Visiting Vet: Grill cleaners

Reminders of some of the ordinary dangers summer poses to pets.


I was in my car driving home from a doctor’s appointment, and trying to decide what to make for dinner. The sun was shining, the water sparkling blue, the harbor picturesque. Inspiration struck. Siri: Call. Max. Home. I asked my husband if he would get the outdoor grill working after its long winter hibernation. It was a perfect day to throw some steaks and corn on the grill for an easy meal (with apologies to my vegetarian friends, whom I admire but fail to emulate completely). I will also admit to an old-fashioned division of labor in my house. I hate using the outdoor grill. I cook inside. My husband cooks outside.

What does this have to do with veterinary medicine? Well, when Max told me he was going out to clean the grill, I stopped him. “What are you going to use to clean it?” I demanded. I had just attended a continuing education webinar entitled “Parties, Pools, and Poisons: Warm Weather Gatherings and Poisoning Risks for Companion Animals.” One of the first topics covered was grill cleaners. Grill and oven cleaners contain caustic alkaline substances designed to melt away the caked-on crud on your Weber. Products like these cause “saponification” of that residual protein and fat on your grill. Saponification literally means “turn into soap.” Here’s the rub. Those grill cleaners can do the same thing to Briquette the bloodhound’s mouth and throat if he ingests them.

To Briquette, the outdoor grill smells like hamburger. To Briquette, grill cleaner dripping off the grill also smells like hamburger. Don’t assume he will take one taste and stop. Unlike acidic substances that may hurt or burn as soon as he licks them, alkaline substances often don’t hurt right away. Briquette may actually consume a significant (and dangerous) amount of the cleaner runoff, because it also contains that yummy food residue.

So what should you do if you turn your back and Briquette laps up some grill cleaner? The first thing to know is that this is one of those cases where inducing vomiting is contraindicated. In other words, don’t do it! Why not? Because if the cleaner caused corrosive damage going down, it’s going to cause even more coming back up. This is an old medical adage; the solution to pollution is dilution. You should flush Briquette’s mouth out with running water. You don’t want to waterboard him or have him inhale the water, so be gentle. Turn the hose on, but not at full blast. Then rinse, rinse, rinse. Keep his nose pointed downwards so the water runs out of his mouth, not down his gullet. Specialists advise 20 minutes flushing if possible. (Hah! Just do your best.) After that, as long as he is not vomiting, encourage him to drink water (once he has forgiven you for the whole hose-in-his-mouth thing) to continue with the “dilution” approach.

What if you didn’t actually witness Briquette lap up the cleaner, or you didn’t think anything of it until later, when he started acting weird? Clinical signs can include pawing at the mouth, drooling, vomiting, and refusing food or water. If you look in his mouth, sometimes you can see oral burns. If Briquette is vomiting repeatedly, do not try to flush his mouth with water. Instead seek immediate veterinary care. For any significant exposure, your vet will usually give Briquette anti-vomiting medications, fluids, and medications to protect his stomach, to prevent ulceration or even perforation of the gastrointestinal tract. Activated charcoal is not recommended. If Briquette is in a lot of pain, he deserves analgesics, but we have to be careful what pain medications we choose so as not to exacerbate the damage. No aspirin, no NSAIDS. Prescription opioids if necessary. He will need to eat soft food until the burns heal. Whether or not to use antibiotics depends on the extent of his lesions and your veterinarian’s discretion.

Other products, such as lighter fluid and tiki torch fuel, also pose a risk to pets if ingested.These are highly flammable, viscous, hydrocarbon blends that can cause gastrointestinal upset, irritation of mouth and gut, aspiration pneumonia, and, in large amounts, central nervous systems signs such as depression and incoordination. Treatment is similar as with grill cleaners. Do not induce vomiting. Seek veterinary care for anti-vomiting medication, gastrointestinal protectants, and hospitalization if there are any signs of respiratory issues, or if a large amount was consumed.

One of my favorite grill stories (because it has a happy ending) is about a little dog who kept having intermittent episodes of suddenly acting as if her tummy hurt. Occasionally she would vomit, but not always. Then she would spontaneously seem better, and act completely fine for weeks at a time. Every time I examined her, I couldn’t find anything wrong, and just treated her symptomatically. I thought maybe her owner was overreacting, or the little dog was being overly dramatic … until I finally wised up and took X-rays. There was an odd, circular, metallic object, about half an inch in diameter, in the pup’s stomach. Those were my younger days when I still did foreign body surgeries here in my small office. We anesthetized her, opened her stomach, and removed the foreign body.

At the time of surgery, I found the object lodged in the pylorus — that’s the valve that opens and closes to allow partially digested food to pass from stomach to intestines. I believe what had been happening was the object would start to move out of her stomach, but get stuck in that narrow outlet. This would cause abdominal pain. Then the bit of metal would dislodge from the pylorus, moving back into the stomach. Why is this a grill story? Because when I showed the object to the owner, she recognized it as a small piece off their outdoor grill. I bet it smelled and tasted like hamburger when that dog ate it.

My husband cleaned our grill with a wire brush, but no chemical cleaners. The steaks were delicious.