There’s nothing that gets me grumpier than pet products that claim to be “natural” seem to contain synthetic and potentially unsafe ingredients when you start researching them. Often the active ingredient in these “natural” pet products is a chemical formulation.

I also get grumpy they’re advertised as “safe” but have been tested in other environments and seem to not be that safe when you learn about the animals they have been tested on. Or, the tests are generally inconclusive due to external factors and perhaps the jury is still out on the chemical.

So what’s really in these “natural” products that use chemicals as their active ingredients… and is it actually safe for my dog? I may not have the answers, but what I’ve learnt from the studies have read has really opened my eyes about how far this “safe” and “natural” marketing is going these days.

Safe and natural pet products: Nope, not necessarily

No pet product is going to be entirely safe – almost anything can be dangerous in a certain amount (even water!), and natural ingredients can be toxic to dogs, but when the term “natural” is used I do expect the ingredients to actually be just that. A so-called natural product should not have synthetic ingredients. And I’m tired of being misled by this term, used more and more as people are demanding higher standards for their families. In fact when I see this term I now say “oh reeeeeally” in my head and start searching for more information about any ingredient I haven’t heard of before.

So let’s look at a few of the ingredients in a particular “safe and natural” product that is consumed by a dog.

Quick disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian, nor do I have any association with products that contain these ingredients or the studies of the ingredients linked below. Because I am not involved with these products, I will not name them. Please use the links below at your own discretion and draw your own conclusions. I simply encourage you do read the labels of what you use regularly, and make a decision based on your own research and discussion with a qualified veterinarian who is knowledgable about these particular ingredients.

Cetylpyridinium Chloride

Cetylpyridinium Chloride, often called CPC, is a chemical and the active ingredient in many oral healthcare products for humans and animals. It is a bactericide and fungicide.

According to the Toxicology Data Network, “Cetylpyridinium chloride is orally toxic to rats, mice and rabbits and can cause severe eye irritation.”

On page 19 of this document on the substance, one study on Beagle dogs was conducted and resulted in all dogs experiencing diarrhea. Many other facets of the study, and other studies, were inconclusive and unclear.

My question would be: have any conclusive, independent (truly independent) studies even been performed on this additive, given that it does seem to cause diarrhea in some dogs (reported by some people using products containing this ingredient with their dogs on review sites like Amazon).

Sodium Benzoate in pet products

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative commonly used in many products. It is a synthetic product formed in a lab – it is not natural. Sodium benzoate is a salt of benzoic acid, which is known to be toxic for cats.

According to this document from the World Health Organization,

In rodents, the acute oral toxicity of benzoic acid and sodium benzoate is low (oral LD50 values of>1940 mg/kg body weight). In cats, which seem to be more sensitive than rodents, toxic effects and mortality were reported at much lower doses (about 450 mg/kg body weight).

Do note that pet products containing sodium benzoate are currently being marketed for cats. I am not a scientist or vet, but this does throw out a few warning signals (and this vet, given that unless the percentages of the ingredient are provided, advises against using it). As a pet owner, I would definitely not provide products containing this ingredient to my cat.

There are many other concerns around sodium benzoate, as it can be a carcinogen when combined with other elements (even natural ones). Unfortunately this chemical is found in many foods and health care products for humans and pets, but the more I know about it the more I personally want to avoid it.

How to decide, who to ask, what to do

A question about these ingredients in general is: Do you know exactly how much they consume in the food or water additive over time, and whether that will reach toxic levels in the body over time? Do we really understand some of the interactions with other ingredients or things your dog or cat consumes? For example, Sodium Benzoate and Vitamin C can combine to form a carcinogen. Is your pet getting Vitamin C as well – what will that do in his or her system?

Now I’m well aware that a dog will consume less of this ingredient at the suggested dosage for a product using it, but coming from a family loaded with cancer (and having known and loved many pets with them), I’m not one to risk potential carcinogens. Especially also knowing how so many unnatural ingredients have been studied further and deemed more unsafe over time. Do we really need possible carcinogens in our body, in any amount? Hopefully not, as I know we’re exposed to so many of them already. So this is a label item I choose to avoid with my pets, and trying to do for myself too.

Without specific studies, do we really understand how these chemicals interact with each other, and in the body of our dogs and cats? To me this is scary stuff. And what truly makes me grumpy about using the term “natural” and “safe”. If there have been specific, independent studies I’m all ears.

And I will also say it’s not quite as easy as speaking to any veterinarian. In my research above I came across vets saying that these specific ingredients “sound okay” and to just “try them out”. I’m not sure what that conclusively means in regards to safety, technically speaking. So do try to find one who is aware of these particular ingredients from studying the specifics.

And lastly, looking into this did teach me a lot and will result in some (more) changes to what my dogs and I ingest.

So how do we decide what pet products to use or avoid?

First of all: Ignore “Natural” and “Safe” on the label. With how I’m seeing it used, it’s meaningless.

Read the labels, and research alternatives. With those alternatives, look into people’s experiences and do consider that sometimes there are edge cases (like the dogs who might get diarrhea with a particular ingredient, or my dog who was punctured by a raw bone). Just take it all into consideration when making a decision – sometimes a small risk is worth a greater benefit.

Often there aren’t better alternatives, and a risk to benefit decision must be made. For example, having a dental procedure performed under general anesthesia can be risky, and even dangerous or deadly for a senior dog. There are sometimes other options that do not involve anesthesia, but it may not work for everyone.

And how crazy IS crazy? Sure, I treat the odd treat that isn’t perfect. Yes, I go through a drive through when traveling and Mort and I will snack on crappy ingredients. But when a product is going to be used on an ongoing or semi-permanent basis I absolutely care about every ingredient that is going on or into my dog (and myself, too).

Trying to shop for (truly) safe products isn’t easy, but it’s a good thing to try.

I’m not saying there is a right answer, and will certainly never tell someone what to decide, but simply: awareness is key in making the best decision for your dog. Care about things you’ll use regularly. Don’t trust the graphics on the bottle, and do read the ingredients and study the ones you don’t know carefully. Read about edge cases. Find what’s actually the case under the surface. Marketing is not always what it seems. Especially in the less-regulated pet product industry.

This post is part of FitDogFriday blog hop brought to you by SlimDoggy, To Dog with Love and My GBGV Life. Visit the other great posts below for more ways to keep your pets healthy.

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • DogTread

    Wonderful info ~ thanks for the post!

  • Walks With Rama

    Very informative! Lots of good info here! Thanks for sharing!

  • Emma

    Reading and believing names on packages is the worst mistake you can make. Anyone can put healthy, natural etc on their bag even when it is not. You really have to read the ingredients and check out the company too. Great post and thanks for joining the hop.

    • Thanks so much! Isn’t it crazy? Yes, we really need to be looking into the companies (and I will say, it really shines a poor light on them doesn’t it). I will admit that my disappointment in the company has made me feel defensive for folks that use and recommend the products, I feel like they’re getting “duped” and really have to take a step back and calm down and not take it personally :)

  • slimdoggy

    Good post Jen. Marketing psychobabble and label tricks and certainly obfuscate the reality of what is natural or safe. Our next food post (coming next Tuesday) as about the pervasive “natural flavors” that are often found in pet food.

    • Thanks so much! Oh I can’t wait to read your post on Tuesday – I’ve really taken an issue to that in human foods, I’m looking forward to hearing what’s happening in pet foods.

  • Wonderful post, and you addressed one ingredient I came across recently and had questions about!

    • Thanks! Yes I came across a product with these things and was pretty skeptical – in retrospect, that gut feeling came in pretty handy! Glad I addressed something you had questions about!

  • Such a great post! I agree that awareness is key–when I first got Barley, I was feeding her lots of snacks that we’d gotten for our dogs growing up only to find that several of the ingredients (some of which sounded innocent enough, ex. garlic powder and pork) were on the list of things my vet recommended staying away from. When you get into the multi-syllable scientific sounding names, it gets even harder to know what’s safe!

  • Lots of good stuff to think about!

  • This post reminded me of what it used to be like to research ingredients in products before smart phones. I’d see a product in the store, right down the name, search it on the PC, cut and paste the ingredients into other searches… now I can take a photo of the label or look up something that I can’t pronounce right there in the store. The shopping world is a safer place when you’re in the know!

    • Aren’t they great? And that the info (at least the essentials!) is there too – I remember back in the “dark ages” that there simply wasn’t info online about even pretty basic things. Sadly it was even tough to find info about these ingredients nowadays… really hope more studies are run to figure out what they actually do in humans / animals. If we’re developing these chemicals we should hopefully know more about what they actually do & act over time.

  • Jessica Rhae

    Veterinarians will also claim that ingredients like this and xylitol (which is KNOWN to be toxic to dogs) is in water additives for dental health are at such low doses that they are “inconsequential”. Each individual dose may be bit there are no studies that I know of (but could be?) that study its effect over time for potential buildup in the system. I am definitely stsying away from ingredients where there us a clear link to disease or poison no matter how little of the ingredient is in it.

    • Absolutely — I wish the manufacturers had more requirements to understand the implications. If we’re developing these chemicals to consume, and using / profiting off them, it’s surprising to me that such basic and inconclusive study has been done (and nothing long term) despite some negative outcome. With how much cancer has been in my family (no doubt in part to things along the lines of this), I’m more and more averse to risk, anyway! Funny thing is I’m 99% sure I was allergic to some preservative they put on fresh fruit and veg (including organic), and no producer could tell me what I reacted to (I found vague references to a vitamin C derived preservative it may have been). Suddenly 3 years ago, no more reactions so I think whatever it was pulled from the market. I’m guessing they figured out it wasn’t healthy. And I can’t find out a *word* about it. It amazes me about how much we’re exposed to that can’t be good and we really don’t even know about.

  • It is important to weigh the pros and cons of all things we feed or use on our pets.

  • I indulge in junk food on occasion, and occasionally allow my dogs to have crap treats. I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that we need to be aware of what is going in to our dogs if it is something that is going to be fed on a regular or semi regular basis.

  • It seems the ‘natural’ claim is pretty much meaningless, both for consumer products and dog products. No wonder dog owners are moving more towards home prepared foods and treats. Thanks for the great info, Jen!

  • It really is concerning how the work natural is thrown around with such a vague meaning. It’s completely inconsistent. The international Food and Agriculture Organization doesn’t recognize or give standards for foods that are considered “natural.” Ok, I could go on and on. I couldn’t agree with this post more – it really is a great concern what we’re giving our dogs and I really wish labels had to be more accountable when it came to throwing around words like natural when no one can even define what that really means.

  • Curry n Pepper

    Very informative, its so true, a lot of the products claimed to be
    natural are actually chemically formulated. A lot of pet food also
    contains guar gum (considered natural) added as a stabilizer. Sometimes
    also appears as carrageenan on the labels causes intestinal
    inflammation, acidity and ulcers too!

  • Full Doghouse

    Jen D, thanks for keeping us informed for the safety of our dogs. I just wondered if you’ve found & can recommend a flea shampoo that is really & truly safe. Just purchased one labelled as ‘100% naturally derived ingredients’ & ‘5 natural essential oils’. The oil part is really true, they’re the ‘active’ ingredients, however they only make up 11.25% of the product. The inactive ingred. (88.75%) contain both hydroxy propyl methycellulose and sodium benzoate in the mix. Now I’m afraid to use it. =(