Essential oils from lavender to peppermint have become increasingly popular for use in aromatherapy and as natural, alternative options to traditional medicine. These potent oils are said to do everything from balance hormones to ease anxiety to treat skin issues.
There are some ways to use essential oils safely in pets, but it should always be done under the guidance of a veterinarian who is experienced with their use. In some cases, essential oils can do more harm than good. Care should always be taken when considering alternative medicines for your pet. When used properly, certain essential oils can be beneficial, either applied topically or used in the environment as aromatherapy.
Essential Oils and Dogs
Made from highly-concentrated plant substances, essential oils have been shown to have an array of health and wellness benefits for humans. Of course, it's only natural to want to share these benefits with your pet.
Some holistic veterinarians incorporate essential oils into their treatments. However, the use of essential oils to treat ailments in animals should be done with caution. Pet owners should be aware that there isn’t yet a significant amount of research to determine whether or not these potent oils are actually effective in treating your dog.
When used inappropriately, essential oils may lead to unwanted changes in behavior, central nervous system problems, respiratory issues, and other serious health concerns. However, that doesn't mean you can't continue to use some essential oils in your home; make sure you know which are safe and which are toxic.
Potential Dangers of Essential Oils
Some essential oils can be toxic to dogs, whether consumed orally or making contact with the skin. Some of the more dangerous oils include melaleuca (tea tree), wintergreen, sweet birch, pine, pennyroyal, cinnamon, and certain citrus oils.
Melaleuca/Tea Tree Oil: Though diluted levels found in shampoos are considered safe, the high concentration of tea tree essential oil can cause significant toxicity in dogs. Whether absorbed through the skin or ingested, concentrated tea tree oil can cause irritation at the site of contact (skin, mucous membranes), vomiting, depression, drunken gait (ataxia), paralysis, low body temperature (hypothermia).
Wintergreen: Also known as Eastern Teaberry, Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. This essential oil has been used as an effective pain reliever and as a natural flavor additive in candies and gum. Dogs exposed to concentrated wintergreen oil will experience aspirin toxicity. Common effects include GI irritation and ulcers, but dogs can also develop liver and/or kidney failure.
Sweet Birch: Derived from the bark of the birch tree, this essential oil shares many properties with those of wintergreen, including the fact that it contains methyl salicylate. Toxicity in dogs is akin to aspirin toxicity.
Pine Oil: Made from the Scots Pine, these essential oils have been used to naturally clean, disinfect, and remove odors. Pine oil has also been used therapeutically in humans to reduce swelling and aid in circulation. When used orally or topically on dogs, pine oil can cause irritation to the skin, mucous membranes, and GI tract. Once absorbed, it can lead to issues in the central nervous system, liver, and kidney, Signs of toxicity include vomiting, excessive salivation, ataxia, weakness, lethargy, and disorientation.
Pennyroyal: Because this essential oil has historically been used as an insect repellent, well-intentioned pet owners may try to use it as a natural parasite preventive. Unfortunately, whether absorbed through the skin or ingested, pennyroyal can lead to liver problems in dogs. Signs include lethargy, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Left untreated, pennyroyal toxicity can lead to death.
Cinnamon: Essence of cinnamon can be found in many household items, including scented candles, fragrance diffusers, foods, and drinks. Cinnamon is all forms can be toxic to dogs, but the highly concentrated oil is the most dangerous. Dogs ingesting or coming into contact with cinnamon oil can develop low blood sugar, vomiting, diarrhea, liver disease, and changes in heart rate. While inhalation of any essential oil is dangerous, cinnamon in all forms is extremely irritating to the lungs, leading to coughing and breathing problems.
This is not a comprehensive list. Be sure to educate yourself about which oils could prove toxic to pets.
If you diffuse oils in your home, you should avoid using the above oils for aromatherapy. The diffusion itself not necessarily harmful to dogs, but having these toxins in your home is a risk.
Inhalation of essential oils is another concern for dogs. Breathing in the aroma of diffusers is generally not a problem. However, if a pet is sniffing the diffuser and gets oil in the airway, it could be disastrous. No matter the type of essential oil, all are harmful to the lungs and airway if directly inhaled.
Fortunately, there are some essential oils that generally considered safe to use around your pets as long as they are used properly.
Essential Oils for Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is said to have mental and emotional benefits for both humans and animals. Essential oils are generally safe for use around dogs as long as you take certain precautions.
Use high-quality, pure essential oils. Make sure the oils you are using come from a reputable source and are not just full of chemicals.
Always keep diffusers and oils out of reach of your dog. Clean spills thoroughly to avoid accidental ingestion.
Avoid diffusing oils at a dog's nose level. Also, keep the scent to a minimum. Even if non-toxic, essential oils can smell overwhelming and cause stress in dogs. Remember that your dog's sense of smell is about 10,000 times more acute than yours. This means that if you can barely smell something, your dog might be having sensory overload.
Make sure not to diffuse oils in every area of the home. Your dog should be able to get away from a scent if it's too overwhelming.
Lavender is a great essential oil to use for aromatherapy. It is said to have a relaxing effect on humans and animals alike. Known to be soothing to the central nervous system and calming when inhaled, a 2006 study the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association actually showed that the use of diffused lavender oil as aromatherapy helped reduced dogs’ movement and vocalization during travel. Again, use it sparingly as to not overwhelm your dog.
Can You Safely Use Essential Oils On Dogs?
If you would like to use essential oils on your dog, it should only be done under the direct supervision of a veterinarian who is educated in their use. Applying essential oils to a dog's skin or coat can be very risky. The oil may accidentally come into contact with sensitive areas such as their eyes or mucous membranes. In some cases, oils applied directly to their skin can also be irritating, particularly for pups who already suffer from sensitive skin or other dermatological issues.
Most importantly, most dogs will want to lick off anything you put on their skin or coat. Ingesting essential oils can be extremely dangerous. Always avoid letting your dog lick or swallow essential oils.
Once you have consulted a vet about which oils can benefit your dog, make sure that the essential oils you use are properly diluted. NEVER apply an essential oil to a dog when it is at 100% potency. You'll also want to keep your pet’s size in mind when diluting oils as smaller dogs will always be more vulnerable to potentially harmful side effects. Many people will dilute essential oils into olive oil, coconut oil, or similar oils. Make sure the diluting oil is also safe for pets.
Unlike when using essential oils on humans, dogs are likely to want to lick any oils off of their skin, which can result in tummy troubles. That’s why it’s especially important that pet owners are educated and guided by their veterinarian on which oils are safe to use in pet-friendly homes. Above all, be very cautious that they’re always stored in a place that can’t be accessed by a curious and mischievous pooch.
Many pet owners have undoubtedly heard of the possibility of using essential oils in place of other commercial flea and tick preventives. However, while some essential oils may be effective at repelling fleas and other insects, they are not strong enough to kill them. Unfortunately, there are no proven natural methods to control fleas and other parasites. This is one case where pharmaceuticals are far safer than the use of natural remedies.
Always be sure to keep all essential oils completely out of reach of pets, even those considered safe. If these potent oils are accidentally ingested by your four-legged friend, contact both your veterinarian and poison control immediately.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT