Top 5 Most Hazardous Handbag Contents

Handbags: Reservoirs for Items Toxic to Pets

Dog in PurseTo a dog or cat, a handbag or backpack can be like an amusement park. In one compact place, she can find many flavorful treasures to nuzzle, sniff and chew. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if all the contents in handbags and backpacks were safe for pets, but unfortunately that isn’t the case; they are reservoirs for things toxic to dogs and cats.

“We often talk to panicked pet owners who are dealing with the aftermath of handbag invasions by unsuspecting pets,” said Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, and assistant director at Pet Poison Helpline®. “As we head into the cold months when pets are more often indoors, it’s important for pet owners to be cognizant of some typical handbag contents and how the contents can poison their dog or cat.”

The five most common purse items that are toxic to pets are sugarless chewing gum, medications, asthma inhalers, cigarettes and hand sanitizers.

Sugarless chewing gum and breath mints

Many women carry chewing gum in their purses and don’t realize that, if ingested by a dog, it can be fatal. Most sugarless gums, including some Trident, Orbit, and Ice Breaker brands, contain xylitol, a sweetener that is toxic to dogs. Some sugarless mints and flavored multi-vitamins may also be made with xylitol. When ingested, even small amounts of xylitol can result in a life-threatening and rapid drop in blood sugar, and if large amounts are ingested, dogs can suffer from severe liver failure. Signs of xylitol poisoning include vomiting, weakness, difficulty walking, collapse, tremors and seizures.

Human medications

Many purses contain pill bottles and dispensers. They are irresistible to some dogs, as they resemble toys that rattle. Each year, nearly half of the calls to Pet Poison Helpline® concern ingestions of potentially toxic human medications. Common drugs including NSAIDs (e.g. Advil®, Aleve® and Motrin®), acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol®) and antidepressants (e.g. Effexor®, Cymbalta®, Prozac®) can cause serious harm to dogs and cats when ingested. NSAIDs such as Advil can cause stomach and intestinal ulcers as well as kidney failure, especially in cats. A single Tylenol tablet containing acetaminophen can be fatal to a cat, and in dogs, a larger ingestion can lead to severe liver failure. Of all medications, antidepressants account for the highest number of calls to Pet Poison Helpline®, and can cause neurological problems like sedation, incoordination, agitation, tremors and seizures. 

Asthma inhalers (albuterol)

While asthma inhalers are often used in veterinary medicine for cats and dogs, when accidentally chewed and punctured by dogs, they can cause severe, life-threatening, acute poisoning. Because inhalers often contain concentrated doses (often 200 doses in one small vial) of beta-agonist drugs (e.g., albuterol) or steroids (e.g., fluticasone), dogs that chew into them are exposed to massive amounts of the drugs all at once. This can lead to severe poisoning, resulting in life-threatening heart arrhythmias, agitation, vomiting, collapse and death.


As few as three cigarettes can be fatal to a small dog, depending on the “strength” or “lightness” of the cigarettes. After ingestion, clinical signs of distress can become apparent in as little as 15 minutes. Cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and even gum (Nicorette®) contain nicotine, which is toxic to dogs and cats. Exposure causes high heart and respiratory rates, neurological overstimulation, uncontrolled urination/defecation, tremors, seizures, paralysis and death.

Hand Sanitizer

In recent years, hand sanitizer has become a common item in millions of handbags. Many hand sanitizers claim to kill almost 100 percent of germs, and this is possible because they contain high amounts of alcohol (ethanol) – sometimes up to 95 percent. Therefore, when a dog ingests a small bottle of hand sanitizer, it can have the same effect as a shot of hard liquor. This can cause a severe drop in blood sugar, incoordination, a drop in body temperature, neurological depression, coma and death.

The bottom line? When there’s a dog or cat in the house, store handbags and backpacks out of reach. With the holiday season in full swing, many pet-loving households are hosting parties with friends and family. Whether you are the host or a guest, be sure that purses are placed in a safe location and out of the reach of pets. When in doubt, hang it up.

Check out our helpful video titled “Handbag Hazards to Pets.”