Are Essential Oils Safe for Dogs and Cats?
By Maranda Elswick, DVM
Once limited to specialty shops and natural food stores, essential oils can be found just about everywhere these days. The popularity of these natural plant-derived oils has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks largely to their pleasing scents and the benefits attributed to them. Not only do essential oils make our homes smell delightful, proponents claim the soothing scents can potentially improve our health and help us feel more centered, too.
But are these products safe for our pets? Using essential oils to improve pet health remains a controversial topic. While some holistic veterinarians and alternative medicine practitioners may recommend certain essential oils, most veterinary professionals urge pet parents to steer clear of them. At best, the benefits of essential oils remain unproven in pets. At worst, some essential oils can put your pet’s health at serious risk.
Unfortunately, products labeled “all natural” or “organic” are not always safe for dogs and cats because our pets often can’t metabolize substances the way we do. This makes it difficult for them to eliminate certain toxins from their bodies, including some essential oils. These can be very dangerous to pets if ingested, inhaled, or applied topically – especially in highly-concentrated forms.
Therefore, pet parents must be cautious when using essential oils around pets. Make sure you understand how to use essential oils safely and which essential oils should be avoided altogether. Not only are dogs and cats at risk, but rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other pets can also be harmed by essential oils. Birds are especially susceptible to the toxic effects of inhaled oils.
How Essential Oils Affect Dogs and Cats
To keep your pet safe around essential oils, it’s important to know some basics about how they work. Essential oils are fatty aromatic compounds extracted from various plants. These compounds are distilled into a broad range of concentrations – from 100% pure essential oil all the way down to concentrations of 1-20%, which are diluted with a non-aromatic carrier oil. The more concentrated the oil is, the more dangerous it can be to pets.
Because essential oils are lipophilic, they are readily absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and nose), which carry the oils into the bloodstream where most are metabolized and eliminated by the liver.
Essential oils can also float through the air as scents, traveling through the nose to the olfactory nerves and then onto the amygdala, where the oils trigger a response in the emotional center of the brain. For instance, the smell of lavender can instill a sense of calm, while peppermint evokes energy and invigoration. Many people use essential oils for a wide range of potential health benefits, including: to regulate sleep, reduce anxiety, as well as to ease muscle aches and nasal congestion. In addition to aromatherapy, certain essential oils may also act as insect repellants, keeping mosquitoes and other bugs at bay.
Essential oils come in various forms: pure essential oils, air fresheners, and room sprays, flavorings, herbal remedies, perfumes, aromatherapy jewelry, bath and personal products, household cleaning products (such as Pine-Sol®), candles, and liquid potpourri, as well as passive or active diffusers.
Passive diffusers include reed diffusers, warmers, or plug-ins; these all diffuse essential oil scents into a room, which can cause respiratory irritation in dogs and cats. In contrast, active diffusers, such as nebulizers or ultrasonic diffusers, release not only a scent, but also microdroplets of oil that settle onto nearby objects. In addition to respiratory irritation, using active diffusers can actually expose your pet to an even greater potential threat, when they ingest the oil on their fur while grooming.
Pet-safe Essential Oils
While pet parents should avoid using the majority of essential oils, a few are safe for pets if used appropriately. For example, lavender (when used sparingly and in the proper concentration) is probably the safest essential oil for both dogs and cats. However, due to species variations, other oils that are safe for dogs may not be safe for cats.
When an oil is used, it needs to be diluted and applied appropriately. Because the degree of toxicity of essential oils is dose-dependent, the more concentrated the product, the more dangerous it can be.
Your veterinarian can advise you on dilution and dosage guidelines for specific oils, as well as which pet-safe carrier oils to use (such as coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, almond oil, and grapeseed oil). Most often, at least 1 drop of pure essential oil to 50 drops of a pure carrier oil is required for proper dilution of pet-friendly oils.
Keep in mind that even safe essential oils can still cause airway irritation if inhaled. It’s always a good idea to ask your veterinarian about the safety of an essential oil product marketed for pets – such as shampoos, sprays, or calming treats – before using them.
Furthermore, just because an oil is safe for a dog or cat doesn’t necessarily mean it will improve their health. For instance, citrus oils (including citronella and lemon oils), when used to repel pests, can theoretically help reduce the severity of flea and tick infestations as well as the presence of mosquitos. However, no scientific research has proven that these essential oils are fully effective at preventing disease-carrying external parasites or mosquito bites – especially not at a safe, non-toxic concentration. Therefore, essential oils should never replace veterinary-approved, year-round monthly flea, tick, and heartworm prevention measures.
Essential Oils Safe for Dogs:
- Cedarwood oil: acts as an insect repellant
- Chamomile oil: elicits a soothing effect and helps calm the gastrointestinal system
- Citrus oils (including lemon oil and orange oil): act as a mosquito repellant and deodorizer
- Eucalyptus oil
- Fennel oil
- Frankincense oil: currently being evaluated as a therapy for bladder cancer in humans and dogs
- Helichrysum oil: a member of the sunflower family with some potential in aiding bleeding disorders
- Lavender oil: induces a calming effect; Dog parents may also wish to consider the calming line of Adaptil® canine appeasing pheromone products, such as collars, sprays, and diffusers.
- Lemongrass oil
- Certain mint oils (peppermint, spearmint): help calm GI upset
- Rose oil
Essential Oils Safe for Cats:
- Chamomile oil
- Jasmine oil
- Lavender oil
- Rose oil
Keep These Essential Oils Away from Pets
When it comes to essential oils, it’s a bad idea to assume that what’s safe for the pet parent is safe for the pet. Due to metabolic differences, the same oil we can enjoy with no ill effects can cause GI upset, chemical scalding of the mouth or esophagus, as well as respiratory, neurologic, and liver damage in our pets. In severe cases, death may result.
Cats are especially susceptible to the toxic effects of essential oils. Being such fastidious groomers, cats are at increased risk of developing toxicity when oils settle on their skin or fur. In such cases, oils enter the body via inhalation, ingestion, and across the skin barrier simultaneously, quickly reaching a toxic concentration in the bloodstream. Because felines lack the enzymes that enable the liver to metabolize many essential oils and eliminate toxins, pet parents should avoid using oral, topical, and other inhaled oils around cats.
In addition to pets with respiratory disease (including asthma and bronchitis), essential oil use should also be avoided around dogs and cats with liver disorders, elderly pets, puppies and kittens, or pregnant or nursing animals. Furthermore, prevent pets with open wounds or sores from direct dermal contact with such oils, as the broken skin could allow for more rapid absorption.
Avoid applying essential oils to your pet’s sensitive areas – eyes, ears, nose, and genitals. For instance, attempting to treat ear mites by applying an essential oil to the ear canal can damage your pet’s skin, nerves, and eardrums. Leave the ear mite treatment to your veterinarian! Additionally, topical use of an essential oil like tea tree oil to treat dermatologic conditions, such as hot spots or skin allergies, often causes much more skin irritation. The risks greatly outweigh any potential benefit.
The following list is not exhaustive, but it contains some of the most common dangerous essential oils. If in doubt, consult your veterinarian or check the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC)’s website on toxic and non-toxic plants.
Essential Oils Bad for Dogs:
- Cassia oil
- Hot oils (including cinnamon oil, clove oil, and oregano oil): Although cinnamon oil is an ingredient in some over-the-counter “natural” flea and tick spot-on treatments and collars due to its potential pest repellent properties, it can be toxic to dogs and cats and is not fully protective against external parasites.
- Pennyroyal oil
- Pine oils
- Sweet birch oil
- Tea tree oil (also known as melaleuca oil): Tea tree oil is responsible for the majority of essential oil toxicity cases in dogs and cats. Though tea tree oil carries some antiseptic properties, it should never be fed to or applied to the skin or fur of a dog or cat. Even in diluted form, tea tree oil can be very toxic if ingested or applied topically to a dog or cat.
- Thyme oil
- Wintergreen oil
Essential Oils Bad for Cats:
- Basil oil
- Bitter almond oil
- Citrus oils (oils that contain d-limonene, including citronella, bergamot oil, grapefruit oil, lemon oil, lime oil, orange oil, and tangerine oil): Most cats dislike the scent of citrus. While you may be tempted to place citrus oils like lemon or orange oils around areas where your cat is urine marking or jumping where they shouldn’t, the d-limonene component of citrus oils is toxic to cats, so these products should be avoided. To help calm your cat and deter unwanted destructive behaviors, consider a safe and effective alternative, such as Feliway pheromone spray or diffuser.
- Dill oil
- Fennel oil
- Geranium oil
- Hot oils (including cinnamon oil, clove oil, and oregano oil)
- Juniper oil
- Lemongrass oil
- Menthol oils or mint oils (including eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, spearmint oil, sweet birch oil*, and wintergreen oil*): *these two oils contain methyl salicylates, products similar to aspirin that are toxic to cats.
- Myrrh oil
- Nutmeg oil
- Oregano oil
- Pennyroyal oil
- Pine oils (these contain toxic phenols)
- Rosemary oil
- Sandalwood oil
- Sassafras oil
- Tarragon oil
- Tea tree oil (also known as melaleuca oil)
- Thyme oil
- Wormwood oil
- Ylang ylang oil
How to Spot Signs of Essential Oil Poisoning in Pets
Pet parents should monitor their pets for the following signs of essential oil toxicity. Prompt veterinary treatment as soon as any of these symptoms appear is key to preventing long-lasting respiratory, neurologic, or liver damage.
- Gastrointestinal upset: Symptoms include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea.
- Respiratory irritation: Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, panting open-mouth breathing in a cat. Severe cases can result in aspiration pneumonia and respiratory distress.
- Dermatologic irritation or injury to the eyes, ears, nose, or throat: Symptoms include red or watery eyes, squinting the eye or holding it shut, running nose, red lips or gums, red skin, drooling, pawing at the face (due to a burning sensation).
- Central nervous system impairment: Symptoms include ataxia (wobbliness or difficulty standing), muscle weakness or tremors, depression or lethargy, behavior changes. Severe cases can result in collapse, seizures, paralysis of the hind limbs, hypothermia (low body temperature), bradycardia (low heart rate), and hypotension (low blood pressure).
- Liver damage: Symptoms include vomiting, increased urination, and thirst, yellowing of the eyes/skin/gums, bruising. Severe cases can result in liver failure or hepatic necrosis.
Treating Essential Oil Poisoning in Pets
- If your dog or cat is experiencing mild respiratory irritation after inhaling an essential oil, move them to an area with fresh air.
- If an essential oil came in contact with your pet’s skin or fur, wash the area with a pet-safe dishwashing liquid, such as Dawn®.
- If your dog or cat ingested an essential oil, consult with your veterinarian or poison control center immediately. Do not induce vomiting.
If you are concerned that your pet is experiencing essential oil poisoning or toxicity and your pet has not improved after taking the above measures or is showing severe signs, contact your nearest open veterinary clinic or emergency hospital or a poison control hotline:
- ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC): 1-888-426-4435 (consultation fee applies)
- Pet Poison Helpline: 1-855-764-7661 (consultation fee applies)
Note that, if you're a 24PetWatch Insurance Programs policyholder, these consultation fees are eligible claims for reimbursement.
If your veterinarian advises that you seek treatment, bring the essential oil product with you to your veterinary visit to aid your vet in identifying the toxic substance and dose. Your veterinarian will start with a physical exam and bloodwork. If your dog or cat is in respiratory distress, oxygen support will be provided. If the mouth or esophagus has suffered chemical burns, a feeding tube may be inserted for a few days while the injury heals. Fluids, IV lipid therapy, and supportive care may be provided depending on the severity of your pet’s toxicity. Hospitalization over several days may be required.
Tips for Using Essential Oils Safely Around Pets
Fortunately, the majority of essential oil toxicity cases carry a good prognosis with prompt detection and veterinary treatment. However, prevention is key. Pet parents can reduce the risk of harm to their dogs and cats by following these safety tips when using essential oils at home.
- Only use pet-safe essential oils from reputable brands, and dilute appropriately with a pet-friendly carrier oil before administering to your dog or cat. Avoid use around animals more susceptible to ill effects. And never feed a highly-concentrated product to your pet or apply it topically.
- Never force an essential oil on your pet – even those deemed pet-safe – if they don’t appear to like it. Try the “smell test” to introduce your pet to the oil first.
- Do not add essential oils to your pet’s food.
- Keep essential oil bottles and products out of your pet’s reach or locked in a cabinet. This includes the reservoirs for diffusers and liquid potpourri, which pets can easily knock over if left unattended. Ingesting large quantities can be fatal!
- If using a passive diffuser, make sure your pet can get away from the area. Avoid use around birds.
- Avoid using an active diffuser when your pet is in the room, especially around birds and pets that groom frequently, such as cats.
- Limit your use of diffusers, sprays, and other essential oil products to a short period of time, and air out the room before allowing your pet inside.
- Avoid combining different oils (which can inadvertently raise the concentration), and avoid using pure products or blends in which the concentration is not specified on the label.
- After applying an essential oil product on yourself, such as a perfume or massage oil, always wash your hands before handling your dog or cat. And do not allow your pet to lick the product off your skin or clothing.
Dr. Maranda Elswick graduated in 2015 from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with an emphasis in small animal general practice and special interests in preventative medicine, hospice care, client communication, and client education. She is a licensed veterinarian in Florida and Virginia. Dr. Elswick is also founder of The Meowing Vet, LLC, a quirky veterinary web presence with free health articles for pet owners, vet students, and veterinary professionals. An avid traveler, she currently resides in Florida with her fiancé (also a veterinarian) and their two dogs.