Risks of Essential Oils
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Essential oils are compounds that give plants their scent and taste. They are volatile compounds, meaning that they evaporate quickly and release chemicals into the air. Essential oils are in many products: aromatherapy products, home fragrances, flavorings, personal care items (like shampoo), “natural” remedies, insect repellents, and so forth.
Essential oils can sometimes be dangerous for pets, so be aware of the possible risks if you use these products. Whether an essential oil will cause a problem for an animal depends on the type of exposure, the concentration of oil, the animal’s individual risk factors, and the type of oil.
The following essential oils are known to be toxic to cats and dogs, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.[1,2]
How Animals Are Exposed
Essential oils enter the body through the skin, by swallowing, or by inhalation. Pets are most often exposed to toxic levels when owners apply an essential oil directly to the skin or fur in an attempt to treat a skin condition or repel fleas. The oil is absorbed into the body through the skin, and the animal is further exposed by licking oil from the fur. The risk increases with higher concentrations of essential oils. Products containing a high percentage of essential oil (approaching 100%) should never be applied directly to an animal’s skin or hair.
Diffusers spread the fragrance of essential oils into a space. Passive diffusers work through evaporation: they send the scent of the oil, but not the oil itself, into the air. Passive diffusers are mainly a risk if a pet knocks one over and licks the oil or gets oil on the fur. Active diffusers (like nebulizers and ultrasonic diffusers) send actual particles of oil into the air. Oil from active diffusers can get onto an animal’s skin or be inhaled into the lungs, so the animal can have direct exposure to the oil without touching the diffuser. Strong odors from either type of diffuser can cause respiratory tract irritation.
Animals at Risk
Cats are at higher risk from essential oils than dogs are. Cats lack a liver enzyme that helps eliminate essential oils from the body. Cats and other animals that groom themselves are also more likely to swallow oil that’s collected on the fur.
Animals with asthma or other respiratory problems are at higher risk than others from inhalation exposure from diffusers. Birds are very sensitive to respiratory irritants, so diffusers can also cause problems for them.
Depending on the type of oil and the amount of exposure, essential oil toxicity can cause vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, tremors, loss of balance, skin irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing, low heart rate, low body temperature, rear leg paralysis, and liver failure.
Animals with symptoms of essential oil poisoning need veterinary care and might need to be hospitalized for intensive care.
Using Essential Oils Safely
Use essential oils with caution if you have pets. These tips can help keep your pets safe:
1. Benson K. Essential oils and cats. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/blog/essential-oils-cats/
2. Marshall J. Essential oils and dogs. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/pet-safety-tips/essential-oils-dogs/
Photo by Kadarius Seegars on Unsplash
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Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.