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Pets Large & Small

Chemical Exposure

Dr. Kim Brokaw DVM


Dr. Kim Brokaw and her horse Bart

(Jan, 2011) My veterinary assistant ran around the corner into my office. She had just gotten off the phone with a man who had two dogs that had been exposed to some sort of chemical. He wasnít sure what type as the dogs had been outside and then came back to the house squinting, frothing at the mouth, covered in a greasy substance, and smelling horrible. She told him to hurry to the clinic and he would be arriving within the next ten minutes.

While waiting for him to arrive, I began organizing my thoughts. When a dog is exposed to an unknown poison, it is important to remove as much of the poison as possible, as quickly as possible. Various decontamination processes involve basic washing of the dog, and perhaps lavaging the stomach and pumping in activated charcoal, depending on the possible poison. The dogs arrived almost immediately. My assistant ran out to assist the owner, and rushed the dogs into an exam room. As she was putting them in the room, I noticed an odor of skunk. My first thought was that a skunk was back behind the clinic. I hoped the skunk was not going to get too close to the clinic.

I quickly asked the man various questions as I went over to the dogs, trying to get information about the poisoning. He told me his dogs were running around outside on the farm, and then came back like this; drooling, upset, and smelly. As we talked, I realized that the aroma of skunk was getting stronger and stronger. My thoughts returned to the dogs. There are various pesticides and auto repair supplies, that are commonly on a farm, and can poison a dog, so I needed to quickly formulate my plan. However, as the skunk odor became stronger, then overpowering, I suddenly realized that the skunk odor was coming from the dogs. The dogs had been sprayed by a skunk and had not been exposed to an industrial chemical. It was easy to understand how the owner had come to an incorrect conclusion. The smell of fresh skunk has an acidy, garlic like smell. Over about an hour, it intensifies and matures to the more traditional smell associated with skunk.

I treasured the owner that the dogs would be ok. There was now no need for my elaborate decontamination plan. Although his dogs would be fine, I did not look forward to the cleanup. We took the dogs to the back of the clinic, and my veterinary assistant and I bathed them in soap and baking soda. (My preferred recipe for removing skunk odor involves lemon juice, baking soda, and vinegar). After the bath, while the dogs smelled better, they still reeked of skunk. I found some "animal cologne" in the shampoo closet and sprayed it on the dogs. Now they smelled like a skunk that has gotten loose in a Bath and Body Works shop and had various floral scents spilled on it. The owner seemed pleased that not only had the dogs stopped foaming and acting sick but they seemed to smell better too. Of course he still stank, as did his truck. I gave him the de-skunking recipe as he asked me if it would work to get the smell out of his truck. I had to be honest and tell him that the smell would probably be there for the next few weeks. I joked that hopefully he wasnít picking up a hot date tonight. His response was that he hadnít had one of those in years so not to worry, the odor wouldnít be affecting any dates. I always enjoy owners who can maintain their sense of humor, despite an unpleasant experience.

As I sent him out the door with his dogs, I noticed that the clinic staff had opened all the windows and doors of the clinic, despite the chilly December weather. At this point I didnít even notice the skunk smell. About an hour later our bookkeeper as well as one of the other vets came to the clinic and immediately start complaining about the terrible odor. They told me that I should have just hosed the dogs off out in the parking lot and not even let them in the clinic. I reminded them that I was told this was a chemical exposure and therefore I already had the dogs inside the clinic before I even knew that they had been sprayed by a skunk. They then proceed to tell my assistant and I that we both smelled and we are sent home to shower and change clothes.

One of the vets suggested that we change clothes before we get in our cars as otherwise the cars would be left with a smell. As neither one of us had an extra change of clothes, and neither of us wanted to drive home wearing nothing but a towel, we decide to risk having our cars smell like skunk. Luckily I had just gotten a new washer and dryer the day before. My old washer was sitting in a large basin as it leaked water when it ran. The thought of skunk tainted water leaking allover the floor was enough to make me grateful I had gotten a new machine. Even better is that I have the washing machine in the mud room so I am able to walk in through the back door, strip off the clothes, throw them in the wash, and then go upstairs to shower. My assistant was not as lucky and ended up stripping outside in the cold by her back door as her washer isnít by the door.

We both met back at the clinic and were surprised that the clinic staff got most of the smell under control. The floors had been washed multiple times with bleach and scented candles were burning. We were informed that most of the smell had been on us so once we were removed from the clinic it didnít take long to get the smell under control.

At this point I have showered twice and washed my hands numerous times and yet I still can detect the faint odor of skunk on my hands. Hopefully tomorrow morning, when I go into work, both my hands, car, and clinic will be free of the smell of skunk. Sometimes, thoughts of a career as an academic vet, far from the skunks of Maryland, has some brief allure.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw