
- Food dyes or unsweetened powder drink mixes.
- Labeled dog safe dyes.
Some indications that any ingredient whether listed above or not has caused a problem that requires veterinary intervention include: vomiting, diarrhea, listlessness, licking, scratching, redness, sloughing off of skin, difficultly breathing, eye tearing or discharge, excessive salivation, and nasal discharges.
Be considerate of the pets in your care and aware of their limitations. Always do a test patch and wait 48 hours before continuing. Like us, every pet has a different threshold for tolerating and assimilating toxins. I had three great aunts who passed away at the ages of 95, 97, and 99 respectively. All three smoked like chimneys. My mother passed away at the age of 51. She was also a heavy smoker. Dana Reeves, who never smoked, died at the age of 44 of lung cancer. What may be fine for one pet, may not be all right for another.
If you want to be certain about the safety of any listed ingredient, call Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control based out of Minneapolis, at 1-800-213-6680. It is a $35 call, much cheaper than an emergency vet visit. They will gladly go over the ingredients with you to ensure it is safe for your pet.
I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. Justine Lee for her help with this article and any errors are my own.