Essential oils are becoming more popular as a safe, natural remedy for humans to use for a range of common ailments, including anxiety and insomnia. Others simply diffuse oils for a form of in-home aromatherapy. People everywhere are turning to these oils to see what ways their properties can aid them or enhance their everyday lives. But what is safe for humans is not always safe for our animal companions.

Recently, a few social media posts from pet owners using essential oils have told a different story. Some have reported a drastic change in behavior by their pets that coincides with their use of the oils, and some pets have even fallen ill after their owners have started using the oils on their bodies or in their homes.

What are the facts?

In recent years, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Poison Control Center (PCC) has been getting an increase in inquiries about essential oils and dangers they might pose to pets. Are they safe? Unfortunately, it seems like the answer is not a simple yes or no.

While pets becoming severely or life-threateningly ill due to essential oil exposure is by no means an epidemic, it is of at least some increasing concern to veterinarians as the trend catches on more and more.

This does not mean you need to discontinue your essential oil routine! Just be aware that, when there is a possibility of exposure to essential oils, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for changes in behavior or physical reactions to your animal companion.

If your pet is known to have breathing problems or may be predisposed to them, you should avoid diffusing essential oil into their immediate environment. Pets with breathing problems are much more susceptible to developing aspiration pneumonia or other serious and worsening respiratory issues from the oil being in the air.

Additionally, if you have birds as pets, the ASPCA recommends that you do not diffuse essential oils in the home, at all. Birds have extremely sensitive respiratory tracts and are particularly at risk for severe breathing problems resulting from oil diffusers.  

In their concentrated form, essential oils are most definitely dangerous to pets. Concentrated and undiluted means the oil is in its pure form and straight out of its bottle or container. Generally, most essential oils require dilution in a carrier oil or other substance to be safe for use. In fact, exposure to concentrated essential oil topically is known to potentially cause severe skin irritation and burns in humans.

Always make sure you research specific oils and how to safely use them before trying them, for your own benefit as well as for the sake of any animals in your home. Whether concentrated or diluted, many essential oils have the potential to cause problems in animals, with some being more dangerous than others, and symptoms varying based on the type of exposure.

Due to the variability of risk, and sheer amount of different oils available, caution should be taken with all types of essential oils, but, truthfully, the same can be said for any other household or environmental substance.

Your pet could react to something that may be considered generally safe, to it is important observe your animal whenever introducing a new substance into its environment.

Every pet is different, and reactions to exposure can also depend on the individual animal’s age, species, health history, size, breed, and other factors. Another important fact to note is that some essential oils recommended for topical use are not to be used internally or orally, and vice versa. Additionally, the plant or herb from which the oil is derived may not typically present any danger to an animal (or a human!), but because of the concentrated nature of the oil, it is unsafe. Finally, not all essential oils are treated alike in that the quality can vary based on source and production of the oil. Lower quality can impact the effectiveness of an essential oil  as well as associated risks.

There are many ways your pet might become exposed to essential oils kept and used in your home. Here are a few:

  • Walking in or ingesting spilled essential oils
  • Accessing essential oils not securely stored/out of reach
  • Touching, licking or rubbing against owners who have recently applied essential oils to their bodies or owners who are wearing essential oils in diffusing jewelry
  • Licking essential oils off their fur or skin
  • Breathing in essential oils diffused into the air

Yes, sometimes, a pet might become symptomatic just from exposure to an essential oil through the air by means of an oil diffuser, but don’t panic! This doesn’t necessarily mean you must avoid use of diffusers, just be careful if you choose to keep them in your home.

What should pet owners look out for if they choose to continue using essential oils? The following is a list of symptoms that have been observed in pets due to toxic essential oil exposure. Remember, the type/method and level of exposure can impact severity of symptoms as well as specific factors related to the individual pet. Keep in mind that this list is not comprehensive and other symptoms might occur as well that are not mentioned here:

  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Sneezing
  • Body weakness, or “wobbly,” unsteady gait
  • Muscle tremors or seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin rashes
  • Trouble urinating
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Avoidance and other unusual, atypical behaviors
  • Excessive drooling, panting, and/or pawing at the face
  • In extreme cases: low body temperature, central nervous system depression, or liver failure.

Toxic essential oil exposure, in certain circumstances, can have devastating and even fatal consequences for just about any type of pet, but can be of particular life-threatening risk to cats. Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils, and overall more vulnerable to poisoning and adverse reactions to chemicals, products, and other substances. This can lead to liver problems and liver failure resulting from exposure, according to the ASPCA.

You might have noticed that there is a warning on some products made for dogs stating never to use the product on cats. This is because a cat’s liver contains fewer metabolizing enzymes needed to process toxins. Because essential oils contain polyphenolic compounds that can interfere with the detoxification process of the liver, they present a unique risk to cats. In fact, some oils that are known to be generally safe in certain applications for dogs or other animals are quite toxic to cats in the same or perhaps even any capacity.

Even if you don’t own a dog or cat, the ASPCA recommends similar precautions be taken for rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters, as well as other rodents and mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles. It is fair to say that if the animal is in your home and has been exposed to the substance, it could have some kind of adverse reaction to it.

Again, there are a number of factors that determine a pet’s response to an essential oil, and any essential oil could cause problems for your pet. However, some specific varieties of particular concern (especially for cats) and commonly noted by veterinarians include:

  • Tea tree oil (Melaleuca oil)
  • Thyme oil
  • Anise oil
  • Clove oil
  • Garlic oil
  • Lavender oil
  • Citrus oils (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.)
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Pine oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Birch oil
  • Cinnamon oil (cassia)
  • Oregano oil
  • Wintergreen oil
  • Juniper oil
  • Horseradish oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Sage oil
  • Bergamot oil
  • Spruce
  • Any other oils containing phenol

Some golden rules for use of essential oils by pet owners:

  1. Keep essential oils secure and out of reach of pets. Don’t keep oils or oil diffusers in locations or on surfaces from which a pet might be able to knock it over and cause accidental exposure.
  2. ALWAYS dilute essential oils before using them. Dilution instructions/ratios might vary based on type of oil, but a simple Internet search and some prior research can advise further on this matter. Usually a small portion of a carrier oil is used, along with a few drops of a particular essential oil.
  3. If you’re not sure if use of an oil is safe with your animal in the house, ask your veterinarian for advice.
  4. ALWAYS supervise pets around essential oils, and essential oil diffusers.
  5. Be mindful if you are wearing essential oils or apply them topically to your own body and how that might impact your pet.
  6. If you choose to diffuse essential oils in your home, do it in small amounts, in an open room that is well-ventilated, and not for long periods of time. Make sure your pet can leave the room if they are bothered by the oil. Cats and dogs have an enhanced sense of smell compared to that of humans, and while it might smell nice to you, they might become overwhelmed or feel sickened by how strongly it smells to them. Watch your pet closely for any reaction or discomfort that could be related to the diffused oil.
  7. Beware of what you might read about “holistic,” or “natural” cures for pet ailments. Some of these remedies claim that an essential oil is the way to cure your pet’s problem, but use of the oil could actually make the problem worse or cause additional harm. ALWAYS ask your vet before beginning any new treatment for your pet.

If you believe your pet may have ingested, or been exposed to a potentially dangerous substance, including essential oils, contact your veterinarian or the ASPCA Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 immediately. The APCC Mobile App provides more ideas for protecting your pet from toxins, and you can also check out the APCC’s list of dangerous household products for more information.

With some care and caution as well as prior research, you can continue to enjoy essential oils, without worry of significant harm coming to your beloved animal friends. – Kelsey Hardin

Photo taken from Pexels

Kelsey Hardin is a cat lady and graduate of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Living back in Columbus where she grew up, she spends her spare time writing, cuddling cats, crafting, spending time with friends, and catching local concerts and theatre shows.