In recent years, essential oils have become more and more popular, so it’s no surprise some dog owners want to try them out. Essential oils are often advertised as natural treatment options or even alternatives to traditional medicine, treating everything from anxiety to skin conditions. Natural, however, doesn’t always mean safe. There can be serious risks associated with using essential oils incorrectly to treat dogs, but also ways to use them safely.
The first thing that I will say about essential oils is that not understanding them or not being educated on appropriate use is what tends to cause the concerns that we see with dogs. If you are going to use essential oils in your daily life, find a reliable source to gain the education that you need to keep yourself, your family, and your pets safe.
What are essential oils? They are basically the volatile, organic component of plants that give each plant its distinctive fragrance and taste. These compounds are found in the roots, stems, leaves, nuts, seed and virtually all parts of the plant. They are considered volatile because their molecules quickly go from a liquid or solid state into a gas or aroma. This is what makes aroma therapy possible. When you open a bottle of an essential oil, you very quickly smell the aroma as the molecules escape the bottle in the form of gas.
We have certainly seen an increase in essential oil toxicity in recent years due to the increase in pet owner’s desire to treat more holistically or with natural remedies. In dogs, the most common essential oil toxicities that we see are to Melaleuca or Tea Tree Oil, Pennyroyal, Oil of Wintergreen, and Pine Oils. I want to break down each one of these potential toxins to give you a better understanding of where the danger exists with each of these oils.
Melaleuca oil, also known as tea tree oil, is our most common essential oil offender in toxicities to dog.
Tea tree oil originates from the leaves of the Australian tea tree. These exposures often occur with application or administration of the concentrated tea tree-oil by well-meaning pet owners attempting to treat their pet for various skin conditions or external parasites such as fleas. It is equally absorbed with both dermal or oral administration and both result in toxicity. These toxicities are not caused by the very low concentrations of tea tree oil in the various shampoos made for dogs. The concentrated products are the primary culprit. We can see signs of depression, ataxia (very uncoordinated gait), paralysis of the rear legs, vomiting, hypothermia (low body temperature), and dermal irritation. These exposures will require veterinary intervention. The signs can be present for up to 4 days with aggressive care and treatment.
Pennyroyal is an oil from Mentha Pulegium, more commonly known as European Pennyroyal or squaw mint. Pennyroyal has a long history in folk medicine with use as an insect repellent. It can be used by unsuspecting pet owners to treat flea infestations or to try to prevent flea infestations. Again, oral or dermal exposures can both result in toxicity. The short answer on the toxicity with pennyroyal is that it causes hepatic necrosis or liver failure. We can see the dog become sick after exposure with vomiting, diarrhea, both of which can be bloody, lethargy and death due to hepatic necrosis. Again, aggressive veterinary care is needed to try to support the liver and prevent liver failure. Pennyroyal is a known toxin to dogs and all forms of it should be avoided in dogs.
Our third essential oil of concern is Oil of Wintergreen. It is derived from the Gaultheria Procumbens or the Eastern Teaberry. Long story short, Oil of Wintergreen contains methyl salicylates, more commonly know as aspirin. It is many times used topically as a pain reliever for muscle aches and pains but may also be used in holiday candies with bakers having bottle of concentrated product. Dogs can show signs of aspirin toxicity and we can see signs of vomiting due to severe gastrointestinal upset and ulcers, along with potential renal and liver failure. Aggressive veterinary care is needed for gastrointestinal protection and renal and hepatic support.
On to Pine Oils. Pine oils are derived from Pinus sylvestris or the Scots Pine located in Europe. In fact, it is the national tree of Scotland. Pine oils are used as a natural disinfectant, deodorizer, household cleaning products and massage oils. The touted benefits of pine oil include increasing circulation, aids in decreasing swelling, tenderness and pain in sore joints and muscles along with antibacterial properties.
What we can see in dogs with dermal or oral exposure can be dermal or gastrointestinal irritation, vomiting that may be bloody, drooling, weakness, ataxia, along with affects to the central nervous system, and potential renal and liver affects. Again, aggressive care is needed to limit or decrease the exposure and prevent worsening clinical signs.
Another element of concern with essential oils is with the risk of aspiration and aspiration pneumonia. Because of the viscosity of oils, we get concerned with the dog getting the oil in their lungs not only when ingesting it, but because of the irritation that it can cause to the gastrointestinal tract, we can see the oil be aspirated when it is vomited back up. For this reason, we do not recommend induction of emesis with oil products and immediate veterinary care is needed with most of these exposures.
Prevention is the best medicine in limiting essential oil toxicities in dogs. Many of the exposures that we deal with are from well-meaning pet owners that have used an essential oil without knowing the consequences or risks involved with these types of volatile oils. I would recommend discussing any use of essential oils with your veterinarian prior to use. If they do not have experience with essential oils, they will likely know someone in the veterinary profession that they can refer you to get the information that you need for safe use of essential oils.
Can Essential Oils Help?
Essential oils are made from highly concentrated plant substances. Preliminary research suggests that these potent oils may have some health benefits for dogs and humans, and many holistic veterinarians incorporate essential oils into their practices. Though a large body of scientific evidence does not yet exist about whether or not essential oils are effective at treating a number of illnesses in dogs, many owners are willing to try using oils to help with a wide range of conditions, from anxiety and skin problems to flea and tick prevention.
The Risks of Essential Oils
It’s easy to confuse natural with safe. However, the reality is a little different. Essential oils are potent substances that can pose serious risks when used improperly. If you’ve ever used essential oils yourself, then you know how much of a difference a few drops can make.
Applying oils topically can be irritating to the skin — yours and your dog’s. This is counterproductive for treating skin conditions and can add to your dog’s discomfort. Therefore, without proper professional guidance, it’s best to avoid using essential oils topically or directly on your dog. Instead, look for expertly formulated products that incorporate dog-safe essential oils.
The chemicals in essential oils are rapidly absorbed into the system, whether received orally or through the skin, and metabolized by the liver. Therefore, using essential oils could be problematic for puppies and young dogs, dogs with liver disease, or elderly dogs.
If your pup can reach the essential oil you put on him and licks it off, it could result in gastrointestinal upset. Never leave essential oils or bottles in a place where your dog (or any other pets, or children) can get them. If your dog does ingest essential oils, contact your veterinarian and poison control immediately.
Dogs’ noses are much more powerful than ours, so consider that if you use or diffuse essential oils in your home. Placing a few drops of lavender oil on a dog’s bedding may help calm them, or it may just cause further stress. Oils used improperly can also lead to changes in behavior, adverse central nervous system effects, and respiratory problems — all of which can be serious. Some essential oils are poisonous to dogs. This includes oil of cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree (melaleuca), wintergreen, and ylang ylang. These oils are toxic whether ingested by mouth or spread on the skin.
Natural flea and tick preventatives that use essential oils can be problematic, according to veterinarians. The Environmental Protection Agency considers these products to be minimum-risk pesticides, which means they are exempt from most regulations. Some adverse reactions were reported when owners followed instructions for applying them to their dog’s skin as a flea and tick preventative, although most cases of toxicity resulted from product misuse. Since there is a lack of data supporting the success of these products, owners who use them may put their dogs at risk for flea and tick-borne diseases, so ask your veterinarian for advice about the best way to incorporate essential oil-based flea and tick control into your dog’s treatment plan.
Using Essential Oils Safely
If you want to use essential oils with your dogs, there is an easy way to do it safely: Talk to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will let you know which oils are potentially harmful and can also provide you with information about the best carrier oils to properly dilute essential oils for dogs, as well as appropriate dosages.