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Insect Repellent Toxicity & Pets: What Pet Owners Need to Know

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Insect repellents and bug sprays are a must-have if you want to enjoy the great outdoors this summer in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 mosquitoes. Not only do mosquitoes bug you, but they are also a nuisance to your pets. Even worse, they can transmit harmful diseases such as heartworm. While we humans are able to douse ourselves in bug spray and accessorize with stylish Citronella clip-ons, our pets can’t. When it comes to insect repellents and pets, there are three main toxicity concerns that every pet owner should be aware of as they protect themselves and their pets from mosquitoes and other pesky insects this summer!

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1. DEET

DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is used in many spray products and is safe for humans. It is also present in very low concentrations in some products labeled for dogs. However, it’s important for pet owners to know that some dogs can react to DEET and develop itchy skin – even when used according to the label. Also, repeated or frequent use of these products can accumulate in your pet’s skin and lead to overexposure. 

Worse symptoms can be seen in situations where dogs get sprayed by a punctured canister or ingest large amounts. Common symptoms include: 

  • Irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, and lungs 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Anorexia
  • Tremors or seizures 

In these instances, decontamination with baths, oral rinses, and eye irrigation are often required. Sometimes, medications are prescribed for upset stomachs, allergic or inflammatory reactions, corneal ulcers, and seizures. The veterinarian’s prognosis will depend on the concentration of the product, the amount consumed, and the type of exposure.  

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2. Essential Oils & Citronella Products 

Essential oils and candles can be a nice, organic option to keep the bugs away – plus, they smell great! However, “natural” doesn’t mean harmless to our pets. There are many different types of essential oils and their toxicity levels and symptoms vary widely.  

In general, cats tend to be more sensitive than dogs, but both can have symptoms ranging from upset stomach to liver damage and neurologic abnormalities, all depending on the oil used and the type of exposure.   

Citronella is one of the most common types of essential oils used in insect repellents, including a variety of products like candles, clip-ons, necklaces, and torches. The citronella plant is toxic to pets and topical exposure can cause a rash. Large ingestions of the plant or oil can cause vomiting, weakness, depression, and hypothermia. Another thing to keep in mind is that the combination of exuberantly wagging tails and flames from citronella tiki torches and candles pose further potential hazards, so be mindful when placing any flamed products.  

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3. Prescription Options 

When it comes to safe ways to protect pets from insects and bugs, there are several prescription options available. For dogs, combination formulas for flea and tick preventatives such as Advantix and Frontline come to mind. While these dog-specific products are safe for dogs, products containing pyrethrin and permethrin are extremely toxic to cats. If accidentally used on a cat, they can cause severe neurologic symptoms such as drooling, muscle tremors, seizures, apnea (breath-holding), and even death. For pet owners with both dogs and cats, it’s very important to prevent your cat from grooming your dog post-application. If you accidentally expose your cat to your dog’s preventatives, seek immediate veterinary care.     

Note that our feline friends have their own cat-specific preventatives to protect them from heartworm, fleas, ticks, and other parasites. Consult with your family veterinarian to learn about the best preventative options for your cat.   

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When protecting yourself and your pet from insects, especially mosquitos, this summer, it’s important to use caution and consult with your family veterinarian before using any products on your pet – this includes over-the-counter products! Your family veterinarian will be able to guide you on how to keep pets safe. And remember that even with pet-safe products such as preventatives, it’s a good idea to continue to use them year-round to guarantee your pet is protected! 

If your pet is exposed to DEET and citronella products or if your cat is accidentally given dog-specific preventatives, contact your family veterinarian or Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota for veterinary attention.  

 Written by Geoff Gieni, DVM.   

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