So, you’re weary after a rough blursday at work, and you’re thinking that some essential oil aromatherapy in your living room or a dreamy diffuser-enhanced bath might be just the ticket. Before you open that little vial, though, if you have a four-legged roommate—or any other pet—first consider whether this new presence in the air could affect their health. Here’s why: While essential oils diffused through an atomizing device or even an old-fashioned wick-and-glass-jar combo are generally safe for humans, that’s not necessarily the case for pets, whose sense of smell and respiratory systems are far more sensitive than ours are.
Lori Teller, D.V.M., a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says that essential oil exposure can be a bigger deal than some pet parents may realize. “A lot of people are using essential oil diffusers now, and my concern is that the general level of awareness of the risks for household pets is pretty low,” she tells SELF. It’s not just about possible inhalation. If the oils make their way onto pets’ skin by any route, the potential risks increase. What’s more, oral exposure—which has higher risks than does dermal—can happen quite subtly. Once essential oil droplets get into the air, there’s potential for pets to orally ingest the substances, especially if the droplets land on them and they clean themselves.
Keep reading for more information about how essential oils could affect your pets, plus how to enjoy these oils while still keeping the animals in your home as safe as possible.
A few different factors determine how harmful essential oils can be to pets.
First things first: Everything you read here doesn’t mean you need to swear off using essential oils entirely just because you have a pet. As the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center explains, using an essential oil diffuser for a short amount of time and in a space of your home where your animal can’t access it is a generally safe option.
However, when it comes to the potential dangers of pets encountering essential oils, the first thing to consider is what kind of animal you have. “Our dogs are much more sensitive to odors than we are, and a scent that’s pleasant to us might cause coughing or breathing difficulties for our dog. And people might forget that because dogs and cats lick themselves, they will ingest the substance and get a higher dose,” says Dr. Teller, a canine and feline medicine specialist. She adds that sustained essential oil exposure can even cause severe liver or other organ damage in some animals. “It’s important to recognize that dogs and other pets metabolize substances differently than we do—cats, for example, are missing a liver enzyme that humans have,” she says.
Tina Wismer, D.V.M., senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, points out that concerns about essential oils also apply to other pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters—and that birds are especially at risk. “It’s best to avoid using an essential oil diffuser in your house if you have birds,” she tells SELF. “Birds’ respiratory tracts are very sensitive, and they may develop more serious problems [than other pets] if you use a diffuser.”
The essential oils themselves are just one consideration when you’re trying to gauge whether they’ll be safe to use in a household with pets. There are other factors too. You need to know what the oil’s concentration level is, whether the oil is packaged with other ingredients, and how the oil is delivered into the environment, according to Dr. Wismer. A passive diffuser emits oils naturally, typically from a wick, and produces a milder, less intense aroma. Active diffusers use either a pump or ultrasonic technology to effectively “force” the oil particles into the air, producing a more concentrated aroma and potentially greater exposure to the substance for your pet. “Remember that what smells good to you may be overwhelming to them,” Dr. Wismer tells SELF.
Dr. Teller adds that some essential oils are packaged with carrier oils or mixed or diluted with other substances. “It’s important to know what else is in the essential oil product,” she says, in case those other ingredients might be toxic to pets.
What makes things more complicated, though, is that some essential oils formulated for animals may be helpful to pets when used properly and under the guidance of a veterinarian. As the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center notes, certain essential oils at safe concentrations may be helpful for issues like separation anxiety and flea control in some pets. But that doesn’t mean essential oils are safe for animals overall. “If an owner is considering using essential oils and aromatherapy for their pet, I recommend they do so under the counsel of a veterinarian familiar with essential oils,” Jessica Bunch, D.V.M., a clinical assistant professor and integrative medicine specialist at Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Pullman, tells SELF. “Although essential oils may work well for a variety of medical issues in pets, we need more research and more safety data.”
So, any pet parent who’s interested in exploring essential oils’ potential benefits should consult their veterinarian before introducing any essential oil into the pet’s environment—and especially onto the pet’s body, according to Dr. Bunch. If you’d like to do additional reading beyond taking that step, Dr. Bunch suggests seeking expert guidance through the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association or the Veterinary Medical Aromatherapy Association. But, to reiterate, the safest thing to do is to only choose products that have been designed and formulated for pet use and have been vetted by the veterinarian who is familiar with the animal.
These are the essential oils pet parents should avoid.
Toxicity incidents involving essential oils and pets are not uncommon, and the growing popularity of using diffusers in the home is concerning when pet parents aren’t aware of the risks, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. And because there’s no easy answer when trying to determine whether an essential oil can be safely introduced into homes where pets live, it’s best to err on the side of caution, says Dr. Wismer. “Keep any oils up and out of paws’ reach to prevent potential ingestion,” she tells SELF. While oral and skin exposures are more concerning than inhalation, Dr. Wismer explains, “any exposure can be problematic—especially if the animal has underlying respiratory issues such as asthma.” And, given pets’ behavior, “a dermal exposure quickly becomes oral,” Dr. Wismer reminds.
Dr. Wismer lists the following essential oils as the highest risk ones for household pets, based on research and ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center reports:
- Pennyroyal: Used by humans to treat skin issues or deter insects, pennyroyal is probably the most toxic essential oil for pets. “While it has been promoted on the internet to treat fleas, it can cause vomiting, weakness, and even liver failure in pets,” Dr. Wismer says.
- Tea tree oil (melaleuca): Commonly used for hair and skin issues, tea tree oil can cause liver issues, vomiting, and transient paralysis in small-breed dogs if it’s applied down the spine, according to Dr. Wismer.
- Wintergreen and sweet birch: These contain salicylates (aspirin compounds) and can cause vomiting and stomach ulcers.
- Cinnamon, anise, and chamomile: These all contain coumarins, compounds that are used in rat poison and blood thinners. “With repetitive use, especially in cats, we can see bleeding,” Dr. Wismer says.
- Citrus (d-limonene): As an essential oil, this can cause severe skin inflammation if it’s applied dermally to pets (or otherwise contacts pets’ skin), Dr. Wismer cautions.
Keep in mind that many more essential oils may be toxic to pets. It’s much better to be safe than sorry when it comes to this and get in touch with your vet if you have any questions or concerns.
Here’s how to know if your pet might be reacting to an essential oil.
If your pet’s exposure to an essential oil becomes toxic, you’ll probably notice some symptoms. Dr. Wismer reports that the most common clinical signs the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center sees with skin exposure include ataxia (wobbliness), muscle weakness, depression, and behavior changes. In severe cases, she adds, hypothermia and potential collapse may occur. When the exposure is oral, the pet may experience vomiting, diarrhea, and central nervous system depression; and with inhalation, your pet may exhibit sneezing, wheezing, eye irritation, nasal discharge, and coughing. “In severe cases, seizures and—rarely—liver injury have been reported,” Dr. Wismer says.
If exposure occurs (or you suspect that it has based on how your pet is behaving), it’s vital that you act quickly. “Remove your pet and get them into fresh air, or wash them if it’s dermal exposure,” Dr. Teller tells SELF. “Then call your veterinarian—they’ll work with the poison control specialist.” If you can’t reach your vet, try instead directly calling the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at (888) 426-4435.