As Aromatherapy because more accepted by the holistic industry, more consumers are reaching for their own bottles to use at home. People are getting more and more comfortable with using essential oils on their skin, in room diffusers, in baths and for therapeutic purposes. While they can be extremely beneficial and helpful to many, they can also be fatal to others. Unfortunately, this is a topic that is often overlooked; contraindications! What if you have pets, small children or a health condition? You can choose the purest and most amazing essential oils on the market, that does not mean they are 100% safe for all living beings. There are many oils that should be completely avoided in the case of certain health conditions and on or around children or pets as they are smaller and more sensitive than adults.
I personally have had everything from dogs and cats to snakes as pets and we tend to treat them as our own children. We love them, spend time with them and when they are under the weather, we want to take care of them. For people like me, who tend to reach for natural remedies rather than going to the doctor, researching safety has been a very important aspect in my life! In this article, I want to focus on the oils to avoid and be cautious with around your household pets. Treatments and general use can impact animals differently than they do humans, and there are variable tolerance levels among species as well. There are more and more holistic veterinarians surfacing, and they should always be consulted before your good intentions turn into life threatening situations!
Let’s start by discussing quality of oils. There are many brands and qualities of oils on the market. If you own pets or small children, it is imperative that you choose the highest quality oil you can. Learn more on choosing oils here. Unlike adult humans, children and animals will respond very differently to essential oils, so it is important that they are pure and unadulterated.
Once you have your quality essential oils in hand, you must be aware of how to use them properly, know all the safety precautions and avoid overuse! Animals have a very sensitive sense of smell, so whether you are applying topically, misting down your furniture & linens, cleaning with them or diffusing them in the air, you must be very much aware of how your pets will handle the oil. Each species of animal responds differently and has different oils to avoid. Discovering the world of essential oils can be exciting and can lead to people diffusing them 24 hours a day, which can lead to an unintentional overdose for your pets. Here are some general things to keep in mind:
- If applying topically, it is very important you dilute the essential oil heavily in a carrier oil. No more than 10% of essential oil vs. carrier oil and use in moderation. NEVER use undiluted.
- Always observe your animal to see how they are responding. Excessive sniffing, scratching, vocalization or nervousness are all signs to watch out for!
- NEVER use oils near the eyes, mouth, nose, ears or genital areas.
- Do not give essential oils internally.
- Avoid high-phenol oils such as Oregano and Thyme with ALL animals, especially cats
- Cats are much more sensitive than any other animal, so be extra diligent.
- Avoid using any oils on or around puppies under 10 weeks (Hydrosols are a better choice here), toy breed, pet rodents, small animals (gerbils, hamsters, rats, etc), fish tanks and near bird cages
- Gradually introduce the oil to your pet
- If a pet does not like an oil, do not force it’s use
- Avoid Raindrop Therapy on pets
- When diffusing, always provide an escape route or a room free of diffused oil
Mainstream pet companies are cashing in on the new essential oil craze by adding essential oils to their shampoos, conditioners and various other pet products. This can be of great concern so read the labels!
Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), for instance, is widely used as flea control. This oil is a known abortifacient in humans, and considered a toxin to the liver and the kidneys. It can slowly cause toxic levels in your pets and lead to death if untreated.
Oils to completely avoid if you have ANY kind of pets:
- Bitter Almond
- Clove Leaf or Bud
- Oregano – a high phenol oil
- Peppermint – where epilepsy or seizures are a factor
- Tea Tree – well meaning owners have used this oil to treat bites, scratches and minor skin issues, only to end up in the pet emergency room with their animal showing signs of toxicity, in-coordination, tremors, vomiting or depression.
- Thyme – a high phenol oil
Now lets go over some animal specific uses and precautions! Let’s start with man’s best friend.
Dogs have a large nasal cavity and their sense of smell is 50-100 times stronger than humans. Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways including topical application, diffusion or even bathing, but should always be heavily diluted. You should always use caution as dogs cannot tell you when something is wrong so it is extra important to observe your animal! Whining and scratching indicate a problem and should be addressed immediately. Sick, frail, older or pregnant dogs have special considerations (just like humans do) so be sure to adjust the amount of oil you plan to administer and always start small. Do not use oils on or around puppies less than 10 weeks old.
Avoid stimulating oils such as peppermint, rosemary, niaouli, tea tree, spearmint, ravensara and eucalyptus, unless they are being used for therapeutic purposes and heavily diluted. Dogs prone to seizures or epilepsy should avoid exposure to peppermint and rosemary.
It has been noted that essential oils have a very profound effect on shelter, rescue and adopted dogs. They help the dog bond with their new owner and reduce trauma. Veterinarians have reported success using frankincense on dogs with gum disease. Like humans, lemongrass is good for cruciate ligaments and joint injuries. Lavender and a blend of valerian, vetiver, petitgrain, sweet marjoram and sweet orange are good for calming and relieving the stress for show dogs. For arthritis use the anti-inflammatory blend of peppermint, cypress, juniper berry and lavender. Again – all highly diluted!
Cats are extra sensitive to essential oils! Even though many cats can and are treated successfully using essential oils, it is usually at the hands of a trained professional. Too many accidents have occurred at the hands of owners wanting to do good. As a general rule, cats seek out certain plants in nature to fill an emotional or health need. If you want to diffuse essential oils around your cat, be sure they are oils from the safe list, your cat responds well to them or has a place to go, and you never force a cat to stay in a room with a particular smell. If your cat hangs out near a closed bottle of essential oil or seeks out a particular scent, this is a great sign that the cat is getting what it needs from it. However, you should not mistake this behavior as an open invitation to use oils or hydrosols without caution… always implement safety precautions discussed here. With cats you simply have to be a bit more aware and in tune with your feline roommate.
A cat’s liver cannot process toxins as a human’s or even a dog’s can. Therefore, chemical constituents in certain oils, such as terpenes, phenols and ketones can in fact cause a slow onset of organ failure. NEVER use essential oils topically on your cat! Diffusing oils or even cleaning with them can have a detrimental outcome for your feline friend if you are using oils on the no-no list. Check your cat’s shampoo ingredients for essential oils and observe your cat’s behavior. Look for symptoms of toxic buildup such as despondent, clumsy, uncoordinated, partially paralyzed, vomiting, drooling or in a daze. The diagnosis for toxic poisoning is a blood test that shows elevated liver enzymes. Effects can be immediate or can take years to appear. Make sure your cat has a fresh air area to retreat to.
If you are thinking about using essential oils for healing purposes, hydrosols or flower waters are a much safer option for your cat. They are less aggressive and still therapeutic. You’re best bet is to avoid amateur use on your feline friend and see a holistic veterinarian for professional assisitance.
It is reported that cats are very sensitive to beta-carotene, morphine, certain sulfanomides, salicylic acid (Aspirin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), allyl propyl disulfide (onions) and compounds with the bezene ring (benzyl alcohol preservative). Wintergreen and birch oils contain methyl salicylate the same chemical compound in aspirin. It is wise to avoid any oil containing phenols: oregano, thyme, cinnamon (cassia), clove, savory, birch, and melaleuca (Tea Tree oil) or ketones: sage. A third group to avoid are the monoterpene hydrocarbons pinene and limonene most commonly found in the citrus and pine oils: lemon, orange, tangerine, mandarin, grapefruit, lime, bergamot, pine, spruce, and any fir oil.
Hydrosols of chamomile and a combination of rose, lavender, geranium and neroli are known to have a claming effect on cats. Wounds can be cleaned with diluted lavender, rose, geranium, and chamomile oil or their hydrosols. Itching can be alleviated using witch hazel, rose, lavender or German chamomile. Again, avoid amateur use of even hydrosols, seek the assistance of a trained holistic veterinarian and dilute!!!
Essential oils and hydrosols should be avoided with fish – period. Essential oils are not water-soluble and would end up sticking to the fish, cutting off their ability to breath and eventually leading to death. Hydrosols have their own PH and can disrupt the environment within the tank causing harm to the fish.
Birds are very well known for being extra sensitive to scents! Diffusing or direct application of essential oils should be completely avoided on your avian friends. Reports show that one owner applied a single drop of tea tree oil on a cockatiel’s foot abrasion, thinking it would help it heal, and caused respiratory failure and death within 24 hours. Some people administer hydrosols or flower waters instead, but even these should be used in very minute amounts. Basically, when it comes to birds, if you haven’t been trained professionally or are under the instruction of a holistic professional, don’t be a hero. You may end up doing more damage then good.
Small Animals (Hamsters, Guinea Pigs, Rabbits, Snakes, etc)
Essential oils should be avoided on small animals unless you are under the supervision of a trained holistic professional. Hydrosols or flower waters are the better option here. They should be diluted with water and should only be used in therapeutic applications. Never apply directly to the animal. Place hydrosol in a bowl of water and allow the animal to self medicate. Replace water daily until symptoms improve. Stop use if you notice odd behavior.
Some people will use Lavender essential oil diluted in equal parts water and alcohol to clean the interior of their pet’s cages. This is absolutely acceptable as long as the animal and any organic material has been relocated during the cleaning. To do this safety, relocate your pet to a safe place far away from the area where you plan to clean. Remove all bedding, wood, granules and anything else that is porous from the cage. Mix 1/2 oz of water with 1/2 oz of alcohol (vodka works great) and add 1-3 drops of lavender essential oil. Using your spray bottle, mist your lavender blend on the interior and exterior of the cage (you can apply to glass, metal or plastic pieces), allow the solution to sit for 10-20 seconds. Using a cloth, wipe/scrub down the cage thoroughly. Reapply as needed until clean (be sure to use a clean paper towel for your final wipe down). Now allow the cage to air dry for 1-2 hours. This will allow the alcohol, water and smell to dissipate. Use your nose to test. If you can smell lavender fairly strongly, wait for it to be almost gone. Once dissipated, re-build the interior environment and re-introduce your pet back to it’s cage. As always, observe your pet for odd behavior in the first 24 hours.
Horses and Farm Animals
These larger animals benefit greatly from essential oils. Always dilute in a carrier oil before applying and allow for an escape route when diffusing should your animal need to walk away from a particular scent. Essential oils can be applied topically for spot treatment, massage therapy, skin or hoof/paw care and inhalation via a diffuser, atomizer or mister. Never internally!
- Lavender: Useful in conditioning patients to a safe space. May help allergies, burns, ulcers, insomnia, car ride anxiety and car sickness, to name a few.
- Cardamom: Diuretic, anti-bacterial, normalizes appetite, colic, coughs, heartburn and nausea.
- Fennel: assists the adrenal cortex, helps break up toxins and fluid in tissue. Balances pituitary, thyroid and pineal glands.
- Helichrysum: Anti-bacterial, reduces bleeding in accidents, skin regenerator, helps repair nerves. Also useful in cardiac disease.
- Frankincense: Has helped some cases of cancer. Works on the immune system. Has reduced tumors and external ulcers. Increases blood supply to the brain (although it can worsen hypertension so use caution).
- Spearmint: Helps to reduce weight. Good for colic, diarrhea, nausea. Helps balance metabolism, stimulates gallbladder.
Hopefully this is a good start for most of you in the awareness of essential oil safety around your pets! I encourage you to do some more research on your own pertaining to your specific pet species.
If there is any information you have read or want to share pertaining to this subject, please share it with us in the comment section.
(1) ASPCA Animal Poison Control http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/
(2) Pet Poison Helpline: http://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/tea-tree-oil/
(3) National Capital Poison Center: http://www.poison.org/poisonpost/winter2010/teatreeoil.htm
Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals by Kristen Leigh Bell.
Animal Poison Control Center: 1-888-426-4435
Tea Tree Essential Oil-Toxic to Cats Article: http://www.messybeast.com/teatree.htm The Lavender Cat: www.thelavendercat.com
NAHA (National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy) www.naha.org
The Holistic Animal Association: www.holisticanimalassociation.com
Animal Aromatherapy Practitioner Certification Course(sm): www.ashitherapy.com
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for personal discussion only. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any serious health problems or conditions, or take the place of professional health or veterinarian care.