Pet Safety: Laundry and Dishwasher Pods

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

You work hard to keep your pet safe. You fence the yard. You shut the door. You keep the lid on the garbage can. Just when you think you’ve got all your bases covered, someone throws you a curve ball in the form of a tiny detergent pod.

What are pods?

Pods are small packets of detergent used in washing machines and dishwashers. Covered in plastic, pods may come in the form of a tiny, hard brick of powdered detergent or a squishy sac of liquid or gel. Size (1 ½ to 2 inches), shape (square, round, rectangle) and color (blue, green, white, yellow, etc.) vary, but one thing is consistent - pods contain detergent that can harm your pets.

Why do pets like pods?

Dogs and cats don’t look for a bottle of liquid laundry detergent or a box of dishwasher powder as a snack, but pods are appealing to them. Pods are different. They are brightly colored. They have interesting textures. They are just the right size to bat around with paws. They fit nicely inside the mouth. Pods seem fun.

Why are pods dangerous?

Most detergents contain coloring, perfumes, and surfactants (to lower the surface tension of water and increase cleaning power) that can be harmful to pets. That makes cleaning liquids, powders, and pods all dangerous, but pods are particularly dangerous.

Liquids and powders don’t cause as much illness in pets because dogs and cats don’t consume much of them at one time. Pets are unlikely to chow down on a box of powdered detergent or drink a bottle of liquid detergent because they don’t taste very good. They may lick a little spilled detergent off the floor, but they probably won’t consume enough to make them really sick.

When it comes to pods, pets are likely to swallow one whole. And even though a pod contains a small amount of detergent, the contents are very concentrated, so consuming a tiny amount can lead to trouble. Licking a pod-sized amount of regular dishwashing liquid off the floor is not nearly as dangerous as actually eating a pod.

How do pods hurt pets?

Pods can cause many problems:

  1. Choking: Smaller dogs or cats may choke trying to swallow a pod. Pods in the form of small bricks are more likely to be choking hazards.
  2. Gastrointestinal (GI) obstruction: If swallowed whole, pods may lodge further down the digestive tract, causing intestinal obstruction. Once again, this is more likely to occur with brick-like pods than with gelatin or liquid-filled pods.
  3. Skin or eye irritation: If pets bite into a liquid or gel pod, rather than swallowing it whole, the contents may be released under high pressure. When the detergent squirts into the eye or splashes on the skin, irritation can result. Eye contact with detergent can be particularly serious.
  4. Irritation of the throat: Chemicals in the detergent may irritate the throat and esophagus, causing gagging and retching. Loss of appetite and dehydration may result. In severe cases, irritation of the esophagus may cause strictures (narrowed areas) that impede swallowing.
  5. Aspiration pneumonia: Substances inhaled into the lungs can accumulate and cause a condition known as aspiration pneumonia. If the pod contents are released with enough pressure, the pet may inhale the liquid into the lungs, which can cause aspiration pneumonia. It can also result secondarily if the pet swallows the soap, vomits it back up, and then inhales the foam. Either way, lung problems can be serious.
  6. Other GI issues: Pods can cause trouble even if they are not gulped down or bitten. Pods are usually covered with a thin membrane designed to dissolve in water. That membrane can also dissolve in saliva. A pet can be exposed to the inner contents while just mouthing a pod. Even if a pet has a small amount of detergent in his mouth and doesn’t swallow it, he may experience drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea. These same symptoms can occur if a pet punctures a pod while playing with it, gets the detergent on his skin or fur, and subsequently licks it off.

Signs of pod exposure

You may see your dog or cat eat a pod, but if you don’t have direct evidence, here are a few indications that they may have consumed detergent:

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Rubbing at the mouth or eyes
  • Eye irritation
  • Straining to defecate
  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Respiratory distress

These symptoms can indicate other serious problems, in addition to pod consumption, so consult your veterinarian at the first sign of trouble.

What’s the incidence of pod problems in pets?

The Pet Poison Helpline keeps track of animal poisonings and records reported cases. Over the last few years, over 72% of pets that consumed detergent pods became ill. Of these, most pets vomited (over 84%). Others suffered respiratory issues (over 21% coughing and 13% wheezing, trouble breathing, or respiratory irritation). And about 17% of pets became lethargic. Consuming pods makes pets feel lousy! Problems occur more often in dogs because cats are a little more finicky about what they ingest. Dogs are involved in over 90% of pod poisonings with cats logging in at about 7%.

What should you do if your pet eats a pod?

If your pet bites a liquid-filled pod and splashes the contents on his fur, wash him in clear water until the soapy feel is gone. If he gets just a little in his mouth, flush the oral cavity with water as well. These exposures aren’t usually very serious. But if your pet gets the detergent in his eye, that’s another matter. The chemicals can burn the cornea, causing irritation and ulcers. Flush the eye out thoroughly with water and see your veterinarian promptly.

If your pet swallows the contents of a pod or gulps one down whole, call your veterinarian. There is no antidote for pod toxicity, so quick, supportive care is important.

Your veterinarian will decontaminate your pet as needed by washing his fur, flushing his eyes, and rinsing his mouth. If your pet ingested a pod, he may need medication to soothe his GI tract. Persistent vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration, so your veterinarian may administer IV fluids. Respiratory issues (like pneumonia) may require oxygen supplementation, antibiotics, and breathing treatments.

Warning: All detergents are household toxins. No matter what form you prefer for your laundry or dishwashing needs, keep all detergents securely stored. Sacrifice the convenience of keeping laundry pods on top of the washer or dishwashing pods on the kitchen counter where your pet may easily reach them. Try keeping them in a closed cabinet. It’s a small sacrifice to keep your pet safe.

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