Tea tree oil in a bowl and jar.

Is Tea Tree Oil Safe for Dogs and Cats?

As the popularity of essential oils for household and holistic use rises, so does the potential danger for curious pets. It is of the utmost importance that pet parents know the risks of using essential oils in the home and avoid exposure to potentially toxic chemical compounds.

The essential aspect of essential oils is the “essence,” or defining characteristic, of a plant’s fragrance. These concentrated liquids are found in soaps, perfumes, cosmetics, candles, cleaning supplies, and even used as flavoring for food and drink. Most commonly, essential oils are used for aromatherapy. Aromatherapy uses fragrant essential oils to enhance both physical and emotional health, and is considered a form of alternative medicine.

Essential oils contain volatile compounds, or compounds that easily vaporize at room temperature. Therefore, they are often experienced through diffusers, candles, oils, bath salts or soaks, inhalers, or cosmetic and body care products.

Common Types of Essential Oils

According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, the most commonly used essential oils include:

Tea tree oil is derived from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia, which is a tree found in Australia. Although it’s called tea tree, the leaves of this plant cannot be used to make drinkable tea. The Indigenous people of Australia crush the leaves and inhale the fragrance to treat coughs, as well as place it topically to heal wounds. Tea tree oil is now available in 100% concentration or diluted forms at 5 – 50% dilution for skin care products. It contains a number of antimicrobial compounds, including terpinen-4-ol, due to their activation of white blood cells.

Symptoms of Tea Tree Oil Toxicity

Toxicity of essential oils can vary depending on the oil, quality, and concentration. Because tea tree oil can be used at 100% concentration, toxicity is far more common for pets. Toxicity can occur when animals get oil on their feet or haircoat, ingest an oil, or the oil is placed directly onto them and is absorbed through the skin.

According to the ASPCA Poison Control Center, symptoms of essential oil toxicity include:

A dog or cat’s toxicity is usually limited to ingestion and direct topical application of essential oils. If a diffuser is being used, the diffuse time should be limited and kept out of reach of your pets. Pets with respiratory disease may be more sensitive to essential oils and, therefore, their use should be limited or completely avoided to prevent respiratory distress or asthma attacks.

If you must use essential oils in your home, make sure they are kept in a secure area, not applied directly to your pet or ingested by them, and, if diffused into the air, that the diffuse time is limited and not near any pets with diagnosed or suspected respiratory disease.