white cockapoo laid on brown chair arm looking sad about essential oil odour

Essential Oils and the Danger to Cats, Dogs and Birds?

Essential oils have grown very fast in popularity for the last thirty years but sadly the consumers understanding of them has not. Furthermore do we really think of the effect they will have on our pets? Do we think of essential oils and the danger to cats, dogs and birds in our households when we choose or use them?

It seems that, because it says “organic” or “natural,” on the bottle and it’s plant based, then it must be ok and very safe to use. Moreover do we then forget to ask the question, “is it safe enough for everything else around us”?

Consequently we can start from a very dangerous position. A position of placing trust in a product without truly investigating what the components of it do. The honest truth is that nothing is truly non toxic when given in large enough quantities.

This raises the question that what might be acceptable to us may not acceptable to our beloved pets. I believe that in making our choices about bringing essential oils into our households, we first have to have a little understanding of them. This post attempts to bridge, at least in part, the knowledge gap about essential oils and the danger to cats, dogs and birds.  

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities.    It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”

Paracelsus

Essential oils and cats, dogs and birds

Humans and animals react to different things in different ways because our bodies have evolved at a D.N.A level to do so. We may have the same organs but they process foods differently and if we ignore this then we can potentially kill them with kindness.

As an example of this, I know that if I feed my dog any food from the onion family,  or chocolate, grapes or even raisins, I know that I am potentially causing him severe internal damage. Internal damage that may eventually kill him even though he richly enjoys them. All of these foods give me pleasure so I eat them, however I am very respectful and understanding of them around him.  

Now essential oils may be pleasurable and deemed safe for humans but like the chocolate for example, are they safe for our pets? Personally I would like to know which essential oils are safe and which are not. Unfortunately though, as soon as I start to investigate this area the essential oil online community becomes outraged. 

It is my opinion then, that because it is deemed a taboo subject to openly discuss then our beloved pets are suffering as a consequence of our silence. 

Why are we not able to treat essential oils with the same respect, extend our understanding of them and investigate their potential poisonous effects with an open mind? 

I am not however against the use of essential oils and do use them in my home. It seems to me however that if I am going to bring animals into my life, then I should educate myself on how to keep them healthy, happy and safe.

What Are Essential Oils?

An essential oil is a natural product extracted from a single plant species. The oil may be extracted from the fruits, flowers, leaves, stems, seeds, or roots, or virtually all parts of the plant. Additionally these oils are also extremely concentrated and therefore  must be treated with care and respect.

Do you know that it takes 75 lemons just to make one 15ml bottle of lemon oil! I think we all know the effect on the body when we bite into a lemon, (scrunchy sour face). Now because dogs and cats have such sensitive noses, how do you think they feel when they are placed near these products? 

We know that essential oils have long been used to sweeten the air, kill pests, sanitize surfaces, relieve maladies and lessen ailments.  Without question their powers have been documented for the last 5,000 years so we are familiar with them, and feel safe using them.

I would however say “user beware,” never in human history have they been so concentrated and so easily accessible and in so many forms. 

Are essential oils dangerous to humans?

In these super concentrated forms they can be beneficial to humans but can be very dangerous to our beloved pets. Just like cigarette smoke was to humans, it may take some time to see the harm that essential oils are doing to our faithful friends.

Essential oils can pose a toxic risk to household pets especially cats as they lack an enzyme in their liver which would metabolise and eliminate the oil from their body.

The higher the concentration of the essential oil (i.e100%), the greater the risk to the cat.

Symptoms could include drooling, vomiting, tremors, respiratory distress, ataxia (wobbliness),low heart rate,  low body temperature and liver failure 

If you are considering using any essential oils in your home or on your pet, please seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian first. Essential oils are not all the same and your veterinarian will be able to recommend a reputable supplier. Additionally, an up to date list of “safe”, oils and delivery methods.

Essential oils and Cats

Unlike dogs, cats spend a lot of their time grooming themselves and can reach almost every part of their body. For this reason it is highly recommended to understand which essential oils are unsafe  for your furry friend, and then to keep them out of the house.

Understand also that some essential oils that we like to use on our bodies can also act like a cat repellent. So even if it’s classed as “safe” it may be the cause for your cat’s apparent grumpiness.

tabby cat laid in long grass
Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

As I mentioned earlier, cats lack an enzyme in their liver which means they have difficulty metabolizing and eliminating certain compounds found in some essential oils, phenols and phenolic compounds in particular.

It is for this reason that personally I do not recommend using an essential oil diffuser around cats.

Essential oils by their very nature are easily absorbed both orally and through the skin and then quickly find their way to the liver. As the liver cannot process this compound it builds up over time as a toxin to the cats body and can eventually cause liver failure.

The time that this will take will be dependant upon factors. Factors such as age, health and level of ingestion together with any pre existing allergies that might be present. I must stress here though that the most important factor to note is, that although everything might seem ok on the surface; your furry friend might be struggling on the inside, so please avoid the non cat friendly oils.  

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signs to look for

Inhalation of strong smelling essential oils can cause some cats to develop a watery nose or eyes, a burning sensation in the throat, nausea, drooling,heavy breathing and/or vomiting (perhaps with blood). Ingested oils may leave burn marks around the mouth and nose area.

Heavy or difficult breathing is not normal in a cat and can be evidenced by fast panting, laboured breath, fast breathing, coughing or wheezing.

Cats do cough up hairballs, however a stressed and struggling cat will be close to the ground and trying to vomit and you will observe little to no abdominal movement.

If your furry friend  displays these symptoms then they need to be taken to a source of fresh air. If they do not recover quickly then you need to take them a veterinarian urgently.

Please also take the bottle or bottles of oils that you were using in a sealed container away from your cat. 

Essential Oils Dangerous to Cats

  • Wintergreen
  • Oil of sweet birch
  • Cinnamon
  • Peppermint
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Pennyroyal
  • Pine
  • Eucalyptus
  • Tea tree (melaleuca)
  • Citrus (d-limonene)
  • Clove
  • Oregano
  • Wormwood
  • Basil

IF YOUR CAT INGESTS ANY ESSENTIAL OILS ACCIDENTALLY THEN GO TO THE VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY.

Cats can absorb essential oils very easily due to the fact that they are constantly grooming themselves. Any airborne oils will be inhaled or land on their fur and then be ingested through the grooming process.

Even low levels of the above oils will collect in the liver and toxicity can occur very quickly, or over a longer period of time depending upon the concentration ingested.

Symptoms of essential oil poisoning include:

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Low heart rate
  • Respiratory distress
  • Ataxia (wobbliness)
  • Tremors
  • Low body temperature
  • Liver failure
  • Redness or burns on their tongue, gums, lips or nose 

Essential Oils and Dogs

Unlike cats, dogs do have a metabolizing enzyme in their liver. Fortunately for them, this enzyme can help to eliminate the potentially toxic effect of some essential oils. (NOT PUPPIES). 

This is why we find essential oils used as an ingredient in some doggy products such as shampoo or flea killer.

The quantities used in these products are very low and have undergone a great deal of testing at these levels, which is good news for your pooch. (Score one for the dogs, unless it’s bath night)! 

 

For this reason please be aware that if you use a commercial product which has an essential oil listed as an ingredient, don’t then assume that it is safe to use that oil in a stronger form.

Many commercial flea killing products list tea tree oil as an ingredient for example, however please note that this oil in its concentrated form is a killer for dogs. 

white puppy dog running through grass
Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash
puppy dog big eyes looking sad sniffing essential oils
Image by Fran__ from Pixabay

Be aware also that just like humans do, dogs can have allergies and may show an adverse reaction to any essential oil even at the lowest level. For this reason alone, I would always recommend that you monitor “Fido or Mr Tiddles” when introducing  them to a new product.

It must be ok if a you tube vet is recommending it?

Essential oils have long been documented as having health benefits for humans, so why not share those benefits with your four legged friend? 

It is true that some holistic veterinarians and owners (especially on you tube), are incorporating  essential oils into their treatments. Be aware however that the use of these oils to treat pet ailments is still relatively new and unproven. I prefer my veterinarian to be a veterinarian first and not a ground-breaking celebrity with a big smile and nice hair! 

Pet owners should be aware that scientific research into the effects of these oils on pets is still limited and the long term effects are simply not known.

For example we actually once thought that putting lead in our make up was safe. It then took many years before the long term results were noticed, so please look to the science, not the ground breaking celebrity. 

Danger signs to look for in essential oil poisoning

A dog which has potential essential oil poisoning may have difficulty breathing, heavy panting, laboured breath and burns and/or swelling around the nose, mouth and lips. He may be trying to vomit and that vomit may include blood. He may also have muscle tremors and display poor coordination or balance.

Your dog may have difficulty walking, be lethargic, weak and drooling excessively. His skin may be inflamed and red in places and he may be pawing at the face whilst whining. Another sign would be the strong aroma of the oils on his coat or breath.

If your dog shows these signs then he must be taken to a veterinarian immediately. If any product is on the skin or fur then wash it off with haste and take the suspected product to the clinic with you.

Do not induce vomiting or give the dog activated charcoal without a veterinarian’s advice as this could worsen your dog’s condition.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The Pet Poison Control Center based in the US reports that they have seen an increase in essential oil toxicity in recent years. 

They report that this is due to the increase in pet owners desire to treat more holistically, or with natural remedies using essential oils.

It is their advice to find a reliable source to gain the education that you need to keep yourself, your family and your pets safe. 

Essential Oils Dangerous to Dogs

  • Garlic
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Peppermint
  • Pine
  • Sweet birch
  • Wintergreen
  • Pennyroyal
  • Tea tree (melaleuca)
  • Anise
  • Citrus (d-limonene)
  • Yarrow
  • Ylang ylang
  • Juniper
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Basil
  • Wormwood
  • Birch
  • Spruce
  • Spearmint

In addition to the above information I would like to briefly break down four of these potential toxins to give you an idea of how seriously your beloved pet can be harmed.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal is usually administered to clear up flea infestations.

It is easily absorbed with both dermal or oral administration and both result in toxicity.

Signs include:

  • Vomiting (may include blood)
  • Diarrhea (may include blood)
  • Lethargy

Death due to hepatic necrosis                        (acute toxic injury to the liver)

Pennyroyal is a known toxin to dogs and in all forms it should be avoided in dogs.

Melaleuca Oil

Melaleuca oil, also known as tea tree oil is usually administered to the dogs coat or skin in an attempt to clear up a skin condition or fleas.

It is easily absorbed with both dermal or oral administration and both result in toxicity.

Signs include:

  • Depression
  • Ataxia (uncoordinated gait)
  • Paralysis of the rear legs
  • Vomiting
  • Hypothermia
  • Dermal irritation
Pine oil

Pine oils are used as an antiseptic and to decrease swelling  and pain in sore joints.

It is easily absorbed with both dermal or oral administration and both result in toxicity.

Signs include:

  • Dermal irritation
  • Gastrointestinal irritation
  • Vomiting (may include blood)
  • Drooling
  • Weakness
  • Ataxia (poor gait)

This oil can also cause potential renal and liver failure problems as well as attacking the central nervous system.

Wintergreen

Oil of  wintergreen contains methyl salicylates, more commonly known as aspirin. 

It is used topically as a pain reliever for muscle aches and pains.

Dogs can show signs of aspirin toxicity by vomiting due to severe gastrointestinal upset and ulcers, along with potential renal and liver failure. 

Aggressive veterinary care would be needed for gastrointestinal protection and renal and hepatic support.  

Unlike cats, who prefer moving objects, dogs are very curious animals so keep essential oils, diffusing oil and potpourri out of reach of dogs at all times.

Your four legged friend may wish to investigate the sweet smell and as we all know, a curious dog will eat or taste just about anything. I know mine does!

If you are considering using any essential oils in your home or on your pet, please seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian first. Essential oils are not all the same and your veterinarian will be able to recommend a reputable supplier. Additionally, an up to date list of “safe”, oils and delivery methods.

Essential Oils and Birds

Many essential oils are volatile compounds and can therefore be potentially toxic to birds at certain concentrations. Think of the 75 lemons used to make just one 15ml bottle of oil, now think of your active diffuser pushing that concentration into polly’s cage.

All bird lovers know that birds can be very sensitive animals. This is the reason why miners used to take them into the mines.

It was to detect toxic fumes and other gases. The birds would inhale the fumes or gas and die even though the miners had not yet detected them..

So knowing this, bird owners should be very cautious when using essential oils around their beloved pet, especially as a caged animal has nowhere safe to escape to. 

Photo by Dalton Touchberry on Unsplash

My advice would be that for birds in particular, you should always consult a veterinarian  before exposing your feathered friend to essential oils. In some cases it may be preferable to use essential oils in the cage cleaning process, however great care should be taken never to allow the bird to come into contact with the oils.

Essential oils should never be applied directly to a birds feathers as birds prefer to clean them individually and so ingesting the oils will definitely occur. 

Essential Oils Dangerous to Birds

  • Citronella
  • Tea tree (melaleuca)
  • Cinnamon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Pine
  • Cedar
  • Wormwood
  • Peppermint
  • Clove
  • Oregano
  • Arborvitae
  • Thyme
  • Basil

Please do not think that as this is a very short list, then it is safe to use all unlisted essential oils around your feathered friends, as it is not. The research carried out in this field is very low and the findings are limited and largely unverified.

Firstly remember that birds have very small respiratory systems. Secondly that todays essential oils are very concentrated forms of nature’s original compounds. Thirdly and most importantly, that in nature these two elements would never meet in this strength. Therefore if a bird ingests any essential oil at 100% concentration the result will be fatal.

Knowing that any essential oils diffused into the air will no doubt be inhaled by your feathered friend, you must therefore put thought into which type of diffuser you will use. Once you have done that then please think about the type and the concentration of oil that you will use.

In my opinion juvenile birds and very small birds should never come into contact with any essential oils. It is my belief that their respiratory and metabolic systems are just too sensitive to cope with them. 

How to use Essential Oils Near your Bird

If you are considering using any essential oils in your home or on your pet, please seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian first. Essential oils are not all the same and your veterinarian will be able to recommend a reputable supplier. Additionally, an up to date list of “safe”, oils and delivery methods.

Diffuser: You can use a cold air diffuser with no more than 4 drops of essential oil to get the oil into the air. This can then be inhaled by you and your bird at a safe level. Be sure to keep the room ventilated and never diffuse in a small room where the fragrance can become intensive.

Misting: A bird friendly mist can be made up and a few spritzes added to the room to freshen the air. You must however make sure to spray it away from the bird and never near the eyes. Again please make sure that the room is adequately ventilated and monitor the bird for any signs of stress.

As birds are so sensitive personally I do not recommend using oils near birds.

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How to Diffuse Essential Oils near Cats and Dogs

To begin with I would just like to say that personally I do not recommend using essential oils around cats as they lack an important enzyme in order to deal with them.

If you feel as though you want to use essential oils around your pets then I would say always use common sense and start slow. Introduce them to your pets in small quantities to avoid stress and always monitor their reactions.

If you have young, weak or sick animals then don’t use the oils until you believe that they can cope with them. Always ask your veterinarian before using oils in order to check which ones are potentially very toxic to them. (the lists in this post are not exhaustive and the research is limited).

When using an oil or combination of oils for the first time, always monitor your pets for at least ten minutes to see how they react and let them leave if they want to. 

Look out for signs that they are uncomfortable, stressed or feeling unwell and if so then stop immediately and monitor for the next 24 hours.

Always diffuse in a room that is open for pets, never in a small enclosed space with little or no ventilation. If my dog has a way out I will be less stressed and so will he so it’s a win win situation.

Don’t diffuse and leave the house, especially if you are using a new oil or combination of oils.  

bottles of essential oils on natural fibre mat
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Choosing Essential Oils

Not all essential oils are made the same way, have the same purity, are 100% organic, have third party testing or are pesticide free even though they say 100% natural.

Due to the sudden rise in popularity for these products and the lack of legal testing available you must consider your purchase carefully before buying. There is no universal standard for essential oil companies to abide by so read the labels carefully.

I would say always buy your oils only from a company who can prove that they have third party testing.

Third party testing means that, their product has been tested by a laboratory  which has no connections to the manufacturing company and is not on their payroll. 

This will ensure that the ingredients are pure, have never come into contact with pesticides and have no added chemicals. Just because it says that it’s natural and organic does not mean that every bit of it is and that’s why third party testing is so important.  

four small bottles of essential oils sat on table
Image by monicore from Pixabay

How can i ensure that i am buying pure essential oils?

Consider these questions before you buy your essential oils:

  • Have you heard of the company before?
  • Can the company prove that it is third party tested. 
  • Does the bottle list the latin name for the plants used to make the oil?
  • Is the price of the oil comparable to other similar products or very cheap?
  • Does the label state the purity as 100%? 
  • Have you heard of the company before?
  • Does the product smell like you would expect it to smell?
  • Is the bottle a dark, well sealed container? (essential oils degrade more quickly when exposed to heat and light) 
  • Does the label or packaging include a statement about the growing practices used and if it’s pesticide free? 

Who are the brands who are third party tested?

Do not look upon this list as being full or complete. Like any list it is only as good as the day it was compiled so things may have changed.

I am only providing this list as a starting point for you. This list has been provided so that you can get an idea of pricing and label quality. Hopefully this will help to guide you when you are doing your own investigations.

  • Plant Therapy
  • Eden’s Garden
  • Revive
  • doTERRA
  • Original Swiss Aromatics
  • Rocky Mountain Oils
  • Young Living
  • Aura Cacia
  • Lisse Essentials
  • Mountain Rose Herbs
  • Now Foods Essential Oils

Types of Essential Oil Diffusers

Nebulizing Essential Oil Diffusers

Nebulizing diffusers do not require heat or water and contain no plastic. They work by using pressurized air and oil. A stream of air blows across a small tube creating a vacuum that pulls the oil to the surface of the tube where it is blown away in a fine mist. 

Ultrasonic Essential Oil Diffusers

These diffusers use electronic frequencies to create ultrasonic vibrations to break up the molecules for distribution in a fine mist. The diffusers use a mixture of essential oil and water which means that the potency of the oil is reduced upon use. As citrus essential oils are corrosive to plastic, they will need to be cleaned regularly to keep them running smoothly.

Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay
Evaporative Cold Air Essential Oil Diffusers

As the essential oil evaporates, it is released into the air as it turns from a liquid to a gas. These diffusers can use a small fan to blow air past the oil causing it to evaporate at a greater rate than normal.

Image by yhahn from Pixabay
Evaporative Warm Air Essential Oil Diffusers

As the heated essential oil evaporates, it is released into the air as it turns from a liquid to a gas. These diffusers can use a small fan to blow air past the oil causing it to evaporate at a greater rate than normal. Heating essential oils can change the chemical composition of the oil and so change the predicted effect of the oil.

essential oils burner diffuser
Image by Maria Godfrida from Pixabay

If you are considering using any essential oils in your home or on your pet please seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian first. 

in conclusion:

It is my hope that you have found the information on this page helpful and informative. I have tried to be open minded about the use of oils around the home and obviously my wife still loves them. Leo is fine and well and was the inspiration for me to investigate this subject. 

Any questions or comments would be greatly appreciated. 

Be sure to check out my posts about using essential oils in your natural cleaning recipes if you liked this post.

cat snuggling up to large dog in snowy garden
Image by Ingo Jakubke from Pixabay
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sustainability dad

Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019. 

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He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.