Nova Scotia

'Like oil and water,' essential oils and your pet may be a bad mix

Many people buy essential oils and diffusers for the pleasant scent or to treat an ailment, but they could also be unintentionally harming their furry friends.

'These products are not tested on animals at all,' says Nova Scotia veterinarian

Some essential oils, such as lavender and eucalyptus, can harm cats. (Robert Short/CBC)

Many people buy essential oils and diffusers for the pleasant scent or to treat an ailment, but their popularity may mean some pet owners are unintentionally harming their furry friends.

"These products are not tested on animals at all," says Bedford, N.S., veterinarian Jeff Goodall.

While some essential oils can be useful in treating some animal issues, he said there are concerns about the high concentrations of the oils, while even those that are diluted may use a substance that itself is harmful to pets.

Essential oils are distilled from plants, such as lavender or eucalyptus. Some can be rubbed on the skin, made into tea or used in a diffuser that disperses a mist into the air.

On its website, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says there is no straight answer to the question of whether essential oils are harmful to pets, although it is clear about the effect on birds.

"It is best to avoid using an essential oil diffuser in your house if you have birds," the site says, because a bird's respiratory tract is highly sensitive.

Bedford, N.S., veterinarian Jeff Goodall says people should do their research before exposing their pets to essential oils. (CBC)

Goodall feels that caution applies to all exotic animals.

When it comes to cats and dogs, there's plenty of conflicting information on the internet. There are, however, some essential oils that can do harm.

"Like oil and water, essential oils and cats really do not mix," says the website of the U.S.-based Pet Poison Helpline, a 24/7 animal poison control centre.

It suggests cat owners be cautious when using essential oils and diffusers in their homes in order to protect their pet from a toxic risk. Concentrated essential oils should never be directly applied to cats.

Cats are especially susceptible because their livers do not contain an enzyme needed to break down the oils. Instead, it can build up in the cat's system and lead to toxicity.

Dogs, too, can be harmed by essential oils.

However, most agree using non-toxic essential oils in a diffuser for a short period of time is not likely to be an issue, although diffusers should not be used if the pet has breathing problems, is confined to a small space and cannot leave, or a lot of oil is being used.

Pet owners wanting to know more about which essential oils are safe for use around pets may have a hard time finding reliable information.

The Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have little information on essential oils.

"It's a very much buyer beware market," according to Lee Fisher, an aromatherapist who has operated an aromatherapy business in Dartmouth, N.S., for almost two decades and who offers classes on essential oils and their safe use for humans and animals.

Some aromatherapy shops sell products designed especially for pets. (CBC)

Buying essential oils can be confusing for people, Fisher said, because not all are created equal and purchasing online has potential pitfalls.

"There are so many bottles that may have one drop of lavender essential oil and the rest is filler," she said. "Or it may be a synthetic lavender.

"It's really important that you get to know the company that you're going to buy your essential oils from and make sure the quality they're selling you is the match for what you want to use it for."

Whether buying in a store or online, she said it's important to always do your research, as essential oils are more than just a pretty smell and should be used with caution. 

"They are going to have an effect on your body and on your family and on your pets, so make sure you choose your oils with knowledge and choose your oils thinking about the result you want," Fisher said.

Diffusers spray a mist of essential oil into the air. (Robert Short/CBC)

Goodall said pet owners should talk to their vet before using essential oils and, if possible, consult an experienced integrated veterinary medical practitioner, someone who uses conventional medicine and alternative therapies.  

Fisher advises people to ask for a safety sheet with each essential oil. It will tell you about its safe use and possible adverse impacts.

"Whether you're buying online or buying in a store, ask for information because not all oils are the same," Fisher said. "It could be the company that's carrying a different kind of product or it could be a different country of origin and they're going to have a very different effect."

Since animals are much more sensitive to smells than humans, "less is more."

(Robert Short/CBC)

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story quoted the website of the ASPCA as stating, "Like oil and water, essential oils and cats really do not mix." In fact, the quote should be attributed to the Pet Poison Helpline.
    Feb 26, 2018 2:43 PM AT

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.