rescue. reunite. rehome. rethink.
  • Share to Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Print

Great Points in the Fine Print

Learning how to glean important information from a bottle label can help you narrow your choices of available products. Here are a few tips on learning the lingo.

Learning how to glean important information from a bottle label can help you narrow your choices of available products. Here are a few tips on learning the lingo.

How a Bottle Label is Born:

Read all the articles from the July-August 2003 issue on cleaning and disinfecting your facility:

The Product Claim Game
Navigating the world of disinfectants, one bottle at a time

Defining the Terms
Clarification on some common terms you may encounter while developing a cleaning and disease control program for your facility.

The Bleach Niche
Is the old standby, sodium hypochlorite, still the gold standard? 

Being Chemically Balanced Is No Guarantee
A cleaning a day keeps the bugs at bay, but the question is, how much cleaning should you do—and how frequently?

Don't Let the Fomites Get You Down
You may have had a hand in cross-infection in the past—without even knowing it

Resistance Is Futile If You Clean Properly
Rotation of similar products won’t make much difference in the end result, but rotating quats with bleach is still recommended

You won’t see a lot of exclamatory language on a disinfectant because the government tightly controls the labeling (right down to making sure manufacturers don’t put pictures of candy or playing children on the bottle). If it’s strong enough to be called a disinfectant, it’s strong enough to require registration with the Environmental Protection Agency, which issues detailed regulations governing product descriptions, claims, and directions for use. Manufacturers submit results from experiments that attempt to mimic worst-case scenarios; if a product works even in the presence of organic matter, which can decrease the activity of disinfectants, it is usually listed as effective when tested with 5-percent blood serum added to the mix.

When a “master registrant,” or the maker of a formula, gains approval for its product from the EPA, other companies can “subregister” the formula. But the label on the subregistrant’s product must exactly match the language already approved for the master registrant; the only thing that can vary is the brand name.

What the Numbers Mean:

If you can’t find an EPA registration number on the bottle, don’t trust the product claims. If you do find a number, you can glean a lot of information from it—as long as you know what you’re looking at.

For example, let’s say you’ve just purchased Scrubby Scrub Kennel Disinfectant/Cleaner from the Scrubby Scrub Company, and you spot the following line on the label: EPA REG. NO. 4321-56-89101. The three components of that number each represent something different, and the very existence of three parts already gives you a good clue: that Scrubby Scrub is not the maker of the product—just a distributor.

Here’s why: The first section of an EPA registration number, in this case, 4321, is always the company number of the master registrant. The second number, 56, is the product number. And the last number, 89101, is the company number of the subregistrant. Armed with this information, you can research a product’s active ingredients, find label information, and view correspondence from the EPA to the manufacturer at Even if you don’t have a product registration number but want to search by active ingredient or by company, the site will guide you through the links required to do that. (Once you do finally get to the point of viewing labels, you can use the arrow buttons in the toolbar provided to flip through pages.)

What's Behind the Claims:

Any claims of disinfection activity must be supported by test results from an EPA-approved laboratory. Disinfectants range from low-level to high-level, with the lowest killing mainly bacteria, fungi, and the least resistant viruses and the highest killing most of the resistant microbes but not necessarily spores. Many products are labeled as bactericidal, fungicidal, and virucidal; even if they don’t kill all the bugs out there, it’s a good bet they’ll help you do away with many. For each level of disinfection, explains Tammy Marotta Fleischer of Pharmacal Research Laboratories, the EPA requires products to be tested against certain organisms. For example, a disinfectant generally has to be effective against the salmonella or staphylococcus bacteria; if it’s labeled as a hospital- or medical-grade disinfectant it needs to be effective against the bacterium pseudomonas aeruginosa. Virucidal claims are often based on the ability to kill poliovirus; products are also commonly tested against herpes simplex virus type 2. Claims about efficacy against other microorganisms, ranging from the easy-to-kill HIV to the more resistant parvovirus, need to be supported with specific test results.

Occasionally when reading a label, you might notice the product is labeled to kill only a specific strain of a virus or bacterium. That’s because it’s not possible to test against all the strains of disease-causing organisms, says Fleischer. “If you went out and you tested every single virus that was out there, you’d be spending millions and millions of dollars on these things, and the EPA is very strict as far as what you’re allowed to put on your labels,” she says. “And if you have it tested against certain strains, you have to put that on your label.”

For basic cleaning in the shelter, it’s a good idea to choose a product that kills bacteria, fungi, and viruses. If the product is not labeled to kill parvovirus, consider using bleach routinely (every other day or twice a week) or using one of the newer high-concentrate quaternary ammoniums as resources allow. (See “The Product Claim Game” for more information.)

Why the Recipe Matters:

In a culture where every restaurant meal has reached Hungry Man-sized portions and $70,000 mini-tanks are the latest fad in vehicles, it’s no surprise that people want to supersize everything, even disinfectant solutions. “I’ve watched people waste entirely too much because [they think] a little is good but a lot’s better,” says Lori Todd, kennel supervisor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control Bureau. “They think, ‘Well, it says an ounce, but if I use two ounces, it’ll be better.’ Or they think they can look at it and just pour some in and go, ‘That’s an ounce.’ And you go, ‘No, that was a cup!’”

More is not only not better; it could even be dangerous, creating fumes that irritate the mucous membranes and lungs of animals and staff. But the temptation to stray from manufacturer’s recommendations is so great that Fleischer often receives questions from clients wondering if it would be okay to heighten the concentration of the solution.

Residues can give animals mouth ulcers and scrotal dermatitis; floor surfaces can also be a casualty of improper dilution, says Fleischer. “You can actually change what the product does by adding more,” she says. “With some of our products, you can actually make the floors sticky. And if you don’t rinse off the surface, that floor will actually hold organisms, and it will contaminate your floor.”

Todd has solved the problem of overuse by purchasing dispensers that deliver precise measurements for every chemical in the shelter—even the ones used in the commercial-grade dishwasher and the washing machine. “All they have to do is push a button and it fills the bottles,” says Todd, who buys the dispensers from local disinfection product suppliers. “And when they load the washing machine, they shut it, turn it on, and then they push two buttons and that loads the correct amount of detergent and the correct amount of bleach. ... So we take out the human element.”

Precision in following recommended contact times is no less important to ensuring the efficacy of the product, says UC Davis Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program director Kate Hurley, who has seen some shelter staff just apply the product and rinse it right off. That sort of drive-by cleaning is understandable given all the tasks to be done in a shelter, she says, “but just swiping it on and swiping it off is kind of a big waste of time.”

And though some quaternary ammonium products carry the claim of being a one-step cleaner/disinfectant, reading the fine print usually elicits a recommendation to apply the product twice if a surface is soiled: once to clean and then once again to disinfect. (See “Being Chemically Balanced Is No Guarantee.”)

Where to Get More Info:

It took centuries of risk-taking and experimentation to develop solutions that kill deadly germs without killing people and animals in the process. But even today, anything that disinfects is still a potential source of injury. “The stronger the chemical, the less user-friendly it is,” says Chris Quinlan of Animal Health Technology. “We’re organisms, too.”

Before using any product, research its effect on animals and people by combing through product literature or consulting with the manufacturer. Quaternary ammoniums and sodium hypochlorite are relatively safe when used correctly, but they still carry precautions. Phenols, the chemical used in Lysol, are effective germ-killers but are toxic to cats and reptiles and should always be avoided.

You can usually identify the kind of strength you’re dealing with by the warnings and directions for handling on the bottle label. But the best way to really get a grip on the dos and don’ts of chemical usage is to check out the materials safety data sheets (MSDS), which are overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These sheets should be posted in your facility or kept in notebooks for staff reference; in addition, staff should be supplied with the necessary protection equipment. Manufacturers often post MSDS on their websites, but you can also find them through general database searches, using many of the links listed at

When you’re examining safety information, think about the creatures in your shelter who won’t be able to don masks or gloves in the face of the harshest chemicals or strongest dilutions, and choose your products accordingly. Remember that rinsing well is key to preventing irritations on the sensitive parts of animals who tend to lick whatever’s in their path, whether it’s the bars of the cage or the belly that has rubbed up against them.


Explore Our Magazine

Animal Sheltering Magazine cover

Current Issue




Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software