Cat sleeping next to essential oil diffuser

Essential oils are great for humans seeking some natural relief, but they can be harmful to our furry four-legged friends. Cats and dogs have different adverse, often dangerous, reactions to many essential oils. If you use essential oils, it’s important to know which ones can harm your pets and what to do if your pet is accidentally exposed to them.

Essential oils are extracts from plants that have beneficial uses for people’s health and well-being. People use them in many ways, including as relaxation aids, in natural health remedies, and in DIY personal care products. Yet there is little research on the physical effects of essential oils on pets. If you think your pet would benefit from oils, talk to your vet before using them just as you would consult a doctor about your medications.

The ASPCA warns that “In their concentrated form (100%), essential oils can absolutely be a danger for pets.” Exposure can take place through the mouth and nose, through the pads of their feet, or via contact with fur. If you’re using essential oils, take a few minutes to understand the symptoms of exposure and what to do.

Recognizing Adverse Reactions

Your pet does not need to ingest essential oils to have a reaction, as they can be absorbed through the skin. If you use a diffuser, you might accidentally expose your pet to essential oils. The type of diffuser you use determines how much exposure your pet may get.

If you use an active diffuser, which releases mists of the oils into the air, your pet is likely to get some on their fur. This could lead to skin irritation, and ingestion if your pet licks their fur. Pets can have a reaction after exposure to airborne oils through their skin. However, if you use a passive diffuser, which releases fragrance by evaporating the oil, your pet is less likely to be affected, but they may still have a respiratory reaction such as difficulty breathing.

If your pet is acting oddly and you smell essential oils on them, it might be a good idea to take precautionary measures such as calling the pet poison helpline or your veterinarian.

Symptoms of essential oil poisoning include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lack of coordination or balance issues
  • Excessive drooling
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Shakiness or muscle tremors
  • Irritation of mouth or face, pawing at it
  • Vomiting
  • If ingested, the smell of the oil on their breath

Cats and dogs have different sensitivities. Cats are more sensitive to a greater variety of oils. Small pets are more likely to experience an adverse reaction from exposure to a small amount of essential oil than bigger animals.

Woman lounging next to her dog, holding a kitten
If you think your pet is having a reaction to essential oils, contact your vet or the pet poison helpline for advice.

Watch Out for These Essential Oils

Avoid exposing dogs to these essential oils:

  • Cinnamon oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Pine oils
  • Sweet birch oil
  • Tea tree oil
  • Wintergreen oil

For cats, the list is longer. In addition to the oils dogs are sensitive to, cats can also react to:

  • Citrus oil
  • Clove oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Ylang ylang oil

What To Do and Not To Do

If you think your pet is having a reaction to essential oils, call your vet or the pet poison helpline to ask them what to do. Don’t induce vomiting unless instructed to do so by veterinary professionals — even if you think your pet has ingested these oils. If you have the packaging of what your pet ate, or know what kind of essential oil they were exposed to, provide the hotline or vet staff with that information and tell them what symptoms you see.

If you don’t observe any symptoms but you can smell essential oil on your animal’s skin, a quick wash of the area using dish soap to remove it is probably in order. The amount of oil that will be toxic depends on the size of your pet. Smaller animals will have adverse reactions to small amounts of oil that may not affect a larger animal.

It’s important to remember that what is healthy for humans can be unhealthy for another creature. Be careful to prevent your cat, dog, bird, or any other type of pet from coming in contact with your essential oils. Perhaps avoid the oils listed above just to be safe. At a minimum, pet-proof the areas where you use and store essential oils. In an emergency, call the pet poison helpline: 800-213-6680 (an $85 fee is required, so try your vet first).