Some highly opinionated, unsubstantiated internet posts about the dangers of essential oils to our pets are scaring pet parents.
Diffusing essential oils should be done with caution and may be dangerous to pets in some circumstances. Making you think that you may be killing your pets, however, by average use of a diffuser is largely sensational and not based on evidence.
The topic of essential oils and our pets is very controversial, particularly concerning our pets’ safety. Evidence is scarce. Anything you read on the internet should be regarded with skepticism.
Cats Are Not Dropping Dead from Essential Oils
A recent internet post I saw claims “diffusing essential oils kills cats” and names many commonly used oils. The poster bases this claim on the cat’s particular inability to metabolize these oils. Cats lack or are deficient in a certain liver enzyme, glucuronyl transferase. This lack leads to death, according to the post.
Cats are more sensitive to certain essential oils, partly because of their liver metabolism, but the majority of these oils are not intensely toxic or fatal to cats. Cats have alternative pathways to metabolize essential oils, although there may be risks if you are in love with your diffuser and use it frequently.
The post closes with this statement: “Your cat could be fine for YEARS but then horribly sick without warning.” This has made most of my veterinary friends laugh out loud. Many, many cats are fine for years and then become very sick. Essential oil toxicity is not high on a veterinarian’s differential list when presented with a sick cat.
The Facebook Tea Tree Oil Post
Another story circulating on Facebook tells the tale of a dog exhibiting significant neurologic symptoms after continual exposure to diffused tea tree oil for many hours. With supportive veterinary care, the dog is OK.
This story is a bit surprising. Tea tree oil is known to be toxic to animals at high concentrations, but toxicity is usually related to the oil being placed directly on the animal’s skin purposely by the owner or by the pet ingesting it.
In the Facebook case, the dog was supposedly exposed only to diffused fumes and still became sick. Can the human be sure there was no ingestion of or direct contact with the tea tree oil?
Essential Oil Facts and Common Sense
- Essential oils may cause or exacerbate respiratory or liver problems in certain cats and other pets and therefore should be used with caution. When essential oils are actively diffused, tiny little oil droplets are inhaled and enter the lungs. Could the long-time use and inhalation of these oils cause something like secondhand smoke, which causes lung cancer? The droplets also like to hang out in fatty tissues such as the brain. That doesn’t sound too good.
- Essential oils should not be used anywhere near birds. Enough said.
- Essential oils should not be put on the fur or skin of any pet. Not only can the absorption be toxic, but pets have a tendency to lick themselves and ingest the oil, which can lead to toxicity. Some alternative veterinarians cautiously use essential oils therapeutically under strict supervision. Heed the familiar warning: “Do not try this at home.”
- Pets should always have an escape route when an essential oil is being diffused. This is a fact often overlooked by their humans. Realize that you may be moving about the house, walking in and out of the droplet-filled air, but your pets might be sleeping or confined to the essential oil area with no way out. The droplets can settle and penetrate their fur and nostrils.
- There are many ways to diffuse essential oils, and quality and purity of these oils vary greatly. The more active the diffuser, the more likely the air will contain more oil droplets, intensifying the effect.
- Animals possess fabulous noses. By the time you’re happy with the level of scent from your diffuser, your pets might be over it. A toxicologist compared a dog sitting in a room with diffused essential oils to a human stuck in an airtight phone booth with a lady who bathed in her perfume that morning. The lesson here? Give your pets some fresh air.
“The Dose Makes the Poison”
Toxicity depends on the specifics of the patient and the substance. Whenever you call poison control, the toxicologist will want to know:
- The specific product (essential oils vary greatly)
- The amount ingested, applied or inhaled
- The weight and type of animal
- When the exposure occurred
These questions may be difficult to answer in the case of diffusing or placing a drop of essential oil on your pet.
Watch this vet administer the essential oil frankincense to the fur of this shiba inu:
For the record, I’d like to make a disclaimer that I am not a fan of essential oils or any scent filling my house except the honest smell of home cooking or the warm scent of a real wood stove. I hated incense in dorm rooms, potpourri that made kitchens smell like Cracker Barrels and car deodorizers that made front seats smell like public bathrooms.
Essential oils are more than fragrance, you may argue, and it is true they may have medicinal or relaxing properties. Certain essential oils are calming to humans and may trigger good memories. But by the time you are relaxing in the fugue of a certain scent, it might be overpowering, even nauseating, for your pets.
There have been no definitive studies done on long-term exposure to essential oils, in animals or in humans. We do know, however, that some components of many essential oils have some level of toxicity and/or carcinogenicity.
So, yeah — I’m a fan of fresh air. No doctoring needed.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed March 7, 2018.