The ingredients that make essential oils.

Are Essential Oils Safe for Pets?

A growing trend in both home decor and homeopathic medicine, essential oils (and the hardware necessary to diffuse them) have become a source of considerable controversy over the last several years. Advocates credit substances like peppermint and tea tree oil with addressing issues ranging from anxiety to congestion, but which essential oils — if any — are safe for pets?

Are Essential Oils Beneficial?

Healthcare professionals are quick to emphasize that compelling evidence to support the benefits of essential oils and aromatherapy is scarce. Addressing health trends in 2016, Dr. Edzard Ernst remarked that claims regarding the mental and physical benefits of essential oil-based therapies amount to “little more than wishful thinking.”

Dr. Ernst wasn’t just taking a guess. Prior to discussing aromatherapy with Time, he led two separate studies into its potential benefits or drawbacks. The initial study, published in 2000, was the first systematic review of its kind and the second, published in 2012, synthesized all similar reviews published throughout the intervening decade. Focusing on anxiety, dementia, depression, hypertension, and pain relief, the later study supported the first’s conclusion; there is little (if any) convincing evidence that essential oils are effective in treating any condition.

Reputable studies into the benefits of essential oils for pets are even harder to come by. Reviewing the essential oils market for Wirecutter, Kaitlyn Wells notes that companies who produce essential oil-based pet products have sponsored most of the notable veterinary studies. Given the lack of evidence that essential oils are beneficial and the challenges of administering them safely, Wells advises pet owners against using them unless directed to do so by their veterinarian.

Inhalation Risks of Essential Oils for Pets

All types of diffusers can present issues if pets access them and ingest the contents. Passive essential oil diffusers — such as diffuser sticks — are generally considered lower risk than active diffusers, which shoot droplets of oil into the air. Pet owners are discouraged from using these diffusers in rooms that pets frequent and to let rooms air out fully before dogs, cats, or other pets are allowed back in.

Active oil diffusers are considered especially dangerous for pet birds. A bird’s lungs are generally more sensitive than a dog or cat’s and even brief exposure to essential oil droplets can be deadly.

Topical Risks of Essential Oils for Pets

The Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) notes, however, that essential oils are generally most dangerous when applied topically to soothe irritated skin or help keep pets safe from pests. The pet product market is saturated with natural and homeopathic products containing essential oils. Many are touted as safe and effective methods to prevent tick and flea bites or alleviate the symptoms associated with them.

Topical application — intentional or unintentional — also elevates the risks of a dog or cat ingesting a dangerous amount of an essential oil. Pets who ingest oil while cleaning themselves can quickly overload their system with irritants and poisons.

Essential Oils That Could Harm Your Cat

A cat’s liver lacks enzymes necessary to safely metabolize many essential oils when they are either ingested orally or absorbed through the skin. The following essential oils are regarded as potentially harmful or poisonous to cats:

The Pet Poison Helpline directs pet owners not to apply these oils to cats topically or diffuse them in areas that cats can access, even with passive diffusers.

Essential Oils That Could Harm Your Dog

Dogs may struggle to process a number of essential oils, including:

The ASPCA writes that tea tree oil is perhaps the most dangerous type of essential oil for all pets.

A Safe Option?

Some experts have suggested that lavender oil may be safe and have a calming effect. Their claims are supported by a 2006 study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which found that small amounts of diffused lavender oil reduced travel-related stress in dogs. They informed the product review team at Wirecutter, however, that pheromone-based sprays may be a more effective option, particularly for pets with sensitive snouts. Even with non-toxic essential oils, they continue, very low concentrations are generally considered the safest option.

Signs of Poisoning in Pets

Pets can expose themselves to dangerous levels of essential oils in a number of ways. If you’re not sure how your pet got poisoned, their symptoms could help you get an answer and take the appropriate next steps.

Respiratory Symptoms to Watch For

The most common side effects of exposure to essential oils include coughing, wheezing, sneezing, and other respiratory reactions. It will likely be obvious if your pet has accidentally inhaled high concentrations of a harmful airborne substance. Exposure to essential oils in the air could be especially dangerous for pets who are regularly exposed to other irritants, like second-hand smoke, or who suffer from pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Neurological Symptoms to Watch For

The ASPCA’s pet poisoning experts note that essential oils are among the most common causes of tremors in cats. Overexposure can also manifest itself in additional neurological symptoms like:

More Symptoms of Essential Oil Poisoning in Pets

Additional signs of dangerous exposure to essential oil include:

What to Do If You Pet Is Having a Reaction

If you believe your pet is experiencing a negative reaction to an essential oil, your immediate next steps will largely depend on the type of exposure.

Types of Exposure

Whatever your pet’s symptoms, taking action is essential for addressing them quickly and getting cats, dogs, birds, or other pets on the mend.

Talk to Your Veterinarian

The easiest way to safely introduce something new to your pet’s life or healthcare regimen is to discuss it with your veterinarian. They may have insights for administering essential oils to your pet or using them throughout your home in the most pet-safe way possible. Alternatively, they may steer you toward more traditional options that could provide the benefits you’re looking for.