November 26, 2018

The holidays are in the air and so are the many wonderful aromas that accompany them. But pet owners, beware: If your favorite seasonal scent comes from a dropper or diffuser, it may pose a serious threat to your pet.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are the concentrated, aromatic compounds extracted from the roots, stems, leaves, petals, bark, seeds, or peels of many plants.

In humans, aromatherapy (breathing in or applying essential oils to the skin) is believed to have various health benefits. As a result, essential oils have become a popular holistic remedy for everyday ailments, from anxiety to the common cold. These oils are also present in a number of household, cleaning, and personal care products.

“Natural” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Safe”

While essential oils are often labeled “natural” or “organic,” it’s important to remember they can still pose a serious risk when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through your pet’s skin.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Sometimes people think that if an ‘essential oil’ or other ingredient comes from a plant, it must be safe. But many plants contain materials that are toxic, irritating, or likely to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.”

Essential oil diffusers, liquid potpourri products, air fresheners, and room sprays can present a number of potential problems. First, it’s important to remember that pets—particularly cats—are more sensitive than humans, so while the smell emanating from your reed diffuser is calming for you, it may very well be overwhelming to your pet. Watch for signs of irritation and discomfort when using these products, such as squinting, drooling, or coughing.

Airborne oils can easily be transferred to your pet’s fur or skin, where they may be licked off and ingested.

Inhalation of essential oils is especially dangerous for pets with a history of breathing problems, like asthma. If you notice any signs of respiratory distress, such as labored breathing, increased panting, or wheezing, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Airborne oils can also easily be transferred to your pet’s fur or skin, where they may cause irritation—or be licked off and ingested. Depending on the type of oil and concentration, even a drop or two can have very adverse effects.

According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, “Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils, and effects such as gastrointestinal upset, central nervous system depression, and even liver damage could occur if ingested in significant quantities.”

Other signs of essential oil toxicity include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Tremors
  • Ataxia (unsteady gait)
  • Low heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Seizures

Whether you use essential oils during the holidays or all year long, practice these simple safety tips:

  • Keep all essential oils and aromatherapy products out of your pet’s reach
  • Avoid accidental exposure by using oil diffusers in a confined space away from your pet
  • If your pet has a history of breathing problems, avoid using diffusers or other products that circulate oils through the air
  • Do not allow your pet to lick your skin if you’ve applied any products containing essential oils

The Bottom Line

When it comes to essential oils, it may be tempting to think what is good for you is also good for your pet, but it is important to exercise caution and consult your veterinarian before adding any natural remedies to your pet’s healthcare regimen.

While there are several factors that may affect an essential oil’s toxicity, many oils are highly concentrated (and therefore, very potent) and should never be applied directly.

Keep all essential oils out of your pet's reach.In addition, some oils should be avoided altogether, including:

  • Tea tree
  • Citrus
  • Pine
  • Clove
  • Oregano
  • Wintergreen
  • Pennyroyal
  • Eucalyptus
  • Rosemary
  • Cinnamon
  • Peppermint

If you suspect your pet has been exposed to or ingested essential oils, contact us or a poison control hotline immediately.