Kitten licking fingers

Why does my dog lick me after I apply lotion? It’s a common question veterinarians are asked.  Many dogs and cats appear to like the taste of lotions (especially if the lotions are infused with enticing scents) as well as other topical products, such as over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. Let’s take a look at some of the potential concerns for each group.

Over-the-Counter Medications

These products are often viewed as innocuous because they can be purchased without a prescription at your local supermarket or pharmacy. Many products approved for use in people, however, are not meant for use in pets. Though most topical, over-the-counter lotions and creams are not likely to cause serious problems for your pet, there are a few types that can be problematic. In most cases a lick or two is not likely to cause an issue, but the behavior should be discouraged. Keep in mind that veterinarians frequently also recommend some of the more innocuous products in this group — steroid creams, triple-antibiotic ointments and salves — to treat pets. When used under the direction of your veterinarian, these products are safe, but carefully follow your vet’s instructions regarding application and discourage licking behavior. Some examples and their unintended consequences:

  • Steroid-based creams containing short-acting hydrocortisone are used by people to treat itching. If ingested by your pet, these creams can cause vomiting, diarrhea, panting, and increased thirst and urination.
  • Antifungal creams for human issues such as nail fungus, jock itch, athlete’s foot and yeast infection are poorly absorbed by the digestive tract, but they may still cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested by a pet.
  • Diaper rash ointments are more serious if ingested by dogs. Zinc oxide is commonly found in these products and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Contact your veterinarian if there is blood in the vomit or stool. Zinc oxide can cause a lot of vomiting, and the presence of blood means there has likely been some damage to the gastrointestinal tract; GI protectants may be needed. 
  • Calamine lotion for treating poison ivy also contains zinc oxide and can cause the same types of digestive problems as mentioned above. Even small amounts of zinc oxide can cause vomiting.
  • Triple-antibiotic ointments are commonly applied to cuts and scrapes on people. Keep your pet from licking these ointments for at least 10 to 15 minutes following application or they could cause vomiting and diarrhea. Keeping your pet away from treated areas for that period of time allows the antibiotics in the ointment to be absorbed. Both the oily base of the ointment and the antibiotics it contains can cause stomach upset.
  • Many muscle rubs contain aspirin-like compounds (salicylates). These can cause vomiting, bloody vomiting and stomach ulcers. Some muscle rubs do not contain these types of compounds, although they may contain other substances of concern, like menthol and capsaicin.
  • Sunscreens and antihistamine creams typically cause only stomach upset if ingested by a pet.
  • Ingestion of large amounts of moisturizing lotions can cause drooling, vomiting and diarrhea in pets. These lotions can contain lots of chemicals and compounds that act as humectants and emollients. Emollients become oily with the heat of the body (or stomach) and can cause GI upset.
  • Minoxidil (Rogaine) should be of particular concern to pet owners. This product is used to help people regrow hair, but it was originally developed as a blood pressure-controlling agent. If ingested by dogs or cats it can cause fluid buildup in the lungs and heart failure, with initial signs of vomiting and lethargy. Never let your pet lick your head after an application.

Prescription Products Can Be Deadly

As worrisome as the OTC products can be, prescription lotions and creams can be much more dangerous than their grocery and drugstore counterparts.

  • Prescription-strength steroid-based creams are used by people to treat itching and eczema. If ingested by your pet, these creams can cause vomiting, diarrhea, panting and increased thirst and urination. Depending on the type of steroid, these signs can last from a few hours to a couple of weeks (the signs are similar to those caused by OTC steroid products, but the duration is typically longer). Common topical steroids, from short acting to long acting, include hydrocortisone, clobetasone, triamcinolone, betamethasone, mometasone, methylprednisolone and clobetasol.
  • Hormone creams such as testosterone or estrogen can be absorbed through your pet’s skin as well as ingested. Hormones can cause signs and changes such as mammary gland enlargement. Exposure can even cause ovariectomized (spayed) female animals to develop signs of estrus (coming into heat) and false pregnancy.
  • Flurbiprofen is an anti-inflammatory pain medication that is sometimes compounded into a cream. It is often prescribed by physicians to treat osteoarthritis in humans. It is of concern because it takes only a very small amount to cause kidney failure in cats if ingested.
  • Retinoids are vitamin A compounds used to treat acne. In the nonpregnant pet, ingestion is expected to cause only stomach upset. Exposure of pregnant animals should be avoided, however, as fetuses can develop birth defects as a result.
  • Calcipotriene (Dovonex) is a vitamin D-based ointment used to treat psoriasis. If ingested it can cause vomiting and kidney failure. It takes only small amounts of this product to kill dogs and cats.
  • Probably the most dangerous prescription lotion is 5-fluorouracil (5-FU, Efudex). This product is used topically to treat solar keratosis (precancerous sun damage) and skin cancer in humans. If ingested it can cause seizures that are very difficult to control. 5-fluorouracil also causes bloody vomiting and diarrhea and bone marrow suppression (low white blood cell count) several days after ingestion. About two-thirds of animals who ingest the substance die or are euthanized.

What to Do?

If your pet briefly licks you after you apply an everyday moisturizing lotion, he should be fine, but the behavior should be discouraged. Other over-the-counter products may cause mild or severe problems. Never apply a topical product meant for people to pets without first consulting with your veterinarian. After using any topical hormone, steroid, anti-inflammatory or other prescription product, people should thoroughly wash their hands before handling food, children or pets; store such products safely out of reach, so that accidental ingestion cannot occur. Allow all topical products, whether prescription or over the counter, to dry completely or cover the area of application before coming into contact with pets. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet may have come in contact with a topical substance. More on Vetstreet.com: