A few days ago I overheard some friends discussing their use of essential oils. One mom has found them to be very useful in helping a child cope with a significant developmental disorder; another raved about their positive effects on anxiety, sleep, and whole range of other issues. As I listened in, I became concerned. All of these families include dogs and cats, and while I don’t have much experience using oils to treat pets, I am quite familiar with their toxic effects.
Let me provide some background for those of you who are unfamiliar with essential oils. Essential oils are simply aromatic oils (fatty liquids) naturally produced by plants that are extracted and concentrated using various techniques. Sometimes the oil from a specific plant is packaged and sold alone — for example, clove or lavender oil — but companies also produce their own blends and market them for certain conditions (e.g., “Serenity,” a calming blend). Essential oils can be used for aromatherapy, applied to the skin, or in some cases, ingested.
Dogs, and especially cats, are much more sensitive to many essential oils than are people. Several scientific studies have been published in recent years that drive home this point. In one looking at the use of tea tree oil in dogs and cats, the authors mention that “undiluted TTO [tea tree oil] can be used topically in humans by most individuals without adverse effects” but that the concentration of topical veterinary TTO preparations marketed for “cleaning hair, healing hotspots, and treating some skin allergies” typically ranges “from 0.1% to 1.0%.”
The study shows why tea tree oil must always be diluted with a benign carrier oil before being applied to dogs and cats. The authors found that “intentional or accidental use of 100% TTO in dogs or cats caused serious signs of CNS [central nervous system] depression, paresis [weakness], ataxia [unsteadiness], or tremors within hours after exposure and lasting up to 3 days. Younger cats and those with lighter body weight were at greater risk of developing major illness.”
Unfortunately, some products containing essential oils that are labeled for use in pets can be equally dangerous. A 2012 study looked at the medical records of 39 cats and 9 dogs who became sick after receiving treatment with so-called “natural” flea prevention products. While most flea control products benefit from oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, the same is not true for those that contain “only” essential oils. The authors found that:
Dogs and cats can experience significant adverse effects when exposed to plant-derived flea preventatives even when used according to label directions. The number of reports of exposure in cats was higher than dogs, but the frequency of reported adverse effects was similar between the 2 species. Agitation and hypersalivation [drooling] were common in cats, whereas lethargy and vomiting were common in dogs.
Essential oils can have a powerful effect, but whether that effect is for good or for bad has everything to do with the particular oil in question, its dose, and the species exposed. Never treat your pet with essential oils without first consulting with a veterinarian familiar with their use.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Concentrated tea tree oil toxicosis in dogs and cats: 443 cases (2002-2012). Khan SA, McLean MK, Slater MR. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Jan 1;244(1):95-9.
Adverse reactions from essential oil-containing natural flea products exempted from Environmental Protection Agency regulations in dogs and cats. Genovese AG, McLean MK, Khan SA. J Vet Emerg Crit Care (San Antonio). 2012 Aug;22(4):470-5.