In healthy living circles, essential oil use is often an everyday thing. It seems like there’s no harm jumping on the bandwagon! Since essential oils are natural and have amazing benefits, they must be safe to diffuse at will and slather all over your body daily, right?
You might guess that my answer to that is a big fat NO. I use essential oils with my family every day and could go on and on about their benefits and uses, but the research shows we must be aware of certain precautions.
Many of us share a home with either small children or a pet or two (or both in our case!), so it’s important to think about everyone in the home when choosing to use essential oils. Essential oil safety for pets isn’t a simple topic to tackle, but it’s one we need answers to in everyday life.
Are Essential Oils Safe for Pets?
According to a 2019-20 APPA survey, 65% of American households have at least one pet. So, it is no wonder that so many of us are thinking about pet health when it comes to diet, supplements, and even pet probiotics. Many people wonder whether they can use essential oils around their pets, and that’s what we’ll set out to answer here.
Essential oils are a part of nature and present in every tree and plant we see. However, bottled essential oils are extremely concentrated compared to what you find in nature, and the properties much more intense.
We’ve had several family dogs over the years (and have one now), so I wanted to find the best information and the safest practices when dealing with pets in the home. When I started digging into this, I realized it is hard to find an easy answer. I’m pretty used to that by now, so here are the best conclusions I was able to draw from the research I found.
Can I Diffuse Essential Oils Around Pets?
Essential oils can be diffused around pets but it requires some precautions, especially since it is usually done inside an enclosed space. Generally pets have a much more sensitive sense of smell than humans. What smells pleasant to you may unpleasant (or even dangerous) for them.
Here are some common-sense precautions for using essential oils around pets:
- Heavily dilute essential oils when using near pets, even more than the recommended dilution.
- Pet-proof the area around the diffuser. A dog or cat can easily knock over a diffuser and ingesting the oil-containing water. Place a diffuser in a safe location that cannot be reached by pets, and make sure the cord is secured as well. (Of course this is a rule to follow with kids in the home as well.)
- Start with just a few drops when first exposing animals to diffused essential oils. Observe any reaction at this smaller dose before increasing the amount.
- When introducing a new oil, stay with the animal for at least the first 5-10 minutes. Watch for lethargy, squinting eyes, and changes in breathing patterns. If these occur, bring the animal into fresh air for at least 20 minutes and discontinue use of that oil.
- Just like humans, pets’ reactions to essential oils will vary. The scent that one person thrives on could be completely overwhelming to another. Monitoring behavior and trying different concentrations and oils is important with pets, too.
- Consider diffusing in an open or well-ventilated area with an open door for escape. This allows the animal to remove themselves if uncomfortable.
- Take breaks from diffusing. This goes for everyone, pets and people included. Diffusing essential oils all day long, every day can be toxic. As with so many things, moderation is key.
There are some essential oils, however, that should never be used around pets, even with these precautions.
Which Oils Can Be Used on Dogs?
Dogs may be the best candidate for aromatherapy. A dog’s sense of smell is acute and extremely sensitive to the subtlest aromas. Their noses are built to bring in volatile compounds, like essential oils, that are found in the air.
Research on aromatherapy for dogs is still in the early stages and ongoing. However, some studies have shown that the scented compounds do affect the brain directly, and in the ways that researchers have hoped.
These studies used EEGs to view the effects on the brain. For example, ylang-ylang enhanced alpha-activity, providing relaxation. There is even proof that kenneled dogs are more relaxed when lavender is diffused near them.
Dogs who have anxiety about traveling can benefit from aromatherapy, as well. A study by the Canine Behaviour Centre in Belfast, Ireland showed that dogs who were exposed to diffused lavender oil while traveling experienced significantly less anxious behavior. They spent more time resting, and less moving around or vocalizing.
Essential oils can definitely help to keep the family dog happy and healthy, but should not be used in place of regular care. Seeking veterinary care for illness or concern is still very important. However, essential oils can be used to enhance treatment.
Topical applications must always be highly diluted and not used near eyes, ears, nose, or genital areas. Because dogs will lick their fur, topical use must be very well monitored and done under the advice of a trusted veterinarian or aromatherapist, since ingestion of oils can be toxic.
Which Oils Are Safe for Cats?
Cats need special care when using essential oils. They do not have the same liver enzymes as humans that break down and excrete chemical compounds from the body. They also have incredibly sensitive systems.
The Tisserand Institute advises that essential oils diffused around cats must be highly diluted, used in a well-ventilated area, and only for short amounts of time. It is very important to watch for symptoms of distress. Short, infrequent diffusion is best.
Topical applications of essential oils are trickier. The seemingly harmless tea tree oil can be lethal to cats. Before using any oils topically, make sure it is a cat-safe formula and is highly, highly diluted.
Which Oils Are Toxic?
Many pet owners are looking for more natural ways to treat their pets. However, some “natural” remedies have shown to be as dangerous as synthetic ones. Researchers reviewed records of the ASPCA and Animal Poison Control and found that 92% of animals had adverse reactions to natural flea treatments. (See this post for safe natural flea remedies to use.)
Any oil can be toxic if not used properly. Dilution and safe practices are extremely important. That being said, there are certain oils that many sources agree should not be used with animals.
Essential oils to avoid around pets include:
- tea tree oil
- oils considered “hot” – these include cinnamon, clove, oregano, and thyme
- oils high in phenols – common ones are anise, clove, basil, and oregano
Generally, this is the same advice as using essential oils around young children.
What About Other Pets?
For most pets, the same recommendations apply. Diluted water diffusion is generally the safest option and preferred. The smaller the animals, the lower the concentration should be.
- Do not use any oils with antibacterial properties around animals that are hind-gut fermenters, such as horses and rabbits. They are very dependent on gut bacteria, so any upset in that balance can have drastic results.
- Birds seem to be a special case and I could not find any compelling information to recommend or prohibit the use of oils. There seems to be a lot of contradiction in this field so I am just going to recommend speaking to a knowledgeable professional before using oils around pet birds.
- Any chinchilla owners out there? Interesting factoid: Chinchillas have the most hair follicles per square inch of any land animal! This causes oils to absorb more readily, so use extra precaution.
For more on general pet safety when it comes to essential oils, I highly recommend the Plant Therapy blog since they have some of the most balanced essential oil education I’ve found.
Essential Oil Recommendations for Pets
Here’s what my research boils down to:
- Always check with your veterinarian as the research on this topic is spotty
- Never use around hind-gut fermenters such as horses and rabbits
- Use with extreme caution around cats and small animals like birds (or preferably, not at all)
- Always dilute heavily in a carrier oil
- Take care that pets do not ingest the oils
- Do not add essential oils to water dishes or food
- Keep any topical applications away from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, paws, and genitals
- Stay away from hot oils or those high in phenols
- Watch pets carefully when introducing essential oils
- Move essential oil diffusers to a separate part of the home if pets are too sensitive
- Keep essential oils safe in a pet-proof location
- Keep a pet poison helpline on hand or visit your veterinarian if any signs of distress
Pet-Safe Essential Oils
I’m not aware of many pet-safe blends that I would trust, but my favorite essential oil line does have a blend specifically for dogs. I use this or stick to other pet-safe oils around the house when diffusing, just to be on the safe side!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Rob Franklin, a veterinarian with Full Bucket Health. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your family vet.
Do you have concerns about pets and essential oils? Have something to add to the conversation? Please share in the comments!
- 2019-20 American Pet Products Association Survey, https://americanpetproducts.org/pubs_survey.asp
- Wells DL. Aromatherapy for travel-induced excitement in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006;229(6):964-7.
- ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/trending-now-are-essential-oils-dangerous-pets