By Elizabeth Orcutt, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (SAIM)
You’ve heard of essential oils. They smell good. They are natural. They help with a variety of ailments. So, what can be wrong with them?
Recently there has been a resurgence in popularity for essential oil use which has been around since biblical times. Two companies, Young Living and doTerra are the largest sellers in the world reporting approximately 1 billion dollars in sales. While essential oils were originally used for fragrance or food enhancement, they are now utilized in many ways including insecticides, aromatherapy, antibacterial, herbal remedies, and liquid potpourri. With the rise in popularity of essential oils for human and household usage, it’s time to consider how these oils may be affecting our pets.
Holistic medications are often thought to not be harmful. Sadly, this isn’t always the case and there are many things to consider when it comes to our furry friends at home. Many oils are being used in diffusers to disperse the scent and therapeutic benefits throughout the house. Our dogs and cats have an enhanced sense of smell over our own and these oils could be very overwhelming to them. Additionally, animals metabolize many substances differently than humans. Specifically, cats cannot metabolize some of the compounds in essential oils, which can make them more susceptible to toxicity. The oils can be rapidly absorbed orally, across the skin, or serve as a primary respiratory irritant. Exposure through any of these routes can lead to clinical signs in your pet, and the higher the concentration of essential oil (i.e. 100%), the greater the risk.
Tea tree oil has been used for thousands of years for ailments including infections and skin conditions, as well as deodorants and household cleaners. Some owners have started using tea tree oil on their dogs and cats for a holistic approach to treat external parasites, fleas or skin conditions. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to pet owners, tea tree oil is the most common toxic offender. It is absorbed both dermally and orally and can result in depression, ataxia, paralysis, vomiting, hypothermia or skin irritation. Signs can persist for several days after exposure, even with aggressive treatment.
Pennyroyal, another oil that can be used for external parasite control is derived from Mentha Pulegium. While we may not use this for ourselves, this oil is widely available as a flea or insect repellent. However, oral or dermal exposure in dogs has been reported to cause hepatic necrosis and liver failure. Aggressive supportive care is indicated; however, due to its toxic nature, Pennyroyal should be avoided in dogs.
Wintergreen is a commonly used oil for fragrance, topical pain control in humans, or even baking, particularly around the holidays. Sadly for our pets, wintergreen contains methyl salicylates which are more commonly known as aspirin compounds. Dogs and cats do not metabolize aspirin or aspirin compounds as well as humans, leaving them susceptible to toxicity which can lead to liver or kidney damage.
Pine-Sol has been a household cleaner for many years. Pine oils, in general, are commonly used as a natural disinfectant, cleaning product, or massage oils. However, dermal exposure in dogs or cats can result in dermal or gastrointestinal irritation, vomiting, drooling, weakness, and ataxia.
While the oils listed above are commonly encountered toxic oils as listed by Pet Poison Helpline, this is not an exhaustive or complete list. Additional oils known to be toxic to our companion animals include sweet birch, citrus oil (d-limonene), Ylang Ylang oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, clove oil, and eucalyptus oil. It is important to remember that pets can react differently to essential oils. As they are being used more and more commonly, we are continually learning about how our pets respond to these and other substances that are becoming household staples.
With the advancement of diffusers and their widespread use, aside from oral and topical exposure, another element of concern with essential oils is the risk of aspiration and/or aspiration pneumonia. With active diffusers, particles of oil are emitted into the air. Essential oils, even in microdroplets, are quite viscous and there is concern for inhalation of these oil particles into the lungs. This can result in irritation, inflammation, and resultant pneumonia. Additionally, if these oils are actually ingested, the irritation that they can cause to the gastrointestinal tract may cause our pets to vomit and aspirate the oil.
As mentioned previously, dogs and cats have an enhanced sense of smell compared to humans. As a result, pets can be overwhelmed by essential oils that are diffused into their environment resulting in watery eyes, runny nose, drooling, difficulty breathing or even vomiting. Cats with pre-existing respiratory disease, much like humans, are at greater risk for respiratory irritation from these compounds
Prevention is key to minimizing essential oil toxicity in our furry friends at home. Sadly, most toxicities result from well-meaning pet parents who have used these oils on themselves or have read the many merits of these products online. It’s important to be aware of the effects these oils can have on our beloved pets and the possible consequences of exposure. Always consult your veterinarian prior to implementing the use of essential oils in your home or on your pet.
If your pet ingests essential oils, call RBVH at 732-747-3636 for emergency care or bring your pet in right away.