The Dangers of Essential Oils for Pets

Diffuser and candles.
Diffuser and candles.

Table of Contents:

  1. Are Essential Oils Toxic to Dogs and Cats?
  2. What Are Typical Symptoms of Essential Oil Ingestion in Pets?
  3. What Should I Do If My Pet Ingests an Essential Oil?
  4. How Do I Avoid Essential Oil Toxicity in Pets?

Essential oils are commonly used for holistic medicinal purposes, but have also increased in popularity for household use in diffusers or as potpourri. These fragrant compounds are extracted from plants and made through distillation or mechanical methods, such as cold pressing. Once the essences from the plants have been extracted, they are then mixed with oil to create a liquid compound.

These oils are used in transdermally in humans, meaning that they are absorbed through the skin or to inhaled through diffusers. They are not meant to be ingested (eaten), injected, or applied to the eyes. There are many proposed benefits of essential oils for humans, including relief of stress and anxiety, immune support, headache relief, and digestive health. Data in veterinary patients is slim, and there’s no proof that these benefits are shared with animals.

Are Essential Oils Toxic to Dogs and Cats?

Unfortunately, essential oils can be extremely toxic to cats and dogs if ingested. Ingestion can occur in many different fashions, including:

  • Application to the fur and subsequent ingestion during self-cleansing
  • Licking oil off of a person
  • Licking oil off of another pet in the household
  • Drinking oil from diffusers in the home

Some essential oils are more toxic than others for pets.

Here is a list of the most toxic essential oils for dogs and cats:

  • Armoise
  • Basil
  • Bay leaf (W. Indian)
  • Birch (sweet)
  • Bitter almond
  • Boldo leaf
  • Buchu
  • Calamus
  • Clove Leaf
  • Cornmint
  • Horseradish
  • Hyssop
  • Lanyana
  • Mustard
  • Myrrh
  • Oregano
  • Pennyroyal (N. Am.)
  • Pennyroyal (Eur.)
  • Pine oil
  • Sassafras (Brazilian)
  • Sassafras
  • Savin
  • Savory (Summer)
  • Southernwood
  • Tansy
  • Tarragon
  • Tea tree
  • Thuja
  • Tree wormwood/large wormwood
  • Western Red Cedar
  • Wintergreen
  • Wormseed
  • Wormwood
  • Ylang-ylang

What Are Typical Symptoms of Essential Oil Ingestion in Pets?

The most common clinical signs that your pet has ingested essential oils include:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Inappetence
  • Neurological symptoms
    • Depression
    • Low heart rate
    • Respiratory depression (low respiratory rate)
    • Ataxia (wobbliness)
    • Seizures

There are a handful of essential oils that can cause specific organ injuries aside from gastrointestinal or neurological problems. Tea tree oils are one of the most toxic to dogs and cats. If an animal ingests tea tree oil, neurological signs can develop in addition to low body temperature and severe skin irritation. Pennyroyal, specifically the type derived from Mentha Pulegium, can cause liver failure in dogs. Also, wintergreen extract has components that are similar to aspirin and can cause liver and/or kidney damage, particularly in cats.

Some pets are more sensitive to inhaled oils and can have an allergic reaction. In these cases, pet parents may notice hives, facial or paw swelling, or skin redness. Pets that have respiratory disease can also be overly sensitive to essential oils and in-home diffusers, so please proceed with caution.

What Should I Do If My Pet Ingests an Essential Oil?

If essential oils have been accidentally applied to your pet and they are not showing any signs of toxicity, the first step is to bathe them with mild dish soap to avoid further ingestion or absorption. After bathing your pet, it is important to reach out to an animal poison hotline to discuss the oil and exposure. They can help direct further treatment and provide a list of clinical signs to watch for.

If your pet is showing signs of toxicity, they should be seen by a veterinarian immediately to initiate treatment. Essential oil toxicity is an emergency and should be treated at first indication of toxicity. At a veterinary clinic, treatment will be focused on clinical signs, including gastrointestinal support, and medications will be used to combat neurological symptoms, if present. In some cases, intravenous lipid therapy is recommended, and your veterinarian will discuss this treatment option if necessary.

How Do I Avoid Essential Oil Toxicity in Pets?

The easiest way to avoid essential oil toxicity in pets is to avoid exposure to these products. Simply put, not purchasing these products or having them in the house is the easiest way to keep your pets safe. If oils are present in the home, then care should be taken to prevent inadvertent ingestion from diffusers. Prior to applying essential oils to your pet, a veterinarian should be consulted to assess safety and discuss the safest options. If essential oils are applied to your dog or cat, they should not be allowed to lick or ingest the topical products.

While essential oils are a nice accent to your living space and beneficial for holistic medical therapy, care should be taken with pets around these products, since reactions are common and can be very severe.

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