Ask the Expert

Are essential oils dangerous to pets?

Annie Wayne, V11, VG11, and Lindsey Krupa, V19, from the emergency and critical care department at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, explain
various essential oils in bottles
Pets are most often poisoned when essential oils come into contact with the skin. Photo: iStockphoto
December 21, 2018

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Essential oils can be very dangerous for pets, particularly in their 100 percent concentrated form. And with essential oils’ growing popularity and the use of diffusors and warmers, which release the oils into a home’s air, pets’ risk of exposure increases. Birds are especially sensitive and should never be exposed to essential oils.

Pets are most often poisoned when essential oils come into contact with the skin. (Animals also sometimes ingest these products, though that seems to occur far less commonly.) Owners should tread cautiously when using 100 percent essential oils both on themselves and in the home. If you diffuse essential oils, do so only for short periods of time in a room separate and secure from your pets. You also should keep the oils and diffusers out of pets’ reach even when they’re not in use.

Be especially careful when it comes to tea tree oil, a common ingredient in many of these products. It can be very toxic to cats and other small animals, as well as to young animals and children. Although some dogs are treated with tea tree oil for various ailments, including skin conditions, it is never safe to use on cats. That’s because the toxin found in tea tree oil is metabolized by the liver, and cats have less of the liver enzyme necessary for this than dogs.

Cats also can get very ill if they come into contact with or groom a canine housemate being treated with tea tree oil.

Never apply essential oils to a dog without the advice and direction of a veterinarian—and be sure to inform your veterinarian about all the other pets in your home.

Signs and symptoms of essential-oil poisoning in pets include vomiting, diarrhea, wobbliness, drooling, depression, lethargy, weakness, tremors, and abnormal behavior. There’s a significant association between the pet’s weight, age, and species—especially cats—with the severity of illness. The smaller and younger a pet is, the sicker they are likely to get. The same goes for pets with liver disease. 

If you are concerned that your pet may have ingested or come into contact with an essential oil, immediately call your veterinarian, a veterinary emergency room, or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.

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