It’s the worst memory of Kevin Burton’s life.
As a teenager in suburban Baltimore 30 years ago — packing the car for a family trip — Burton heard his younger sister screaming from the basement. He raced downstairs. Inside the dryer was Tyson, the family cat — hot, shaking, bloody.
Mr. Burton scooped up the cat with a pile of laundry. Tyson died in his arms.
His sister cried for hours. The family buried their pet near their lake house and never mentioned the incident again.
“One of the gifts that pets give us is to teach children about life and death, but you don’t want to be taught that way,” said Burton, a software entrepreneur. “You don’t want your cat to be violently bludgeoned to death.”
A full 86% of American households have a washer-dryer, according to census figures. About a quarter of them have a cat, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, with an average of 1.8 cats per household.
In Manhattan, an in-unit washer-dryer — that Holy Grail of apartment living — is ever more attainable. Between 2015 and 2022, the number of condo and co-op buildings that allow washer-dryers swelled from 15% to 27%, according to real-estate data company UrbanDigs. The number allowing pets grew from 14% to 40%.
Probably 90% or more of the city’s new developments in the past decade include washer-dryers — generally stacked rather than side-by-side — according to John Walkup, co-founder of UrbanDigs.
But when a cat intersects with a dryer, the risk is real — and now, at home, that’s more so than ever.
“The dryer is a comfy, warm place for cats to be, and that’s all they want in the world,” said veterinarian Sarah E. Cudney.
While doing her internship in veterinary critical care, “I had a washer cat and a dryer cat on the same night,” Cudney said. “The owners were talking about it because they were so upset. Those cats were lucky enough to be OK.”
In late 2021, Cudney published a study on cats in dryers in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. She had seen anecdotal reports of “people who dried their cats and most often lost them,” she said, though the phenomenon had not been previously reported in the veterinary literature.
“It was common enough that I was able to get three cases in a row,” Cudney said. “They had different intervals in the dryers.” All three of her sample cats survived. Not surprisingly, duration of dryer time corresponded with the severity of injury.
The cat that endured a full 45-minute dryer cycle had a temperature of more than 109 degrees — too high to measure — and was hospitalized for nine days.
The primary injury was heat stroke, which has been studied primarily in dogs, Cudney added. Most of the dog information comes from Israel, where the many working dogs can suffer from exertional heat stroke in the heat and humidity.
When an animal is overheated, “there is massive vasodilation,” she said, as blood moves away from vital organs. “All of the organs and muscles suffer direct thermal injury.” The main surface injury she found was “corneal and mucous membrane ulceration” — wounds to the eyes and mouth.
The ears tend to be singed. One cat had a broken tooth but none had broken bones, “probably because they are in with the laundry, and that is kind of cushioning the blow,” Cudney said. “I talk with a lot of emergency vets and most have seen a dryer cat. It usually sticks out in their mind because it is something so traumatic for both the owner and the pet. The owners feel terrible.”
Cat owners should always check the dryer, catproof their home — such as keeping cabinets closed and avoiding toxic houseplants — keep tabs on all household cats and know where the closest emergency animal hospital is, just in case. And on laundry day itself, they should write down a reminder to check the dryer just one extra time for safety.
If a badly injured cat doesn’t die en route to the vet, treatment is expensive. “It takes a specialty level of knowledge to take care of these cats, and specialty products,” Cudney said.
If a pet owner tries to cool a cat removed from a dryer, Cudney recommends they use a fan.
Disturbing online accounts show that people leave the dryer door ajar and fail to realize a sleeping cat is inside, or they turn away for a moment while the cat has crept in silently. The guilt is crushing; the memory tormenting.
“There’s no cultural discussion about it,” Burton said. “I think this happens and it’s so traumatic people never want to talk about it again. I don’t think people realize this is a danger.”
Sometimes, the cat is saved in time. Annette Paulsen of Dallas managed to rescue her gray tabby, Angel, who somehow entered the top half of a stacked washer-dryer.
She heard thumping, and initially thought a sneaker was in the dryer.
“The cat was warm to the touch and I was hysterical,” said Paulsen, a clinical research coordinator at a medical center. “The cat was having difficulty walking. He stumbled around. I immediately called the vet, who asked me all these questions: Is the cat panting or walking or making any noise, and does he cry when you touch him?”
In short order, the cat was fine. “It took him 30 minutes or so to get his sea legs back,” said Paulsen, whose family typically has several cats. “I was convinced I had killed the cat. I consider ourselves lucky. Now, I never start the dryer without making sure there’s not a cat in it. It was very traumatic. I even check the washer.”
There are occasional cheery news stories about “miracle cats” who survive a trip through the washer — and grimmer ones about people charged with animal cruelty for intentionally laundering a cat.
Cats seem to be trapped more often in dryers than in washers, said veterinarian Elizabeth A. Rozanski, an associate professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She’s an expert in animal respiration and has studied small animals submerged in water.
A study from 2010, published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, examined two cats, each trapped in a front-loading washer. The major issue there was drowning. (Laundry detergent is also toxic.)
A 3-month-old kitten, trapped for 5 to 10 minutes, died from drowning and head trauma. An older cat, trapped for 1 minute, survived, but later developed skin lesions that were successfully treated. The study noted that “front-loading washing machines provide easier entry access to pets” than top-loading machines.
In Prospect, Connecticut, Doreen Kaminski once inadvertently shut a cat in the dryer, having been interrupted by a ringing phone, and another time locked a cat in the just-emptied dishwasher after turning her back.
In both cases, she heard noises and freed the cats immediately. “Now, I check the oven, too,” said Kaminski, who volunteers for Whiskers Pet Rescue in Southbury.
There are also instances of cats being trapped in file cabinets — and suffocating inside picnic coolers. Last fall, in the security line at Kennedy Airport, X-rays identified a cat that snuck inside a checked suitcase.
“I’ve learned,” said Kaminski, who retired as a paralegal and later managed a pet-supply store. “I am constantly looking. The cats get into everything.”