By Paula Fitzsimmons
Neem oil has been touted as a miracle product, most notably as an insect repellant, but also as a skin soother, treatment for ringworm, and anti-inflammatory. But does it live up to the claims? And even if it does, is it safe to use on your furry family members?
While veterinarians say neem oil can benefit some animals, there are also limits to what it can do. Before trying it on your dog or cat, learn the risks involved and how to use it safely and effectively.
What Is Neem Oil?
Neem oil is a carrier oil extracted from the neem (Azadirachta indica), a tree native to Sri Lanka, Burma, and India, and now grown in tropical regions around the world.
Ayurvedic practitioners use most parts of the tree to treat various conditions, says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, medical director at Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia. In the United States, oil from the seed is used, most commonly as a topical application. “Cold pressed oil is the preferred method of oil extraction, and the oil varies in color from yellow to brown to red.”
Neem oil contains properties like omega-6 and omega-9 essential fatty acids and vitamin E, but most of its benefits are attributed to triterpenes, Pinn says. (Triterpenes are a chemical compound in plants and animals that allows them to manage inflammation.)
“The most common triterpenes are azadirachtin and nimbin,” she says. “Azadirachtin is a powerful insecticide. Nimbin is known to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antifungal, antihistamine, and fever reducing properties.”
These benefits come with a drawback, however. “While there are many properties of neem that make it attractive to want to use, those who use it quickly fall out of love with it due to the strong odor, and difficulty in working with pure product,” says Dr. Melissa Shelton, holistic veterinarian and owner of Crow River Animal Hospital in Howard Lake, Minnesota. Experts liken the smell to garlic, even in its diluted form.
Can Our Pets Benefit from Neem Oil?
Neem oil is most reliably used as a repellant. “Neem oil can be used topically to repel and kill common biting insects, including mosquitoes, biting midges, and fleas,” says McFaddin, who is an integrative veterinarian. It’s questionable whether neem oil is effective at repelling and killing ticks, she adds.
Its effectiveness depends on a number of factors. “The ability for neem oil to be antimicrobial and antiparasitic is variable pending the degree of susceptibility of the organism for which it is being used to deter and the concentration, frequency, and duration of the product’s use,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, veterinarian and owner of Los Angeles-based California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness.
Vets advise against using neem oil—or any other herbal remedy—as a sole repellant, and say it should be used in conjunction with traditional preventives. “Mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks carry life-threatening diseases such as heartworm, Babesia, Bartonella, Lyme disease, tapeworm, and many more,” says Dr. Danielle Conway, a nutrition resident at the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. Pet parents who do opt for neem oil as their only repellant should be diligent about regularly checking their pets for parasites, she adds. Blood testing every three to six months is recommended for pets who are not on a monthly medicated flea, mosquito, and tick preventative, says Dr. Katie Grzyb, medical director at One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. “Tests will monitor for heartworm and tick-borne disease,” she says. “The earlier the diagnosis, the easier and less expensive the treatment in most cases.”
Some of neem oil’s properties—azadirachtin, nimbin, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E—suggest that it might also be effective in treating ringworm, local demodectic mange, hot spots, soothing inflamed skin, and reducing itch, says McFaddin. “However, there are no studies documenting the efficacy of neem oil for the successful treatment of these conditions.”
How to Use Neem Oil
Neem oil should only be used topically and ingestion should be avoided, our experts stress. It’s available commercially as topical tinctures, sprays, and shampoos, McFaddin says. Not all products are equal, however. “These products are not generally regulated and purity of the ingredients may be questionable,” she adds. This is why buying neem oil from a trusted source is essential.
If you (and your pet) can stand the smell, you can try to make your own solution at home. Proper dilution is critical, with most vets in agreement that the final product should not contain more than 1 percent neem oil. “Pet owners can make their own spray or shampoo having neem oil in a 1:10 part dilution with another oil like olive or almond,” offers Mahaney.
Conway recommends a do-it-yourself product suggested in Veterinary Herbal Medicine, a reference book by veterinarians Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougere. “Pet parents can make their own topical products by adding 25mL of oil to 400mL shampoo, or adding 1 cup of neem leaf to 1 liter of water, bring to a low simmer for five minutes, and use as a topical spray daily.” Grzyb recommends testing a small area on your pet prior to treating the inflamed regions to see if he has any allergic reaction to the product.
Risks of Using Neem Oil
At the proper concentration, neem oil is generally considered safe. “Neem oil is not listed as a toxic plant product for cats or dogs as per the ASPCA Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline, yet I always recommend cautious use with all dogs and cats under the guidelines of the pet’s primary veterinarian,” Mahaney says.
Another reason to consult with your pet’s vet, and a reminder that natural is not necessarily synonymous with safety, is that “neem oil can interact with insulin, some oral diabetic medications agents, and thyroid hormone supplementation medication,” McFaddin says.
Because the risks of using undiluted neem oil are not known, Mahaney doesn’t recommend pet parents use concentrated products. “If a pet owner is to make their own dilution, then the 1:10 dilution factor should be used.”
In its undiluted form, neem oil can potentially irritate the skin surface, especially on already-irritated skin, or if left on for more than 24 hours at a time, he says. “Additionally, if a non-diluted or sufficiently diluted product is used on a pet and the product is consumed, then a pet could exhibit [excessive] salivation, appetite changes, vomiting, or other health concerns.”
Neem oil has mostly been used on dogs and horses with a fairly wide safety margin, Shelton says. “Cats have not used neem as widely, and for now, we would still recommend caution, as cats groom much more than other species (and are more likely to ingest it). Until safety data and veterinary use is documented further, we would suggest refraining from use of neem unless guided by a veterinarian.”
If your pet is in distress after you apply neem oil—signs include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, respiratory distress, or convulsions—Conway says you should discontinue use.
Neem oil can aid in repelling and killing parasites, but vets recommend against relying on it as your only source of insect repellant. Whether neem oil offers a safe and effective way to treat other conditions is questionable at this point. As with other herbal remedies, there just isn’t enough data available for its use in companion animals. When in doubt, always ask your vet.