Essential Oils – What They Are
They are natural products. They are concentrated, volatile oils that are distilled or extracted from plants. Though they are “natural”, that does not always mean safe, nor does it mean dangerous.
Most essential oils are broken down and metabolized by the liver and eliminated from the body, primarily by the lungs and kidneys. It is important that these organs are working well when the oils are used because if not, that increases the potential for toxicity.
Understanding Essential Oils
First, there are no regulatory controls for quality and safety of essential oils. Essential oil-based flea products are not EPA regulated. The FDA generally considers essential oils cosmetics.
Second, plants and their extracts are not standardized. There can be variables in the essential oils due to plant cultivars, parts of the plant used, growing conditions, geography, time of harvest, etc.
Third, potential for adulteration with other plants, herbicides, pesticides, other oils or carriers is great and again, not regulated.
How Can Essential Oils Affect Our Pets?
Symptoms of toxicity can vary depending on the particular essential oil, from breathing issues, contact skin damage, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, and organ damage or failure. These issues are dependent on the type of oil, the concentration of the oil, areas of contact to the oil, the quality of the oil, and the delivery of the oil.
Some of the specific essential oils that can be especially toxic to cats, dogs, and birds are tea tree oil (melaleuca), pennyroyal, citrus oils, wintergreen oil, birch oil, sage, wormwood, and other thujone-containing oils.
- Tea tree oil applied at 100% concentration on a pet’s skin is highly toxic. Low concentrations of tea tree oil may be okay.
- Pennyroyal oil (mint family) – used historically for flea and tick repellent can be liver toxic.
- Citrus oils can be phototoxic depending on how it is processed in manufacturing. Depending on how it is made, if it is sprayed on an animal and they are exposed to sun, there is a potential for a toxic reaction. Cats are much more sensitive to citrus oil.
- Wintergreen and birch oils are high in methyl salicylate which is equivalent to aspirin. Aspirin can be toxic in large doses and repeated use.
- Wormwood, sage, and other thujone-containing oils can cause seizures and other central nervous system excitation.
- Liquid potpourri contains very concentrated oils and cationic detergents. Cats are very sensitive to these mixtures. The cationic detergents can cause severe corrosive injury to mucous membranes, such as lips, mouth, esophagus, and intestines.
The bottom line is that cats, dogs, and birds are not humans so we can’t extrapolate from the use of essential oils in humans to animals. There is little research and testing of essential oils in veterinary medicine. We do not know a lot about possible drug interactions with essential oils. The use of essential oils, in addition to prescription drugs, could possibly delay diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.
If you are planning to use essential oils on your pets, it’s best to consult a veterinarian first who is knowledgeable about essential oils and pets. If you do use essential oils on yourself or pets and see symptoms of toxicity, call your veterinarian immediately so treatment can be started as soon as possible.
Dr. Sharon Hurley