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Hand Sanitizer: Good for Humans, Terrible for Pets

By Christy True
published: September 11, 2020 - updated: November 17, 2022 • 3 min. read
Dog next to hand sanitizer

If there’s one thing that’s become ubiquitous in all our lives over the past six months (besides face masks), it’s hand sanitizer. There wasn’t enough to go around in the early days of the pandemic, and people panic shopped for it.  Now it’s prominently displayed at the front of every place of business.

Even some liquor distilleries are now manufacturing it along with vodka and whiskey to keep up with the demand.

While hand sanitizer is a valuable tool in keeping viruses at bay for humans, it presents a risk to pets should they consume or absorb it.

Just as liquor in any form can cause brain and liver damage to pets, hand sanitizer gels or sprays contain 60 percent or more alcohol (either ethanol or isopropanol) and have similar adverse effects.

This applies whether the hand sanitizer is absorbed through the skin or by ingestion, said Dr. Zac Pilossoph, Healthy Paws consulting veterinarian.

Hand sanitizer How to avoid harm to your pet from hand sanitizer

This means you should not allow your pet to lick your hands immediately after applying hand sanitizer, nor should you rub it on your dog or cat’s fur or paws, whether intentionally or accidentally. Anything on a pet’s body that seems weird or abnormal will prompt them to lick their fur and end up ingesting it.

“A couple of additional factors make pets even more likely to succumb to dangerous effects if exposed to an alcohol-based sanitizer,” Dr. Zac said. “If a human applies sanitizer to an animal’s paws, and the pet does not appreciate the cold-feeling alcohol as it evaporates, he will try to lick and remove the uncomfortable feeling, even if it tastes bad.”

The other issue is that pets are much smaller than humans, so a small amount of alcohol will be more toxic to them than for a person. The smaller the pet, the greater the effect. Alcohol intoxication in pets would look similar to a human taking multiple liquor shots, Dr. Zac says.

Hand sanitizers also have a drying effect, which is another way they can harm pets if it’s applied to their paws. Just as humans’ skin can become cracked and dry when using hand sanitizer, dog and cat paws can also be damaged.

Protect your pet

hand sanitizer and a dog
Here are some of the symptoms of alcohol ingestion in dogs or cats:

  • A severe drop in body temperature, respiratory rate, and blood sugar
  • Vomiting
  • Problems with coordination
  • Nervous system depression
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • In extreme cases, death

If you suspect your pet has ingested hand sanitizer, call The Pet Poison Helpline (available 24/7) at 855-764-7661 or get to a veterinarian or emergency veterinary hospital immediately. A consultation fee may apply for the helpline.

Best COVID-19 safety practices with pets

While pets do not appear to be susceptible to the coronavirus, they could, in theory, spread it among humans if a person with COVID-19 touched them, and the virus got on their fur, and then they were petted by an uninfected person.

For this reason, the advice given about pets earlier in the pandemic still stands:

  • People infected with COVID-19 should have someone else take care of their pets until they are no longer infectious.
  • To be as safe as possible, consider keeping your dog away from other humans during this time.
  • If your dog comes into contact with a neighbor during your walk, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after returning home and removing their outdoor walking gear.

If your dog’s health is a top priority, make sure they are covered in case of an injury or illness by securing a pet insurance plan. Start by getting a quote.

Christy True and Tomas
By Christy True

Christy has been writing about pets for Healthy Paws for 28 dog years. She also coordinates media requests. A background in journalism may be why she enjoys writing about offbeat animal studies and the latest viral pet trends. She has been owned by several dogs, and she volunteers with a local dog rescue. Outside of work, she can usually be found sliding down a mountain near her home in Bend, Ore.

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