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The Scent of Safety: The Impact of Unfamiliar Fragrances on Distressed Animals in Clinical Settings

In the realm of veterinary medicine, ensuring the comfort and safety of animal patients is a top priority. As a leading supplier of disinfectants for veterinary practices in the UK, covering both small and large animal care, we understand the significant role environmental factors play in the recovery and well-being of animals in clinical settings. One such factor, the presence of unfamiliar fragrances, has emerged as a particularly noteworthy concern lately. This blog post aims to shed light on the effects of such scents on distressed or ill animals and examines the evidence supporting the increasing use of un-fragranced disinfectants for cleaning veterinary surfaces.

Understanding Animal Sensory Perception

Animals possess a keen sense of smell, which plays a critical role in their perception of the world. For many species, olfactory cues are integral to navigating their environment, identifying food sources, and recognising potential threats. In clinical settings, the introduction of strong, unfamiliar fragrances can trigger stress responses in animals. This reaction is not merely psychological; it has tangible physiological repercussions, including elevated heart rates, increased cortisol levels, and heightened anxiety.

The Impact of Fragrances in Animal Health Environments

The use of fragranced cleaning products and air fresheners in veterinary clinics or welfare settings, while well-intentioned, can inadvertently contribute to the distress of animals. Dogs, for example, have a sense of smell that is estimated to be tens of thousands of times more sensitive than that of humans. Similarly, cats, with their highly developed olfactory systems, can become overwhelmed by strong scents. In large animal practices, species such as horses, which rely heavily on scent for recognition and comfort, can exhibit signs of stress when exposed to unfamiliar fragrances.

Humans often associate fragrance with cleanliness, a perception deeply ingrained in our cultural and personal hygiene practices. This connection stems from a long history of using scented products to mask odours and indicate a clean environment. In veterinary clinics, this human bias towards fragranced environments can influence the choice of cleaning agents, with a preference for products that leave a perceptible, clean scent. While this may satisfy human preferences in veterinary teams or provide comfort for pet owners, it’s important to remember that what is reassuring to us can be unsettling or even distressing to animals. The challenge for veterinary professionals lies in balancing these human associations with the need to create a safe, stress-free environment for animal patients. By prioritising the use of un-fragranced cleaning products in clinical settings, we acknowledge the diverse sensory experiences of humans and animals alike, ensuring that our practices are guided by the well-being of the animals we care for.

“Being housed within a shelter environment is stressful for cats, with a loss of both familiarity and control over their environment. At Cats Protection we aim to improve the welfare of the cats in our care by considering how a cat is experiencing their environment and supporting cats to display normal behaviours. Cats have a sensitive olfactory system which they use both to explore and communicate. By using unscented disinfectants, our aim is to avoid aversive stimuli and allow cats to display scent marking behaviour.”

Sarah Merrett – Central Veterinary Officer at Cats Protection

Evidence suggests that the use of un-fragranced disinfectants in veterinary settings can mitigate these adverse effects. A study published in Veterinary Sciences by Janice K. Lloyd¹ observed a variety of factors which contribute to heightened stress in veterinary settings and noted that a solution of bleach, even as low as 1%, can destroy olfactory neurones resulting in a loss of information and heightening anxiety.² This research underscores the importance of selecting cleaning or disinfectant products that are free from strong perfumes or scents, thereby creating a more calming and reassuring environment for patients.

“Animals that are exquisitely sensitive to odours are likely to find the olfactory environment of a veterinary hospital stressful. Airing out rooms and using disinfectants that do not have discernibly strong odours followed by air-drying may help minimise this stress.”

Janice K. Lloyd, College of Public Health, Medicine and Veterinary Science, James Cook University, Australia

Practical Considerations for Veterinary Practices and Animal Welfare Settings

Implementing fragrance-free policies in veterinary clinics and other animal welfare environments can be a small yet impactful way of using clinic design techniques to enhance animal well-being. Here are some specific examples and practical recommendations for olfactory environment improvements:

Choosing the Right Cleaning Products: Select cleaning agents and disinfectants that are specifically labelled as “un-fragranced”, “fragrance-free” or “unscented.” These products are effective in maintaining hygiene standards without introducing potentially distressing scents. ANIGENE surface disinfectant cleaners are available un-fragranced to reduce the risk of infection, without inducing undue stress on patients.

“As a veterinary nurse dedicated to animal welfare within a charitable organisation, having access to an efficient, un-fragranced disinfectant is invaluable. ANIGENE not only aligns with our commitment to maintaining high standards of biosecurity but also helps to support the overall wellbeing of our patients.”

Davina Osborne – Veterinary Nursing Lead Companion Animals at the RSPCA

Keep Areas Well-Ventilated: Where appropriate, increasing ventilation may help to reduce the number of unfamiliar scents in the practice, replacing them with smells from outdoors which may result in the animals paying more attention to smells from outdoors, than to stressors¹.

Educating Staff and Clients: Raise awareness among clinic staff and pet owners about the impact of fragrances on animals. Encourage clients to avoid using strongly scented grooming products on their pets, or on themselves when visiting the clinic.

Monitoring Animal Responses: Pay close attention to the behaviour of animals in different areas of the clinic. Signs of discomfort or stress can indicate the need to reassess the products used in those spaces.

Adapting to Species-Specific Needs: Recognise that different species may react differently to certain scents. Tailor your clinic’s fragrance policies to accommodate the unique needs of the animals you treat, ensuring that all patients, from domestic pets to farm animals, feel secure and at ease.

Don’t Forget About Your Hands: Practising effective hand hygiene is a vital part of infection prevention, however, strongly perfumed soaps or alcohol hand sanitisers can leave strong smells on your hands which can cause further distress. Select un-fragranced liquid soaps for your practice and consider an alcohol-free hand sanitiser such as INVIRTU.

“In an animal health environment, it is a particular advantage to use a non-alcohol hand sanitiser such as INVIRTU. We find that animals, most noticeably cats, take a dislike to the odour of alcohol hand gels which makes treating them even more difficult and induces unnecessary stress on the patient.”

Ian Futter – Chief Veterinary Officer at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The impact of unfamiliar fragrances on distressed or ill animals in clinical settings is a nuanced aspect of veterinary care that deserves attention. By choosing un-fragranced disinfectants and adopting fragrance-free practices, veterinary and other animal health professionals can create a more comforting environment for their animal patients. Such measures not only contribute to the physical well-being of these animals but also to their emotional and psychological recovery and their comfort during future visits to clinics. As we continue to advance in our understanding of animal health, let us not overlook the profound influence of our shared sensory world on the creatures under our care.


¹ Lloyd, J. K. (2017). Minimising Stress for Patients in the Veterinary Hospital: Why It Is Important and What Can Be Done about It. Veterinary Sciences, 4(2), 22.

²Overall, K.L. Your Complete Guide to Reducing Fear in Veterinary Patients. 2014.

Many thanks to Sarah Merrett – Central Veterinary Officer at Cats Protection, Davina Osborne – Veterinary Nursing Lead for Companion Animals at the RSPCA, and Ian Futter – Chief Veterinary Officer at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for their valued contributions to this topic.