When the Pet Poison Helpline advertised their webinar to discuss facts about using essential oils for dogs and cats, I jumped at the chance to attend. Essential oils for pets are a popular way to holistically treat many ailments and I wanted to get educated. Pet parents ask me about them all the time and until the webinar, I only knew the basics from how they helped my dog Bailey when she was a puppy.
The goal of the seminar wasn’t to encourage or discourage the use of essential oils. It was to be sure pet owners and veterinary professionals understand: how these oils are metabolized in your dog or cat’s body, their potential benefits, which oils pets should stay away from, and emergency procedures if your pet gets into your personal oils.
It was a fascinating webinar taught by Charlotte Flint, DVM, DABT, Director of veterinary services for the Pet Poison Helpline. Here’s what I learned.
What are essential oils? Can you answer this question?
When Dr. Flint asked the class this question; I couldn’t answer it with any great detail. To me, essential oils are mixtures of different plants that heal people and animals naturally.
This is the official definition
Essential oils are concentrated volatile oils that are extracted from the part of plants that emit a characteristic fragrance. Think Lavender or Eucalyptus. I bet your brain instantly recalled each of those scents. The word volatile refers to their ability to evaporate quickly into the body.
There are 3,000 known essential oils, but only 300 are commonly used.
Their chemical make-up is different than other healthy oils like olive and coconut oil, which are called non-volatile, fixed oils or fatty oils. The molecules of essential oils are small so they readily absorb into the skin, lungs or stomach; depending on how you ingest them. Dr. Flint said the easiest way to tell the difference is that fixed oils leave behind a stain after they evaporate.
Why are people talking about essential oils?
The popularity is due to their many potential beneficial uses:
- Antibacterial – to treat bacterial infection
- Antiviral – to treat viral infections
- Antifungal – to treat fungal infections
- Repellant to insects
- Antispasmodic – to treat muscle spams
- Antineoplastic – to destroy malignant cells
- Analgesic – to reduce pain
- Sedative – to calm
- Anti-inflammatory – to treat inflammation
- Antioxidant – to inhibit the production of free radicals in the body
- To treat anxiety – Lavender has been known to soothe anxious dogs
Is it safe to use essential oils for dogs and cats?
The simple answer to this question is, YES. Most essential oils are safe for your pets, but there are some exceptions and facts to consider.
Fact #1 – Be sure to read labels. Not all essential oils are equal. For instance, turpentine is an essential oil, but it’s one you want to keep clear from your pet. While it’s a useful ingredient in household products like mouthwash and vapo-rub, it’s not an oil for dogs and cats to use.
Fact #2 – Essential oils have varying degrees of strength, even if they’re from the same type of plant. Lavender used for perfumes is bolder than lavender you diffuse into the air to keep a dog calm.
Fact #3 – Plants and their extracts are not standardized. That means the active compound can differ in potency depending on where the plant is grown, how mature it is and the time of year it’s harvested. The best way to ensure your pet is getting the right dose is to purchase essential oils from an ethical company that specializes in blends for animals. Keep your pet safe by asking questions about the source of the plant.
Fact #4 -Pets metabolize essential oils differently than humans. If you’re using a product intended for humans, the recommended dose is made to be absorbed in 1 hour. But it can last much longer in an animal. And then it varies among species – cats have a slower metabolism than dogs. Dr. Flint talked about a study with rats that found essential oils in their system 18 hours after it was ingested. This makes the chances higher for your pet to have an adverse reaction.
Fact #5 – Make sure the oil doesn’t interfere with your pet’s medications. An example is Eucalyptus which works against the benefits of phenobarbital, a commonly prescribed drug to treat epilepsy.
Fact #6 – Pregnant or lactating dogs and cats can pass oils to their puppies and kittens.
Fact #7 – Learn how the different ways to administer essential oils plays a role in your pet’s health.
It matters how your dog or cat ingests essential oils
Oils can be rubbed into the skin, inhaled through a diffuser or ingested orally with a dropper.
If you’re rubbing an oil into your pet’s skin, be sure it can’t be licked off. And if it’s being diffused make sure to point it away from your dog or cat, their bed, crate or cat tree. Make sure there’s good ventilation in the room. And if you’re using a dropper be sure the dose is correct for the type of pet, their weight and their age.
Signs of an overdose or bad reaction
Pets can have a variety of reactions to essential oils, depending on how it was given to them.
- If your dog or cat has a bad reaction to eating an essential oil, you’ll see signs of: Salivation, vomiting, diarrhea and anorexia.
- Signs of a central nervous system reaction: Lethargy, hiding, weakness, tremors and seizures.
- Symptoms of a respiratory overdose: Coughing, sneezing, bronchospasm and aspiration
- And an overdose or toxic reaction can include: Liver and kidney damage, injury and burns to the skin, and heart problems.
What to do if your pet has an adverse reaction
Get your dog or cat to your veterinarian or an emergency vet hospital ASAP.
Log onto to the Pet Poison Helpline website. The site offers emergency instructions or you can talk with a professional for a small fee.
Here’s what you can expect during a vet visit
- Your dog or cat will be bathed with a mild hand dish washing detergent if the reaction is to the skin. Think of Dawn detergent used to clean wildlife in oil spills.
- Your pet’s mouth will be rinsed if they’ve eaten the oil.
- They’ll be given fresh air and possibly oxygen.
- Your vet will monitor their vitals and test their blood for toxins.
Essential oils to keep away from your pet
Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca Oil) – Products with low concentrations can be used as an antiseptic. And you routinely see this ingredient in pet shampoos. But 100% tea tree oil is never recommended for pets. It can cause weakness in the hind end, tremors and vomiting.
Pennyroyal Oil – This is part of the mint family and is some people use it as a flea/tick repellent. Pets should be kept away from this oil because it can cause vomiting, hemorrhage, liver failure, seizures and death.
Citrus Oils – These include: lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, and others. It’s used to stop fleas. But it can also cause lethargy and hypothermia in dogs and tremors, weakness, lesions and coma in cats.
Wintergreen and Birch – Both oils are made of 98% methyl salicylate which is given for pain. Wintergreen and Birch can cause vomiting, panting, liver and kidney problems as well as bleeding and death.
Wormwood, Thujone and Liquid Potpourri – Each can cause toxic reactions in pets.
Hope I haven’t scared you off
Remember there are 300 commonly used essential oils. The majority have health benefits for your pet when they are used properly. And only a few can cause harm. I personally had a great outcome when Bailey was a puppy and had extreme car sickness. We were given a prescription medication by our vet, but it made her sleep for hours. Then a fellow blogger recommended a blend of essential oils that I rubbed onto Bailey’s belly. Her symptoms improved on her next car ride and continued to get better until her car sickness was gone.
In addition, I’ve written about 5 therapeutic blends from Young Living that relieve achy joints, hot spots and digestive problems in dogs. It’s one of our most popular stories.
And I shared an essential oil formula called Path to Comfort after I was introduced to it by a highly respected canine water therapy and animal massage practitioner.
My goal isn’t to scare pet owners away from using this natural therapy, but to remind you that cats and dogs aren’t people. They have unique physical needs that must be taken into consideration in their treatment plan. And as their caretakers, it’s our job to keep them safe and healthy.
If you’ve had a good experience using essential oils for your pet, I love to read it in the comment section below.