You’re standing over your pet in horror. She’s been sneezing and wheezing a lot lately—but now she’s having trouble breathing at all. As you rush toward the vet’s office you’re wondering: What happened?
Well, you might not be cleaning your fridge out enough. Or water might have seeped under a hidden corner of your carpet. Or your hot water heater is leaking.
You have mold in your house, and your pet is sick from inhaling it.
Household mold is a danger to every organism that lives under your roof. But it poses the biggest risk to your pets.
Hidden Mold in Your Home
Think about all the places in your house that your pet has claimed as a napping spot. Behind the couch. Along the side of the washing machine. Underneath chairs and tables. And that’s just when you’re watching them.
How many of the hidden places where mold can grow do you ever really look at? More to the point, how many do you get down on your hands and knees and sniff? Or lick? Mold spores that pose minimal danger to you can be a death sentence for a curious, low-to-the-ground pet.
The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that when mold is found, it’s often found in these places. Can your pet get to any of them?
- the underside of carpets and pads
- walls around pipes
- the surface of walls behind furniture
Of course, mold can also be found in ductwork, on the tops of ceiling tiles, and places your pet would probably only get to if your pet was a cockroach. But even if mold is completely hidden, it still poses a risk.
About 10 years ago, a pet owner in Florida brought their two Himalayan cats to the vet for a routine teeth cleaning. The cats—who were siblings—would be put under anesthetic, get a nice brush and shine, and be back napping on the couch in no time. They passed a preparatory exam with flying colors; even their lab tests looked good.
But 15 minutes after being put under for the cleaning, both cats started spitting blood. The vets woke them up and began immediate medical intervention. One died within days. The other got well enough to go home, but died soon after.
The culprit, as you have probably guessed, was mold. Seven months earlier, a heavy storm had slammed into that part of Florida. Unseen water damage in the cat owner’s home had turned into a severe infestation of dangerous black mold. The cats’ deaths served as a warning to their owner, who (presumably) cleaned the home before they, too, got sick.
Any time the interior structure of your home comes into contact with the elements of nature, mold infestation is a possibility. Storms are an obvious example, but construction also puts mold risk in play.
Mold Outside Your Home
Your pet’s yen for exploration can get them in trouble outside the home as well. You know that cars, neighborhood kids, and other native predators are all dangerous if your pet gets too close—add mold to that list.
These are some of the obvious areas to monitor:
Piles of Yard Waste
Mounds of organic material are damp, dark mold factories. If you have them on your property, dispose of them or fence them in. Let your pet’s health be the motivation you need to finish your yard work.
If you encounter yard waste piles on a dog walk in your neighborhood, don’t let your dog romp around in them, no matter how much they beg.
Compost or Trash Bins
In your compost bin, you’re trying to grow mold, so you definitely want to keep you pet out of there. If you have a larger animal, make sure your container or structure is sturdy enough to withstand a bodily assault. It only takes one lucky push for a big dog or curious cat to topple a bin and spill out clumps of dangerous mold.
If you have a smaller animal, make sure they can’t slink through any open walls or gates.
A special note for dog owners: If your dog likes to dig, check periodically to make sure she isn’t carrying out a long-term excavation project along the walls of your bin.
Hot, Swampy Places
Vets see a higher prevalence of mold-related illness in swampy areas, especially those in the warmer parts of the southern U.S. There, they call one mold-related sickness “swamp cancer.”
Keep a closer eye on your animals if you have swampy areas or wetlands on or adjacent to your property. If fencing these areas off isn’t feasible, consider a radio-controlled collar. These run around $150, but that’s cheaper than the vet bill will be.
Specific Dogs in Danger
If you let your animals run free outside, you’re familiar with the tradeoffs between their physical and mental health, and have decided to accept them. The risk of mold is not, by itself, a reason to keep your pets inside.
But you may want to add it to the “cons” side of your list. You may want to add it in bold if you own a dog with a narrow head and long nose. The scientific term for this is dolichocephalic, and according to a study by scientists at the University of Sydney in Australia, it means that your dog is calm under pressure. Unfortunately, it also means that their long snout gets into places that other dogs can’t—places where mold lives. Veterinarians have noticed that German shepherds, for example, seem to get sick from mold more than other breeds.
Mold in Food
Your boss wants you in an hour earlier than normal, and your routine’s all messed up. You’ve got coffee in one hand and your keys in the other, you’re halfway out the door …. “Shoot! Forgot to feed Fido (or Felix)!”
You pop open the plastic container where you store your pet’s dry food—you already know that keeping it in those big paper bags is asking for trouble, mold-wise—scoop out a heaping portion of food and toss it in the pet dish. You don’t notice that, as you bent over, you spilled some of your coffee into the food container.
As the days go by, that moisture turns into mold. It’s not that noticeable, and you aren’t in the habit of inspecting dry food. Your pet might notice but will probably eat it anyway. And it could make them sick.
Pets can also get mold-related sickness from your food—once you’ve thrown it out.
Keep your kitchen trash can in a cabinet so your pet can’t get to it. And if you are prone to leaving food out so long that it gets moldy, stop doing that.
The Good News
An encounter with mold is not life-threatening. Mold is a natural part of the environment, and when used safely can perform critical tasks like helping make really nice cheese.
You and your pet will likely never get sick from mold, as long as you perform basic adulting tasks like cleaning your house when it’s dirty and keeping your pet from going wherever it wants. Mold won’t hurt your pet unless you let it.
Alyssa Ennis is a Seattle-based writer who is passionate about design, real estate, and of course, her dog! A proud dog-mom to a Chihuahua and an avid DIY-er, on a typical day you can find Alyssa in the backyard of her house working on a project (with the help of Oliver, of course!).