• Dangers of Phenol

    Written by Antigone Means-Burleson

    Anyone who has looked up or asked a question about the topic of what to use for hedgehog bedding on the internet has probably heard people say that pine and cedar are bad. What you usually don't find is an explanation of what is bad about them. The problem is a chemical called phenol that naturally occurs in these woods. It's what makes them smell so nice and acts as an effective bug repellent, but is dangerous to small animals.

    I am not an expert on the topic, but I have talked to a few experts (wood workers, chemists, and veterinarians), and all agreed that pine can be safe if cured (usually the package will say "kiln dried") because heat treating causes pine to release the phenols. Apparently cedar doesn't lose as much of the phenols as pine, so it should never be used for small animal bedding. It's marketed as a small animal bedding, but can poison the animal over time (or sometimes quickly) and is associated with allergic reactions and organ failure.

    If pine is properly heat treated, it can be great bedding to use. It is reasonably effective at odor control, cheap, and easy to use. After trying nearly every possible bedding alternative over the course of several years, we finally settled on kiln dried pine as a bedding for our animals and have had no problems other than their tendency to kick shavings out of the cage and onto the floor during their nightly escapades. However, I received a caution from my veterinarian this week that I feel is important to pass on! Apparently he has another client who raises guinea pigs and who also uses pine bedding. She had purchased a sack from the local feed store (only source within quite a few miles drive of this town of 6400) and upon opening, thought it smelled extra piney. She thought it was odd, but didn't think anything of it at the time. She changed cages as usual, then the next day found something horrid. Many of her guinea pigs were dead or looked as though they had received severe burns!

    Upon necropsy, the veterinarian found that the deceased guinea pigs looked, in fact, as though they had been baked in an oven. The internal organs showed signs of phenol toxicity. His conclusion was that the bedding had been improperly cured, and that the phenols had essentially baked the animals. He cautioned that if you get a batch of pine that smells extra piney and/or does not appear to have been thoroughly dried, do not use it! Return it immediately and try a different batch, as batch quality can vary tremendously. As small animal owners, we have to be aware of the possibilities and monitor those products we are using to make sure that the quality is what will work for our needs. For some people this may mean avoiding pine and cedar altogether, while for others who don't have other feasible options available, it will mean being aware and doing your own quality control.