Is It Safe to Use Essential Oils for Fleas and Ticks on Dogs?

Published Jul. 18, 2022
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Most of us have swapped our chemical exposure in products for safer alternatives throughout the years, so it makes sense why pet parents would want to find safe or natural treatment options for their pets.

When it comes to treating fleas and ticks on dogs, many pet parents inquire about natural options, including essential oils. Why use a pesticide when there are natural options available? It’s a good question, but essential oils are not quite what you expect and can cause more harm than good for your dog.

What Are Essential Oils?

Many people are surprised to discover that essential oils are still chemicals. These chemicals include complex hydrocarbons as well as other compounds that have been derived from plant material and can be used as antimicrobials, pesticides, medications, and preservatives. 

Their makeup can be chemically diverse, meaning they may include many different compounds or distilled down to only a few chemicals. Whether an essential oil is chemically diverse or simple will largely depend on its intended usage, type of plant, location, conditions under which the plant was grown, and how the chemical was extracted.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to compile good toxicology information on most of these products—and equally difficult to ensure safety when using them. This is due to the wide variation from brand to brand, lot specificity, and vial volume.

Many essential oils have been associated with toxicities of varying degrees, and some are quite severe. For example, wintergreen has caused coma and death in dogs while clove may cause seizures and damage the liver. Some oils have milder side effects. Citronella and peppermint, for instance, can cause vomiting at low doses—and seizure at higher doses.

Even though the history of essential oil use goes back to the ancient Egyptians, medicine has progressed significantly, and safer chemicals are now available for use.

Can You Use Essential Oils for Flea Control?

One of the areas where essential oils have long been touted as a natural option to medications is in the arena of flea control. Early uses of pesticides have given them a bad name (who doesn’t remember DDT?) and many of us are eager to do all we can to avoid them. However, that may not be doing any favors for your dog.

Although essential oils have been tried on dogs and cats, the potential toxicity can carry high risk, and many veterinarians discourage their use. Essential oils are not carefully regulated as pharmaceutical medications, and health claims are often not supported by independent, peer-reviewed medical research.

Essential Oils Toxicity to Dogs

Each essential oil typically has different compounds that can be toxic. Long-term studies are lacking, but the organs that seem to be most affected include the GI tract, brain and spinal cord, heart, kidneys, liver, and skin. Toxicity has been reported from topical use, oral use, and inhalation.

Some of the compounds involved may be familiar, such as limonene, eugenol, citronellal, menthol, and methyl salicylate, among others. In some cases, a tiny amount is enough to result in toxicity and in other cases, larger amounts are required to cause a toxic reaction. Because potency varies between batches, there is no way to know how much has been administered to a dog.

How Essential Oils Can Affect Dogs

Symptoms of a problem depend on how the oil is administered. Dogs taking oral compounds may show gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea initially, while topical products may show irritation and skin rash. Pets that inhale oils may show respiratory distress, rapid breathing, and coughing. 

However, as the product gradually enters the blood stream, the active chemicals can take over and other signs may develop. This causes a wide range of symptoms including fevers, organ failure, bleeding disorders, respiratory failure, cardiovascular collapse, seizures, comas, and even death.

Accidental ingestion (such as when a dog tries to lick the chemicals off the coat) can result in illness.  Often, gastrointestinal signs are the first stage in which the dog experiences vomiting and diarrhea, and from there, additional signs may develop as the chemical is absorbed into the body.

If you suspect or know your dog has been treated with essential oils, or accidentally ingested such a product, contact your veterinarian or poison control immediately.

How to Prevent and Treat Fleas and Ticks on Dogs

The good news is that there are many safe and effective options for preventing fleas and ticks on dogs, and your veterinarian can help you choose one that is best for your household. 

  • Topical products (such as Vectra) are safe and effective at clearing flea infestations quickly.
  • Oral products (such as Bravecto) also work well and have an advantage since humans in the household are not touching the product when they pet the dog.
  • Collars (such as Seresto) work for up to eight months to control flea infestations. 

Don’t forget to treat the house when it comes to a flea infestation. Flea eggs and larvae are great at hiding in the carpet, bedding, and small cracks where they lay in wait to develop into adult fleas.

Fleas are a major health problem and a nuisance for pet owners. Everyone wants to use the safest products for their family to control pests, but it’s important to be mindful of labels when it comes to safe and natural products. Always discuss flea and tick preventative options with your veterinarian to help find the best one for your beloved Fido.

Featured Image:

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra Mitchell is a 1995 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduation, she has worked in many fields...

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