ESSENTIAL OILS AND PETS
Do you love using essential oils in your home? Perhaps they are in your natural cleaning products, your organic skincare or maybe you like to diffuse them? Did you know that certain essential oils can be toxic to your pet? Personally, I’m a fan of (subtle) essential oils and my favourite combination, when burning the midnight oil researching, is Orange Oil and Sweet Basil oil.
Read on to see what essential oils you should avoid when you share your home with cats and dogs.
Essential oils are commonly used in diffusers, massage therapy, taken orally, applied topically and even used as natural remedies (complementary therapy) for some medical issues such as stress, anxiety, and even thrush. With so many people concerned about the adverse effect of harsh chemicals (in our environment and on our health) it is no surprise to see essential oils feature in so many household products on the market today.
Years ago, before I was involved with Organic Pet Pharmacy, I remember searching the internet for safety information on Essential Oils and pets, and feeling confused. There is plenty of information, but what one site says is toxic, another says isn’t. Veterinarians often give the blanket advice to stay away from all essential oils. The end result was that I felt more confused than when I’d stared.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that most essential oils can be used around pets if some basic safety precautions are taken and, I will repeat this many times, you use Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils. Of course, common sense should always prevail, and items such as cleaning products and skin care should always be kept away from your pets unless specifically formulated for pets.
KNOW HOW TO USE ESSENTIAL OILS SAFELY
In the not too distant past, a relative of mine phoned me in agony. In a righteous act of self-diagnosis and treatment (Dr Google may have been involved) my relative had decided on essential oil therapy to help with a recurrent issue on an infected nail. After applying Tea Tree Oil directly to the area, I received a phone call advising me that his foot burned ‘hotter than forty hells’. Unfortunately for my relative, in the same way that a glass of water will not admonish the heat in your mouth from your two day old Vindaloo, washing the offending nail offered little relief.
With my relative’s lesson in mind, here are my safety instructions for using essential oils;
- Never use undiluted essential oils directly on the skin. They should always be mixed with a carrier oil (such as fractionated coconut oil) before being topically applied. Oils and water don’t mix, so water will not adequately disperse the micro-droplets of essential oils.
- Essential oils are strong. Use them sparingly and start slowly.
- Only use a reputable source of good quality, therapeutic grade pure essential oils. Many essential oils on the market are fragrance-grade and not therapeutic or medical grade oils. Fragrance grade oils often contain toxic impurities and in many cases, it is these impurities that have catastrophic consequences for pets. This unfortunately has led to a bad reputation for some essential oils.
- Watch out for oils that are photosensitive (bergamot and some citrus oils) as these have the ability to cause sunburn / uneven skin pigmentation.
- Please don’t take or use essential oils orally for therapeutic purposes without first consulting a doctor (or veterinarian if you are considering using them for your pets) who is experienced with essential oil use.
- If using cleaning products that contain essential oils, ensure your pets aren’t exposed. Leave doors and windows open for adequate ventilation.
HOW DOES ESSENTIAL OIL ABSORPTION OCCUR?
Essential oils can be absorbed through inhalation (diffusers / dry evaporation), ingestion or through the skin (topical application). Even small amounts can have a large impact very rapidly.
If using essential oils in a diffuser or for cleaning around the home, ensure you keep an eye on your pet for any adverse signs /reactions. Remember, your dog’s sense of smell is some 40 times greater than yours. Be mindful not to commit assault on his olfactory senses. If possible, use a water diffuser and use only 2-3 drops of essential oil.
Ensure you leave windows and doors open so that your dog (or cat) can escape the smell if they want to. If you notice any strange behaviour from your pet, stop diffusing the oil immediately and contact your veterinarian.
HOW DO I KNOW IF OVEREXPOSURE HAS OCCURRED?
Most symptoms of overexposure are easy to spot. These can include a loss of appetite and trouble urinating, discharge from eyes, vomiting, excessive panting, rubbing face, muscle tremors, diarrhoea, rashes, ataxia (incoordination) and drooling.
Sometimes oils can cause a gradual build-up of toxins in an animal’s system (particularly in cats but sometimes in dogs as well) causing a slow onset of organ failure. The most common symptom of gradual toxin build up is lethargy and loss of appetite.
ESSENTIAL OILS AND YOUR CAT
The use of essential oils on or around cats is a highly controversial issue. Some sources say that it depends on the grade of oil used (remember, ONLY therapeutic grade oils should be used anywhere near your pets) whilst other sources say it’s best to avoid essential oils all together.
As a formulator I have a whole room stocked with THERAPEUTIC GRADE ESSENTIAL OILS that I use in my home without issue. You can find a recipe for my DIY ROOM SPRAY here. Mr Winchester (my Burmese beauty) has never experienced any issues however, I don’t apply oils directly to him, and he is never left in an unventilated room in which oils have been diffused / sprayed. Owing to my familiarity with the cosmetic industry I am incredibly cautious of claims made by manufacturers regarding the grade of the essential oils and my personal advice is simply to keep cats away from them. The risk of contamination in our loosely regulated Australian market would not be worth the heartbreak of losing Mr Winchester.
I am including links below to two veterinarian articles, by Dr Melissa Shelton, on essential oils and your cat. [i] The ultimate decision is yours. Research is key, as is being aware of the symptoms of over exposure.
VETERINARY LIST OF MOST TOXIC ESSENTIAL OILS
The following oils are best avoided for any type of use on your pets. You will find the reference to the veterinary text book used at the end of this article. Unfortunately most toxicity information has been derived from the use of lab rats / mice so toxicity levels can only be extrapolated as a rough guide.
- Boldo Leaf
- Pennyroyal (Eur.)
- Bitter Almond
- Tree Wormwood / Large Wormwood
- Pennyroyal (N.Am.)
- Western Red Cedar
[ii] Wynn et.al (2007)
Please be careful using
- Tea Tree Oil
- Eucalyptus Oil (any variety)
I always purchase these oils from suppliers I trust.
A WORD ON SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES – toxic oils to ALWAYS stay away from
As a small child I simply could not enter the laundry aisle with my mum when we did our weekly food shopping. I found the smell completely overwhelming, it triggered my asthma and left me with a nasty lingering headache. Today we know that these are common side effects of synthetic fragrances. Please don’t confuse Fragrance Oils (or Cheap Essential Oils) with Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils.
Synthetic fragrances are dangerous to you and your pet. Over 90 percent of the chemicals used to create them are derived from petro-chemicals. They include benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.
They are most commonly found in high concentration in
- Scented candles
- Air fresheners / diffusers
- Plug ins
- Room Sprays
I absolutely do not have these products in my home for the health of my family, which includes my pets.
You will also find synthetic fragrances in lower concentrations in
- Shampoo / Conditioners / Pet Colognes
In these lower concentrations, they can be responsible for skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, pruritus (itching).
Organic Pet Pharmacy will never use synthetic fragrances OR fragrance oils for these reasons.
Essential oils, if used carefully, can have a beneficial impact on the lives of both humans and pets, particularly as a complementary therapy where conventional medicines cannot be tolerated. Dr Melissa Shelton (referenced below) makes some wonderful points regarding issues with studies that are often relied upon when discussing pets and essential oils, in particular the age of those studies, and the lack of verifiable information regarding the amount, length and type of oil (fragrance / therapeutic) the animal was exposed to.
- Use therapeutic grade essential oils only to diffuse / spray in your home
- Stay away from the oils listed above as ‘which oils to avoid’ including synthetic fragrances which are often found in candles, air fresheners, plug ins, diffusers
- Be very cautious about using anything around cats
- Ensure adequate ventilation and a means of escape for your pet at all times
- Consult a veterinarian if in doubt or if any symptoms of over exposure present
- Work with your veterinarian if your pet has a health concern.
[i] Dr Melissa Shelton
“Which oils are safe to use around (insert my cat, dog, bird, etc…) and which oils are not?”
The Science Behind Cats and Essential Oils
[ii] Wynn, S.G. and Fougere, B., 2007. Veterinary Herbal Medicine. Elsevier Health Sciences.