Essential oils may provide some benefits to humans, but they aren't always great for pups.

By Mindy Valcarcel
August 24, 2020
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Eric Jeon

Essential oils, the highly concentrated compounds that are extracted from plants, have a loyal following for their potential benefits to humans. Fans of the herbal remedies use the scents from different oils because of their purported benefits, like the ability to help calm anxiety or encourage sleepiness, for example. Some are used topically for skin issues, including scratches, acne, dandruff, and fungal disease. And even cleaning products you use may contain some essential oils (like pine oil). 

But what’s beneficial for people can be detrimental to dogs. (We’re looking at you, chocolate.) Here’s what you need to know about essential oils that your pet might be exposed to. 

Which Essential Oils Are Dangerous to Dogs?

“Different oils have different toxic properties,” says Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT, the director of Veterinary Services at Pet Poison Helpline. “But, in general, the organs most at risk are the nervous system [brain/spinal cord], liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract. Inhalation can cause respiratory irritation as well,” she says.

According to Brutlag, the most common essential oil poisoning cases presented to the Pet Poison Helpline are from:

  • Tea tree oil
  • Oil of wintergreen
  • Oil of sweet birch
  • Pine oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Eucalyptus oil

The American Kennel Club (AKC) also lists these essential oils as poisonous to dogs: 

  • Citrus oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Ylang ylang

Brutlag says that tea tree oil, which is also known as melaleuca oil, is probably the most common essential oil causing poisoning in dogs.

What Are Other Factors to Consider? 

Assessing the risk of essential oils depends not only on which essential oil(s) your dog may have been exposed to, but also the quantity and the method of exposure. “Safety all depends on the dose or concentration of oil,” Brutlag says. “Some products have very low concentrations of oils, for example a shampoo with tea tree oil in it. These products are often considered safe.” 

Even essential oils that are generally considered safe for dogs (such as lavender) can cause problems if they aren’t diluted. “It’s never recommended to apply 100 percent concentrated oils to a dog,” Brutlag says. Curious dog tongues may take a quick lick if a new substance comes in contact with their skin. And inhaling oil scents can irritate your dog’s respiratory tract.

If you think your dog has gotten a little too close to the essential oils in your house, it’s best to call your vet or a pet-focused poison hotline. In particular, Brutlag says to watch for signs of an adverse reaction. “The clinical signs can vary based on the oil,” Brutlag says. “But, in general, the most common signs are drooling, vomiting, tremors, ataxia (wobbliness), respiratory distress, low blood pressure, gastrointestinal ulcers, low heart rate, low body temperature, seizures, rear limb paralysis, skin irritation, and liver and/or kidney failure.” 

What Should You Do If Your Dog is Exposed to Essential Oils?

If your dog has ingested an essential oil, call your vet or a poison hotline immediately. The faster you get advice from a professional, the better the outcome for your dog. 

“If the oil was applied dermally/topically, wash the application site with a degreasing soap or liquid hand dishwashing soap in an effort to strip the oils of the fur and skin as quickly as possible,” Brutlag says. “I would also contact Pet Poison Helpline or your veterinarian so they can help to identify the risk based on the particular oil, as different oils impact different organs in the body.” 

Before you use essential oils for or around your pets, be sure to talk with your veterinarian. They can help you assess the risks and potential benefits.