Household cleansers kill germs, but they can also kill cats. Phenol, a common ingredient in cleaning and construction products, is particularly toxic. Cumulatively, it can cause neurological conditions, liver failure and even death. To protect your cats, avoid it or, after using it, wash the area with water.
Clean But Toxic
Phenol is a corrosive organic compound (technically, a hydrocarbon) in many household cleaners and construction products. It smells sweet and tarry and is usually cloudy in commercial liquid cleansers.
In both its natural and synthetic form it's toxic to mammals -- particularly cats, who lack the ability to clean it out of their bloodstream.
Cats get phenol poisoning from chewing on or ingesting phenol-containing products, as well as via topical exposure -- that is, through the skin or fumes. It builds up to toxic levels and causing escalating symptoms that, if left untreated, lead to death.
Phenol may also predispose cats to thyroid diseases, including hyperthyroidism, although there's no scientific consensus on this point.
Many household cleaners have phenol in them. Lysol and Pine-Sol are two well-known products in this camp -- if you're concerned, just remember the common "sol" in their names. Some mouthwashes and sore-throat lozenges contain phenol, too.
Essential oils, including those in natural cleaning products, have phenol in them. Some essential oil advocates say these natural phenols are less toxic to cats than synthetic ones, but the biological fact remains that cats have great difficulty processing phenol.
Coal tar products are another source of phenol -- it's created during the distillation of the coal tar. Coal tar is typically used on wood products as a disinfectant and preservative. It also helps bind materials like asphalt and roofing tar paper.
Phenol Poisoning Symptoms
Phenol poisoning manifests in several symptoms. First, you may notice your cat twitching. He may pant, drool, stumble, stagger or display general weakness. Vomiting and diarrhea are possible, too. In advanced stages, neurological symptoms escalate into full-blown seizures or paralysis. Liver failure or malfunctioning -- common in all forms of poisoning -- can cause or compound just about anything you can think of.
Call your vet at the first sign of escalating symptoms. If you know your cat has been exposed to large amounts of phenol -- most likely from ingesting or rolling in household cleaners -- schedule an appointment with a veterinarian. If you wait for symptoms, it may be too late.
Although phenol poisoning can become quite severe, there's scant data or consensus on its prevalence. Regardless, you can take simple precautions to lessen your cat's exposure to it.
It's simple: Avoid phenol-containing products. If you have to use such products, place your pets in another room during cleaning. Wash whatever you're cleaning with water, dry it and ventilate the room before letting your pets back in. Store all such products in a secure cabinet with a locking or firm-shutting doors. If you're storing constructing materials treated with coal tar, bar your cat's access to them.
- The Merck Veterinary Manual: Coal-Tar Poisoning -- Introduction
- Articulate Animals: Danger for Cats -- Pine and Other Essential Oils
- Essential Oil World: Essential Oils Safety With Cats
- CatHealth.com: Hyperthyroidism
- American Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Animal Poison Control FAQ