I Really Don’t Think Your Pet Wants To Smell Like That.



The internet has really changed how owners care for their pets. Pet owners have access to much more information and it seems every month there is a new hot topic. Raw diets, influenza, grain free diets, the use of CBD oil, hemp oil, and training techniques are all examples of recent topics that have been discussed extensively on social media, blogs and in the news. This connectivity has helped us all to quickly gain more knowledge about pet health care. Information is always good, but a little science and common sense can help distill the information down to the truth.


I like to consider my clients to be a pretty well informed, cutting edge sort of a crowd. So, last week, after seeing two pets, a cat and dog, that had been, for lack of a better term, slathered in essential oils, I was not surprised to find an email in my box from the ASPCA’s National Animal Poison Control addressing the increasing popularity and dangers of essential oils for our pets.


Essential oils are the concentrated oils extracted from a plant. The oils are the essence of the plants from which they are distilled. As a result of the process of concentrating the plants oils the scents is also concentrated and strong. There are different levels of purity and even in people, can cause skin irritation, allergic reaction and hepatotoxicity (liver toxicity). Because of differences in distillation and the degree of concentration some oils are much more toxic, even in very small quantities, then others. Essential oils may also be very flammable.


Topical use of essential oils is particularly dangerous to our pets. Ingestion of essential oils, because they groom themselves by licking, particularly birds and cats, leads to rapid systemic absorption across mucous membranes of the mouth. Once ingested the necessary hepatic metabolism of the oils puts cats at a higher risk of toxicity since they are deficient in a necessary hepatic enzyme for metabolism of chemicals found in the oils. Other species of animals may also experience hepatic toxicity based on the type and dosage of the oil.  Animals with other illnesses, particularly those affecting the liver, will also be susceptible to toxicity. Although some oils are less toxic than others, oils of cinnamon, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree, wintergreen and yang yang, regardless of their concentration, are toxic both topically and well as upon ingestion. Signs of toxicity include drooling, nausea, coughing, wheezing, disorientation, hypothermia, tremors and death.


Active diffusers that place droplets into the air carry the same danger to our pets as direct application of the oils since the droplets may land on their coat and become rapidly absorbed across their skin and mucous membranes. Use of these diffusers around parrots and pocket pets may mean that their cages and food are also contaminated with the oil. Also, birds and pocket pets have very sensitive respiratory tracts, continued low grade exposure can lead to asthma like symptoms and pneumonia. Cats and dogs with pre-existing respiratory conditions may also be compromised by even brief exposure to active diffusers.


Apply these scientific facts to other toxins with which we are already familiar. We already know that cigarette smoke can cause lung damage. Birds that are chronically exposed to the smoke not only develop lung problems, but the nicotine can adhere to their fathers and they ingest it as they preen (groom), this exposure can cause nicotine toxicity and death. Dogs and cats that live with smokers also develop lung disease, a higher risk of cancer and cardiac disease. Just like smoke, essential oils can cause illnesses with acute or chronic exposure. What is inhaled can indeed cause serious health issues, although they may not be evident immediately.


Passive diffusers, where the oil distributes on a stick and the scent is released slowly by diffusion, remain dangerous to birds and smaller pets who have very sensitive respiratory systems. However, limited exposure for cats and dogs can be tolerated. Care should taken to be sure they cannot gain access to the oils and diffuser sticks.


Let us say that you choose to ignore all the science I presented above. For you, here is my argument against topical essential oils. They smell. I know they smell good to you. However, your dog has 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose, compared to a paltry 6 million in the human nose and the area of the dogs brain devoted to sensing smells is 40 times larger relative to a humans. That makes them hundreds of thousands of times more sensitive to odors. Cats are also more sensitive to odors than humans and they also respond to odors behaviorally. Those of us that have gone through the Cat Friendly certification process and the Fear Free Certification process know that our patients are so sensitive to odors that we should not wear perfumes or use scented sprays in our hospital since these things may cause them distress. You might argue that dogs and cats like smelly things like cat food and garbage, that your dog rolls in smelly stuff all the time, but I suggest that those examples are different, it was their choice and they have the ability to distance themselves from those smells if they choose.


So why don’t we put ourselves in the position of the cat and dog I evaluated last week. Both were sick (prior to the oils application), one already had respiratory issues, the oils smelled so strongly it bothered some of the doctors and nurses, causing them to cough and sneeze. One of the patients had a skin issue so that meant they were grooming more and their skins’ natural barriers were not functioning correctly. And lastly, these creatures, with their highly refined sense of smell, were forced to smell these oils all the time. They could not get away from them. Although I know both owners meant well, I have to imagine both these pets were being forced to feel even worse than they already did from their original illness.


Alternative therapies always have a kernel of truth, an opportunity to try something new. However, in this instance, even though essential oils benefit people, please refrain from applying them to your pet and use them sparingly around your house. Also, remember, not everything you read on the internet is true and that last thing you want to do is harm your pet and potentially shorten their life expectancy by exposing them to a toxin that may either slowly or very quickly damage their liver, skin and respiratory systems.

Posted on February 11, 2018
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