The Ache: Ice-melt crystals, ubiquitous in winter, can be toxic if ingested by pets and can cause severe irritation to paws.
The Claim: A growing number of ice-melt products are labeled as safer for pets.
The Verdict: Ice-melt products labeled as pet safe vary widely, and some contain at least some ingredients that aren’t actually safe for pets, veterinarians say. Products made mostly from urea, also an ingredient in fertilizer, are gentlest on paws and least likely to cause poisoning, they say.
“We recommend using a urea-based product. We don’t recommend any particular brand,” says Tina Wismer, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, Ill.
Safe Paw Ice Melter, from Gaia Enterprises Inc., Huntingdon Valley, Pa., was an early entry on the market, in 1995. Another is Safe-T-Pet from Morton Salt Inc., of Chicago, introduced in 2010. Neither company has done animal studies on its products, the companies say. Gaia employees occasionally down a mouthful themselves at trade shows to demonstrate its safety, says Gaia director of operations Steven Vernik.
The pet-friendly category has been growing fast due to consumer interest. Morton says its internal research shows that nearly a quarter of ice-melt customers are looking for pet-safe products, says Brian Grindley, senior brand manager for Ice Melt. Since dogs generally walk a whole neighborhood, “this is not just a product for people who have dogs. It is a product for people who have neighbors that have dogs.”
Standard ice melts are made from a variety of different salts, including rock salt, or calcium chloride, all of which can be toxic to pets if ingested.
The small amount a dog might lick off its paws won’t cause more than drooling or vomiting, but a couple of mouthfuls can raise salt levels in the brain and cause seizures or even death, says Ahna Brutlag, associate director of veterinary services and senior veterinary toxicologist at Pet Poison Helpline, affiliated with the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “When we see serious poisoning, it is almost always dogs, and it is almost always when the dog has chewed through the bag,” she says.
During Boston’s historic snowstorms last year, Angell Animal Medical Center, a large veterinary hospital, had one dog die from ice-melt poisoning, says senior staff veterinarian Virginia Sinnott. A more common problem, she says, is cracked, irritated paws—sometimes so severe they bleed, she says.
Urea products are much less irritating because they don’t pull water from paws as much as salts do, veterinarians say. If eaten, urea is nontoxic to dogs, though it may cause vomiting or diarrhea, says the ASPCA’s Dr. Wismer. But country dwellers, beware—urea can be toxic to ruminants such as cows and goats, she adds.
In buying ice melts, it is important to look at the ingredients, veterinarians say. Some products contain blends of urea and salt, so they could still be toxic and irritating to paws. Others contain magnesium chloride, a salt which is less irritating to paws than regular rock salt, but less gentle than urea, Dr. Wismer says.
Pet-safe ice melts are generally more expensive than standard rock salt, and may not be as effective at low temperatures at melting ice. Morton’s Safe-T-Pet melts ice in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, while its Safe-T-Salt product, containing rock salt, is effective down to 5 degrees. Products made with another salt, calcium chloride, melt to much lower temperatures, but those are even more irritating to paws than rock salt, Dr. Wismer says.
To protect your dog on winter walks, veterinarians recommend covering paws with booties and wiping them off with a wet cloth as soon as you get back into the house. It is also important to make sure your dog has access to water if it may have ingested ice melt, veterinarians say, as harm is more likely if a dog is dehydrated.