What is in a Pet Friendly Ice Melter? (UPDATED)

The article below I wrote a number of years ago, in an effort to answer questions regarding Pet Safe / Pet Friendly ice melters, which at the time, due to some clever marketing, were appearing in stores more and more often. The ingredient in those early Pet Safe ice melters, was a chemical fertilizer called Urea. Urea is fine around pets. They can eat it and it won’t bother them, and they can walk on it and it won’t hurt their paws. The problem with Urea is it was expensive, and doesn’t melt ice. So after you purchased a very expensive ice melter hoping to de-ice your walk while being as good of a pet parent as you could, you ended up spending a lot of money on something that didn’t do the job it was purchased for. That was the first issue buyers encounter. Urea is expensive and a poor melter.

Despite that, the concept of a pet safe ice melter struck a cord in a huge audience and by it’s designation, everything you previously used must be not safe for your pet. This makes a very exciting market for ice melt companies to start supplying — without changing their product. What happened next were a number of products that were no different than the ice melter you purchased before, but now had a Pet Safe claim with the ubiquitous picture of a happy dog on the label. This is where the real danger lies.

Today I bought a product at a local store, of a nationally distributed brand. It had the requisite happy dog illustration on the front, bounding through the snow along with the claims: Safe For Pets and Effective to -30F. This is where I immediately became suspicious as the only products that melt to that low of a temperature are not products you market as Pet Friendly. Turning the package around one cannot help but see a large box emblazoned with CAUTION: KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. Now although this is common on every ice melt package, to see it written so boldly on a product claiming safe for pets, but saying it is unsafe around your children should give pause. The same warning box also indicates the product may be harmful if swallowed, or comes into contact with skin.

The biggest threat to a pet is, ingesting too much of the chemical – often salt – or getting the salt in their paws where it can dry them out and crack the skin, making it painful to walk.

Like many products with a Pet Friendly label, this one does not list the ingredients. This keeps it mysterious and special and in this case, it is so they don’t admit you are actually buying a bag of salt. Unscrewing the cap on the container, what we find inside is regular de-icing salt, smaller particles than you run across in a cheap bag of salt but it is still salt. What is different is this salt is brown and emits a sweet odor, which means it has most likely been treated with a sugar beet additive. This sounds great, and we ourselves do a large amount of work with sugar beet based liquid de-icers for roads and highways and it is a great treatment for salt. However, that sweet smell suddenly makes your Pet Safe ice melter that much more tasty and appetizing to your pet. If your pet is inclined to eat salt, then they’ll love it with a sweet coating on top. This is how pets get accidentally poisoned. Lastly, where does the -30F performance claim come from? Salt does not melt effectively past 0F. Sugar Beet at -30F may not have quite frozen solid, but it is most definitely not melting anything and neither is your ice melter. This claim is false, and only aids in the impression that this product is amazing and is most definitely not salt.

My point for describing this product is to make a point – just because the package says it, does not make it so. Does that mean this brown salt with the happy puppy on it is a bad product. Absolutely not. It is salt, which is a cheap and effective ice melter, which is why it is used everywhere. However, you can’t treat it like it’s a harmless chemical that you can dump on your sidewalk and not worry about. That’s why I’m angry at the label. The company took what is a decent low cost product and to increase sales, made startling unsupportable claims. If you have this product. Use a shovel with it and you’ll be fine. Just don’t reward them by buying it again. There are many products out there that if used properly will be fine.

The reality is a properly used ice melter, is safe around pets, because proper use involves shoveling snow, using a limited amount of product in order to break the surface tension of the ice and the pavement, and then shoveling off the ice and slush. Unfortunately that’s not how most people use their ice melters. Instead what often happens, is product is over applied, slush and snow remains and it becomes a salty slurry that our pets walk through, clinging to their paws. This is where the pet harm is done. Whatever chemical you wind up putting down, remember you are putting down a chemical. Used properly you will be fine with whatever product you buy. Just try not to over pay for a label that can’t back up its claims.

The original article regarding Pet Friendly Ice Melters is below.

What is in a Pet Friendly Ice Melter?

A walk down most retail outlets and certainly any pet store will reveal a selection of ice melters in plastic jugs, all with a puppy’s face staring back at you from the label. It may take some staring at the label to realize that the product is an ice melter – as the cute dog is blocking your view of the ice – but that is intentional. This is a “Pet Safe,” product, and your pet is understandably much more important than the ice.

This recent trend in ice melt marketing of products billed as “Pet Safe,” implies that everything not labeled as such is therefore Not Pet Safe. While there are products that should not be used around pets the absence or presence of “Pet Safe” in a name does not make it so. So rather than listening to the cute puppy on the label, you should take a moment to understand what constitutes as “Pet Safe.”

When you are buying something labeled “Pet Safe,” what exactly are you being sold?

The first thing you need to be aware of is that, most unfortunately, sometimes labels lie. This may be intended as marketing spin, but having been in the industry for as long as we have, we are routinely shocked by the claims we read on packages that we find. Ice melting products are currently an unregulated industry, so always keep that in mind when reading product claims and make informed decisions. Don’t always trust the puppy. When reviewing a Pet Safe ice melter, skip the advertising copy and read the ingredients.

Beware of packages that claim to be safe but do not list what’s in the product.

The two most common concerns regarding pets and ice melters are:

  • Ingestion – the fear that your pet could eat a poisonous amount of the product.
  • Dry paws – concerns that the chemical on the ground can get into your pets paws and dry out the soft pads.

For ingestion, it is highly unlikely that your dog will eat enough salt to get sick, however, avoid sweet smelling products that may have an appealing taste for your pet. According to the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center, ingestion of ice melters in excess amounts,

“can potentially produce effects such as drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, vocalizing/crying, excessive thirst, depression, weakness, low blood pressure, disorientation, decreased muscle function and in severe cases, cardiac abnormalities, seizures, coma and even death (www.aspca.org).”

If you suspect that your animal has been poisoned, contact your veterinarian immediately or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. 1-888-426-4435

Hygroscopic chemicals such as calcium chloride and magnesium chloride that draw moisture from the air or an over application of traditional rock salt, is often to blame for dried out paws. Avoiding the use of these chlorides where animals will spend a great deal of time is advisable.

The most common, and often sole ingredient in ice melters labeled “Pet Safe,” is Urea (sometimes listed as Carbonyl Diamide or Carbamide Resin). Urea is a bio-degradable chemical that is most commonly used in fertilizers. Although Urea won’t harm your pet’s paws, it also won’t melt your ice. An over application of Urea, which is inevitable as you struggle to melt ice with it, can have damaging effects to the surrounding vegetation and contamination to water runoff. Additionally the price per pound of Urea makes it a very expensive and highly impractical ice melter. If the goal is general safety and not an ice melting agent, sand or other aggregate that gives traction to an icey surface may be advisable.

Most ice melters sold by us or even our competitors, except for calcium or magnesium chlorides, if used according to their label instructions will not harm pets with normal contact. You must however, always be aware of your pets, their health and their behavior. The safest thing you can do is avoid the use of ice melting chemicals altogether. If you must use a chemical be aware of your pet at all times and immediately remove the slush and dissolved product after it has done its work. Taking a moment to wipe off your pet’s paws will also be a big help. Your pet will thank you.

ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center 1-888-426-4435