By Kate Hughes
In many areas of the United States, ice melt is an absolute necessity during the winter months. It keeps sidewalks clear, ensures driveways and parking lots are clean and ice-free, and roads safe for driving. However, while ice melt is essential, not all types are safe for use around pets. Some are quite toxic when ingested, while others cause irritation to paws, skin, or mucous membranes after exposure. Here is everything pet owners in snowy areas need to know before taking their pets out into a winter wonderland.
Are Pet-Safe Ice Melts Completely Safe?
The short answer is no, pet-safe ice melts are not completely safe. While some ice melts are “safer” for pets than others, they all carry some risk, notes Dr. Sarah Gorman, associate veterinarian at Boston Animal Hospital. “The ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center classifies all ice melt products as being chemical irritants that can cause gastrointestinal signs, like vomiting and diarrhea, and topical irritation to the paw pads and skin,” she explains. “Prolonged exposure to the skin for any of these compounds can cause chemical burns.”
However, this doesn’t mean that pet owners shouldn’t know which ice melts are safest for their pets. They should be aware of the types of ice melt that are available, as well as what sort of impact they can have on their pet’s health.
Types of Ice Melt
There are many, many kinds of ice melt on the market. One of the most popular is composed of sodium chloride—common rock salt. Unfortunately, rock salt is also one of the least pet-friendly ice melts out there. “Prolonged exposure to rock salt can have an irritating effect on a dog’s paws,” says Dr. Daniel Inman, a veterinarian at Burlington Emergency Veterinary Specialists in Williston, Vermont. “And ingestion can lead to gastrointestinal irritation in minor cases and, in more severe cases in which a dog ingests a large amount of rock salt, hypernatremia—the official term for elevated blood sodium levels. Hypernatremia can lead to a number of health problems, including advanced GI issues and neurologic dysfunction.”
While some of the other ice melts out there are easier on dogs’ and cats’ paws than rock salt, they are much more dangerous when ingested. Ethylene glycol-based ice melts contain the same active ingredient as antifreeze, which is very deadly if ingested. “It’s one of the deadliest toxins we see at our office,” Inman notes.
Some of the safest of ice melts are the ones with a propylene glycol base, Gorman says. However, it should be noted that propylene glycol ice melts often include urea as the active ingredient, which, while generally recognized as relatively pet-safe, is not as effective as other ice melt options, according to some chemical companies. And propylene glycol itself is not without some concerns. While it is quite safe for dogs, propylene glycol can damage a cat’s red blood cells when ingested.
Gorman adds that while these types of ice melts are some of the safest to use around dogs and cats, they are very dangerous for ruminants—e.g., goats and cows—if ingested. “This is because the urea can cause ammonia toxicosis. It has to do with the fermentation process that occurs within these animals’ digestive tract.”
Potential Ice Melt-Related Health Issues
There are two common issues that may arise from ice melt exposure in pets. The first is topical, meaning irritation to the skin, paw pads, and other body surfaces. Especially after repeat or prolonged exposure, most types of ice melts will cause irritation, and some of the more dangerous ice melts can cause the chemical burns that Gorman mentions. Gorman also says that most city sidewalks, as well as sidewalks maintained by local businesses, are not using pet-safe products. “So if you have a dog that goes on lots of walks on wet winter sidewalks, it is always best to rinse and wipe off their feet, including in between the toes and around the central pad. Some companies also make dog paw wipes that are helpful with this.”
Dr. Liz Alton, owner and practicing veterinarian at Green Mountain Animal Hospital in Burlington, Vermont, says that owners should keep a close eye on their dogs in the wintertime, especially if they start licking at their feet or walking gingerly. “If the animal’s feet look red, irritated, or rashy, or if the dog just doesn’t seem to be acting right, that's the time to bring him in to the vet. We might not be able to say for sure what caused the irritation, but we can certainly treat it and ensure it heals properly.”
The second common potential health issue is gastrointestinal irritation. The impact of GI issues can vary, depending on the type and amount of ice melt the animal ingested. Inman says that a good resource for pet owners who suspect their dog or cat may have ingested ice melt is the Pet Poison Helpline. “They'll tell you what might lead to minor irritation and what constitutes a toxic dose,” he says. “It’s the difference between a pet with a little bit of gastrointestinal upset and a pet that needs to be on IV fluids to bring down her salt level gradually in a hospital setting.”
In rare cases, signs of generalized toxicity may develop after a pet ingests a large amount of ice melt. For example, the high blood sodium levels that can develop after ingestion of rock salt may result in neurologic symptoms like lethargy, weakness, unsteadiness, behavior changes, muscle twitches, seizures, and coma.
What Can Pet Owners Do?
While it is true that no ice melt is entirely pet-safe, owners can take steps to mitigate ice melt-related dangers. First, as mentioned before, if your dog goes on a walk through an area treated with ice-melt products, you should take a few minutes to wash your dog’s feet once you return home.
There are also some products available for owners looking to take preventative measures. Alton mentions paw wax, which protects paws from ice and salt and is often used in very cold environments, as well as dog booties that keep paws safe and dry on walks. However, it can be difficult to predict whether a dog will take to booties, she says. “A lot of dogs think they can't walk when they have dog booties on, and others just don't like it and will chew them, trying to get them off,” she describes. “This could lead to the dog eating parts of the bootie, which is also not good.”
In terms of ingestion, dogs should be prevented from eating ice melt when out on walks, and all chemicals should be kept locked up and out of reach of pets when not in use. If a pet does get into ice melt, our experts urge pet owners to call their veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline, and, if the pet has ingested a large amount, head straight to their vet or nearest animal hospital.
Read more: 7 Tips for Caring for Your Pet This Winter