Protecting your pet from indoor air pollution

Indoor air pollution can have a negative impact on your dog or cat’s health. Here are some of the most common sources of pollution, and what you can do to eliminate or minimize them.

Indoor air pollution is an issue in every modern home. In fact, inside air can contain a cocktail of pollutants from dozens of different sources. And because dogs and cats are smaller than we are, and tend to spend more time inside than we do, they’re particularly susceptible to the health problems that indoor air pollution can cause. Being aware of where these contaminants are coming from, and how they can be reduced, is the key step in improving inside air quality and protecting your dog or cat’s health.

Volatile organic compounds

Many household items contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which evaporate readily into the air. These compounds are found in furnishing, solvents, aerosols, cleaning products, air fresheners, adhesives, sealants, pesticides and dry cleaning chemicals.

Formaldehyde is a commonly-occurring VOC. It is found in paint, tobacco smoke, gas and kerosene heaters, laminate flooring and synthetic fabrics. It is also used as a binding resin in pressed wood furniture.

Red flags

In dogs and cats, VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, skin reactions, headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. In severe cases, there could be organ damage and cancer; while this is unlikely in an ordinary, careful household, it does illustrate how dangerous these chemicals are.

What to do

  • The simplest way to lower the concentrations of VOCs in the air is to ensure good, regular ventilation. Open windows when weather permits,  and keep tobacco smoke and car exhaust fumes well away from the house
  • When choosing new furnishings, look for natural woods and textiles that have been subjected to minimal processing. Choose solid wood furniture rather than pressed wood; this eliminates much of the formaldehyde found in resins.
  • Avoid aerosols, artificial fragrances and paraffin wax candles. While they may seem as if they make the air more pleasant, they are actually adding VOCs to the atmosphere.
  • Keep dry cleaning to a minimum and hang clothes in a well-ventilated area for a couple of days after treatment.
  • Use paints and decorating materials that are certified to be low in VOCs. Keep windows open while paint dries, and for a few days after buying anything that may contain VOCs.

The simplest way to lower the concentrations of VOCs in the air is to ensure good, regular ventilation.

Naturally-occurring microbes

Mold, mildew, bacteria and dust mites proliferate in damp environments, and their airborne spores and waste products can be dangerous to both animal and human health.

Red flags

Molds, mildew and bacteria can result in coughing, sneezing, discharge from the eyes or nose, lethargy, paw licking, loss of appetite and noisy or labored breathing. Animals can develop allergies to house dust mites; these allergies manifest as itching, skin problems and recurrent ear infections.

What to do

  • The best method of keeping mold, mildew and bacteria levels low is to try and reduce humidity in the home. Hang washing outdoors or use a dryer that ventilates to the outside. Regularly empty any drip trays in driers and dehumidifiers and change the water in AC units daily. Check for leaks in pipes, or for dripping taps.
  • If moisture and fungal growth is a problem, you may want to minimize the number of indoor plants. Although plants can help with air quality by absorbing toxins and releasing oxygen, there is a risk that humid soil can add to the level of airborne microorganisms in a damp home.
  • Where visible mold appears, clean it away regularly. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that any infected area larger than 10m² should be professionally removed. If it’s suspected that the AC system is the root of the problem, it should also be professionally decontaminated.
  • Washing bedding (both pet and human) at 140°F will kill house dust mites. If this is done every couple of weeks, it will prevent a buildup of mites and their waste.
  • Soft toys and other items that can’t be washed can be placed in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours to kill dust mites. Note, however, that although the mites will then be dead, their waste products will remain in the item unless it can be cleaned.
  • Keep dust to a minimum, as mites cannot live without it. Use a vacuum with an HEPA filter to reduce not only house dust mites and their waste, but other contaminant particles such as pollen, smoke, spores and soot.

Soft toys and other items that can’t be washed can be placed in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours to kill dust mites.

Carbon monoxide

There is also a risk of carbon monoxide from appliances that burn gas, coal, oil or wood, such as furnaces, generators, fireplaces, wood burners and motor vehicles that may be running in adjacent garages.

Red flags

Carbon monoxide is dangerous to dogs, cats and humans. It can be lethal in high amounts, but even low-level exposure causes drowsiness, lethargy, breathlessness and collapse.

What to do

  • Carbon monoxide is a silent killer of both pets and people, so install alarms near furnaces and other heating appliances. Make sure wood burners are properly sealed and avoid burning timber that has had any chemical treatment.
  • Service and maintain furnaces and heating systems, even if they’re new, and keep chimneys swept and flues in good order, checking frequently for cracks.

While it’s impossible to avoid all indoor air pollution, it’s fairly easy to reduce it to an acceptable level. Being careful about the chemicals you bring into your home, keeping everything clean and clutter-free, and making sure you ventilate rooms properly will all go a long way to making sure the air you and your dog or cat breathes is clean.


Claire Jones is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, she can often be found being taken for long walks by Bertie, a small brown dog of mixed parentage.