Keeping cats safe – disinfectants

In July we are discussing the first of our topics in the Keeping Cats Safe campaign and start with disinfectants.

Used frequently in the home these products are potentially toxic to cats. However, we can minimise the risk of injury due to these products by following the advice of the Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS) as detailed in this, the first in a series of articles written to help us as cat owners keep our cats safe.

Safe use of disinfectants

Risks from disinfectants

Figure 1. Hypersalivation and inflammation of the tongue 12 hours after licking a patio treated with a cleaner containing benzalkonium chloride. From Bates and Edwards (2014).3

Figure 2: Ulcerated blisters of the tongue 2 days after exposure to benzalkonium chloride. From Bates and Edwards (2014).3

Disinfectants can be harmful to cats and so should be used sensibly and only when necessary. Many household disinfectants, such as antibacterial sprays and some patio cleaners, contain a compound called benzalkonium chloride which is a cationic detergent. Cationic detergents are irritant and can cause adverse effects in cats that have licked or walked over treated surfaces and then groomed or cleaned their paws and ingested the chemical. These effects are often delayed by several hours and typically include drooling, a red and inflamed tongue and a high temperature (figures 1 and 2). The mouth may be painful and cats can stop eating. There may also be redness and irritation of the skin.

General advice on the use of disinfectants

  • Store the product securely out of sight and out of reach of pets and children.
  • Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • If required dilute the product as instructed.
  • Do not allow your cat to walk over a recently treated surface.
  • Prevent access until the product is dry.
  • If used outside try and restrict access if a recently treated surface become wet after rain.
  • Always clean up spills promptly.
  • If your cat comes into contact with the disinfectant, for example after a spillage or accidentally being sprayed, wash off immediately and contact your vet for advice.

Alternatives methods of cleaning

If your cat regularly walks on kitchen surfaces it may be safer to use other methods of cleaning. 

  • Steam cleaning is chemical-free and a possible alternative (depending on the surface to be cleaned). 
  • Alternatively non-ionic or anionic detergents (such as diluted washing up liquid) can be used. These types of detergents are less irritant and less hazardous and are safer than cationic detergents.
  • If disinfection is necessary, and steam cleaning not possible, then dilute bleach (hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide) is an effective antibacterial agent and, if properly diluted, is safe.

Understanding product labels

There are regulations to make sure that the chemicals we use are safely packaged and labelled, and contain advice on how to use the product safely. You can see these labels on a wide range of products including household, garden and DIY products and it is important to read product labels and familiarise yourself with hazard warnings.

For further information on product labels see:



Bates N, Edwards N. Benzalkonium chloride exposure in cats: a retrospective analysis of 245 cases reported to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS). Vet Rec 2015; 176: 229.

Advice section: