Essential Oils for Dogs: Risk Assessment

An essential oil diffuser is the perfect addition to a relaxing evening. But as enjoyable as these aromatic oils are, not all essential oils are safe for dogs. As a pet owner, you’ll need to be more alert to the essential oils you use in your home. Before determining which essential oils are safe for dogs, we'll cover some general risks and exposure routes you should know.

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What are essential oils?

Essential oils are concentrated liquids containing compounds from plants. They contain the plant's 'essence' in the form of its fragrance, hence the word 'essential' in their name. Essential oils are often used for relaxation or in aromatherapy.

Many pet owners are pursuing holistic medical treatments, and using essential oils for their pet’s health and well-being is an area of interest, particularly concerning parasite prevention and anxiety reduction. Essential oils are quickly absorbed through a dog's skin, stomach, and lungs, which means there are multiple routes of exposure to consider. Although the medical benefits of essential oils for pets are still a new area of study, there are known risks to essential oil exposure in dogs.

Risks of essential oil exposure for dogs

The danger of an essential oil will vary depending on its type, concentration, formulation, and quality. The FDA does not regulate essential oils, and it does not regulate supplements. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the product you purchase matches the claims made on its label.

Are essential oils safe for dog skin?

First, we’ll focus on dermal (skin) exposure in dogs. Essential oils can be a danger to dogs if they walk through the oil, get some on their coat, or if you place the oils directly on the dog. Symptoms could include an unsteady gait (ataxia), lethargy, and changes in behavior. In severe cases, the dog may develop hypothermia (low body temperature) and collapse. According to the ASPCA, you should avoid directly applying an essential oil to your pet.

Are essential oils safe for dogs to consume?

Dogs should not ingest essential oils. Dogs may consume essential oils if they find your essential oil collection or if they groom the oil from their body. This includes if they walk through diffused essential oils and then lick themselves. Dogs who consume essential oils may develop vomiting and diarrhea. Some oils, such as pennyroyal oil, can cause liver failure. Oil of wintergreen can cause ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract, liver failure, and kidney failure.

Are essential oils safe for dogs to smell?

Exposure through the skin or ingestion is generally more concerning for dogs than breathing in the oils. However, dogs who have a history of breathing problems, such as chronic bronchitis, may have increased breathing difficulty in the presence of an essential oil diffuser. Remember that your dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be at least 1,000 times better than yours, so a scent that is nice and relaxing to you may be overwhelming to your dog.

What essential oils are safe for dogs?

A list of essential oils safe for dogs includes:

  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Frankincense
  • Rosemary
  • Bergamot
  • Myrrh
  • Ginger
  • Blueberry
  • Blackberry
  • Turmeric
  • Cedarwood
  • Arbovitae
Note
When we say that an essential oil is 'safe' for dogs, we mean that it’s safer to diffuse the oil in proximity to most healthy dogs. This does not mean you should put undiluted oil directly on your pet, feed the oil to your pet, or otherwise abandon caution. Oils that are safe for dogs may not be safe for other species.

What essential oils are unsafe for dogs?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the following essential oils are considered unsafe for dogs:

  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Tea tree oil (aka melaleuca oil)

You should avoid diffusing these oils in the presence of your dog. Please note that the Pet Poison Helpline says these oils are known to cause poisoning in dogs. There are likely other essential oils that are toxic to dogs but haven't been reported or studied, and you should practice caution with any essential oil.

Keeping your dog safe around essential oils

Follow these tips to keep your dog safe around essential oils.

  • Never apply a concentrated essential oil directly to your dog.
  • Do not add undiluted essential oils to your dog’s food or feed oils directly to your dog.
  • If possible, use passive diffusers (e.g., candles, jewelry diffusers, reed diffusers) rather than active essential oil diffusers (e.g., nebulizers or ultrasonic diffusers). While passive diffusers don’t emit actual droplets of essential oils, active diffusers do. Passive diffusers still risk causing respiratory issues but are unlikely to cause dermal or oral exposure symptoms unless the diffuser tips onto your pet.
  • Keep diffusers out of reach of pets and on sturdy surfaces to prevent spilling or ingestion.
  • If your diffuser has a cord, ensure it is safely tucked away so your pet (or a human family member) can’t accidentally pull it down.
  • Keep essential oils in a safe location inaccessible to dogs or children, such as a high location or a locked, chew-proof box.
  • If essential oil gets on your pet, bathe them with a degreasing pet shampoo (one that can remove oils). Contact your veterinarian after washing the pet to ensure they don't think you need to take any other steps.
  • If you notice your dog starting to cough in the presence of a diffuser, move it to fresh air. Seek veterinary attention if the symptoms don’t immediately resolve when you move it away from the diffuser.
  • Contact a veterinarian or pet poison helpline if your pet ingests an essential oil. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) or the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661) are options. These U.S.-based services are available 24/7. A consultation fee may apply.
  • Consider getting accident-only or comprehensive pet insurance to help you cover potential toxic exposure to essential oils.

Diffusing essential oils around dogs

Consider using a passive diffuser, such as a reed diffuser or candle, rather than an active diffuser, such as an ultrasonic diffuser. Passive diffusers do not release actual oil droplets into the air. While your pet could still experience respiratory difficulty from a passive diffuser, they are unlikely to experience dermal or oral exposure unless they tip the diffuser or lick it. Active diffusers release droplets into the air, which can be put into your pet.

If you will be using an active diffuser, you will want to use less than the recommended amount for people. Only adding one or two drops to the diffuser water may be enough for your dog’s sensitive nose.

Diluting essential oils for topical use in dogs

Using topical essential oils in dogs isn’t a well-established area of conventional veterinary medicine, and it's not generally recommended. If applying essential oils topically to your dog, you must dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil like olive or coconut oil. Generally, you can start with a 0.5% to 1% dilution, which is three to six drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil. Do not use toxic essential oils. If you put essential oil on your dog, please consult a veterinarian first. A holistic veterinarian may recommend an essential oil dilution to help your pet's medical condition. Follow your veterinarian’s dilution advice ahead of all others.

Medical use of essential oils for dogs

The medical use of essential oils for dogs is an ongoing investigation in alternative or holistic veterinary medicine. Particular areas of interest include treatment for anxiety, parasite prevention, and management of skin conditions. Lavender oil is an essential oil that may help reduce dog anxiety, such as travel-associated excitement or separation anxiety. Regarding parasite prevention, ginger is an example of one that has shown efficacy in potentially killing and preventing flea and tick infestations. Examples of oils that have been investigated as potentially helpful for wound healing include lavender and rosemary.

These essential oils have shown promise for improving wound contraction and decreasing inflammation. Notably, most of these studies have used rats or mice as animal models rather than dogs. Anxiety, parasite infestations, and skin conditions all have traditional treatments options that are well-researched, safe, and effective. Speak with a holistic veterinarian if you want to use essential oils for medical indications.

Other natural alternatives for reducing your dog's anxiety include pheromone diffusers and anti-anxiety supplements that contain ingredients such as L-theanine, alpha-capsazepine, or L-tryptophan.

Most pet insurance plans don't cover alternative therapies like essential oils, but some may offer coverage through add-on plans. Be sure to check out the details of your plan to see if holistic therapy with essential oils is an option.

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