Can you use essential oils with pets? Are essential oils bad for dogs and cats? We get these types of questions a lot. The answer is not a simple yes or no. The truth is, certain types of incense and essential oils are safe for use around your pets – in fact, aromatic medicine has been traditionally used on animals for ages. 

Aromatic medicine can be therapeutic for your pets, just like it is for humans. Professionals have used aromatherapy on animals successfully in clinical settings, however, it is not generally recommended for those of us that are untrained [6]. If you are an aromatic plant and animal lover, it’s likely your natural instinct is to weave both of these things into your life, but you may wonder how to safely do so. This article will help guide you to confidently incorporate aromatics into your daily life with your pet’s safety in mind.

Essential Oil Pet Safety

There are several factors to consider when using essential oils around pets. While some essential oils can be safe for your animals, every pet is unique and can react differently. Dogs and cats react differently to the same aromatics; we’ll dive deeper into this topic later. Additionally, size and species matters – a chihuahua would be more sensitive to essential oil exposure compared to a great dane.

There are specific aromatics that are considered toxic to pets and should always be avoided if you have a dog or cat in the house. It is important to keep in mind that essential oils are highly concentrated, potent medicines. The difference between a therapeutic and toxic plant is often in the dose – most toxicity problems with essential oils in animals occur due to overdosing. Even an aromatic plant that is considered “safe” can be toxic if too much is used or if it is used for too long, and again, this can depend on the animal. It really depends on how you use the essential oil.

You should never directly apply an essential oil to your pet or allow them to ingest one. One of the most common reasons pets experience essential oil toxicity is after a well-meaning pet parent applies an undiluted oil topically [3]. It can also be a challenge to make sure your pet doesn’t lick it off after application, which can lead to issues. 

If you want to use an essential oil topically on your pet, make sure to check out our Essential Oil Dilution Guide before doing so. However, it is very important to note that pets are much smaller than humans and their sense of smell is more sensitive, so only diluted essential oils that have been deemed non-toxic to pets should be used topically with very low dilution ratios of 0.1 - 0.5%. When in doubt, opt for natural pet products instead of attempting to make your own and make sure to check with your vet or a professional aromatherapist first.

Types of Essential Oil Diffusers

There are two main types of essential oil diffusers: active and passive. Passive diffusers work by naturally evaporating the essential oil into the surrounding air over time. Examples include reed diffusers, heat diffusers (electric ones that plug in or a candle burner with a bowl placed above), or diffusers that use a fan or air flow to disperse the essential oil that’s placed on a filter or pad (like inhalers or necklace pendants). Active diffusers are more modern diffusers that use pumps or ultrasonic technology to send essential oil constituents into the air. Examples include glass nebulizers, vaporizers, and humidifiers. 

Generally speaking, passive diffusers are considered safer to use around pets than active ones, as long as it is in a place that your pet can not knock it over or get into it [1]. This is because passive diffusers typically allow for a subtle, gentle release of the plant’s volatile oils and micro-droplets of the oil aren’t dispersed into the air, as they are with active diffusers [1]. 

Active diffusers can still be used around pets, but a good rule of thumb is to put it in a room your pet can not get into while it is in use; this way, the micro-droplets are less likely to get onto their fur, skin, or in their lungs. You can also keep a window open for extra ventilation. The more you dilute the oil, the safer it should be for your pet [1]. Generally speaking, when diluting essential oils, the higher the concentration of the essential oil, the greater the risk to the pet [2].

Essential Oils for Cats

Cats tend to be more sensitive to essential oils then dogs because they orally groom more often; so when essential oils dispersed in the air get on their fur, they can potentially be absorbed by their skin and ingested when they groom. Additionally, cats have toxicity issues with many essential oils because their livers have a hard time metabolizing and eliminating certain volatile oils, especially phenols and d-limonene compounds, which can be found in high amounts in some essential oils [2]. Their liver and kidneys lack the enzymes needed to break down the compounds, which can lead to toxic buildup [5].

Essential Oils Considered Toxic to Cats* [2][6]:

  • Basil
  • Citrus
  • Tea tree
  • Hyssop
  • Wintergreen
  • Sweet birch
  • Pine
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Peppermint
  • Cinnamon
  • Pennyroyal 
  • Clove 
  • Eucalyptus 
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Tansy
  • Cedar
  • Tarragon

Toxicity Signs:

Symptoms in cats will depend on the type of essential oil exposure and the duration, however things to look out for can include drooling, vomiting, tremors, difficulty walking, respiratory distress, low heart rate, low body temperature, and liver failure [2]. If you notice any of these symptoms, call poison control and visit the animal emergency hospital immediately.

Essential Oils for Dogs

In general, dogs are not as sensitive as cats are to essential oils, and they can tolerate a wider range of essential oils. However, there are some essential oils you should avoid using if you have a canine friend in the home.

Essential Oils Considered Toxic to Dogs* [4]:

  • Tea Tree
  • Pennyroyal
  • Wintergreen
  • Pine

Toxicity Signs:

Symptoms in dogs will depend on the type of essential oil exposure and the duration, however things to look out for can include depression, uncoordinated walking, paralysis of the rear legs, vomiting, diarrhea, liver failure, low body temperature, and skin irritation [4]. If you notice any of these symptoms, call poison control and visit the animal emergency hospital immediately.


*These lists are not all inclusive and may vary depending on your pet. Consult with your veterinarian or an experienced pet aromatherapist for additional guidance. Refer to the Essential Oil Pet Safety section above, and when in doubt, use caution and dilute, dilute, dilute! 

Using Incense with Pets 

Is incense safe for pets? Again, the answer is not that straight-forward, but in general incense is much safer than essential oils, as we are dealing with much lower concentrations of volatile oils in the air. But since our beloved pet’s noses and sense of smell are more sensitive than ours, it is best to burn incense in a separate room then our animal and have a window open to promote ventilation. If your pet has underlying health conditions or sensitive lungs, you might want to consider avoiding burning incense around them. 

A majority of incense on the market these days are full of synthetic chemicals and artificial fragrances that are toxic when burned. These types of incense are harmful to you and your pet’s health. Look for natural incense made entirely from aromatic plant parts and natural ingredients (or learn how to make your own). Generally, the average way most people use incense, like a few times a day or several times a week, is usually not a cause for concern for animals. But as they say, everything in moderation, even medicine.

If the extra smoke is worrisome for you, there are actually a few different ways to burn incense that emit very little to no smoke. Learn more about these methods in our post, 3 Virtually Smokeless Ways to Burn Incense.

Using Hydrosols with Pets 

Using plant hydrosols instead of essential oils could be a safer option for your pet. Hydrosols are water-based solutions made from the steam distillation of aromatic plants. They contain some essential oils, but in smaller amounts [6], and have similar properties to the essential oil. Due to their high water content, they are much more diluted than essential oils, making them gentler on animals. 

There is also scientific evidence that suggests hydrosols are more easily metabolized by animals compared to essential oils [6]. Hydrosols may be a safer alternative for you and your pets, even cats, but it is recommended to start by using it in small amounts and monitoring your pet’s reaction [5].

Conclusion

The good news: we can enjoy the companionship of our furry friends and the benefits of aromatherapy. This can happen through exploring hydrosols, using incense, being mindful when and how we use essential oil diffusers, and knowing which essential oils to avoid using around our pets. Pets and plants make so many of us happy, we should not have to choose between one or the other! 

Article Written By Melissa Szaro

References

  1. Wells, K. (2018). Are essential oils safe for pets? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/are-essential-oils-safe-for-pets/
  2. Benson, K. Essential oils and cats. Pet Poison Helpline. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/blog/essential-oils-cats/
  3. Phillips, J. (2021). Pet safe essential oils for a diffuser, according to experts. Outward Hound. https://outwardhound.com/furtropolis/health-wellness/pet-safe-essential-oils-for-a-diffuser
  4. Marshall, J. Essential oils and dogs. Pet Poison Helpline. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/pet-safety-tips/essential-oils-dogs/
  5. Azzaro, K.H. (2013). Animal aromatherapy and essential oil safety. Ashi Aromatics Inc. https://naha.org/assets/uploads/Animal_Aromatherapy_Safety_NAHA.pdf
  6. Thorne, V.R. & Tisserand, R. (2011). Aromatherapy for cats. Feline Wellness. https://roberttisserand.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/AromatherapyForCats.pdf

© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.


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