Are Essential Oils Toxic to Dogs? Learn The Facts About Essential Oils and Dog Safety

April 02, 2022 12 min read

are essential oils toxic to dogs

We can always tell when the topic of essential oils and pet safety is making another circle around the internet.  In the past 2 weeks there has been an influx of emails about the use of essential oils and whether or not essential oils are safe for dogs and cats.

Some of the people who contacted us said they read articles about essential oils being toxic to dogs and cats. Another email said that she loved our shampoo but had to stop using it because it contained peppermint and tea tree oil which is toxic to dogs.  

One of the emails sent to us included a link to an article from a veterinary clinic who had written a blog post on the safety of essential oils for dogs. The article said this: 

"Many essential oils, such as eucalyptus oil, tea tree oil, cinnamon, citrus, peppermint, pine, wintergreen, and ylang ylang are straight up toxic to pets. These are toxic whether they are applied to the skin, used in diffusers or licked up in the case of a spill."

WOW! I nearly fell out of my chair!  Incidentally, the blog article was copied from content posted on another website also having no expertise in the use of essential oils with animal care.

Ironically, the same veterinary website who copied that article on essential oil dog safety also recommended that pet parents use an all-in-one Trifecta pill for their dog once a month to kill fleas, heartworm, ticks, roundworm and more!  

So, according to this website, essential oils are toxic yet a pill taken once a month internally to kill fleas, heartworm, ticks and roundworm is safe?!  Seriously? This is where we are and the kind of conflicting information that the pet parent is supposed to successfully navigate while caring for their pet in the safest way possible. 

If I give the author of the article the benefit of the doubt, I know many veterinarians have seen so many adulterated and synthetic oils being used by pet parents - they may classify commonly adulterated "essential oils" as toxic. However, it would be more accurate to call this "fragrance oil toxicity" not "essential oil toxicity" as they aren't truly essential oils. 

Fragrance oils are often marketed as essential oils which we refer to as “greenwashing” which is trying to make something not natural sound more natural than it could ever be. Fragrance oils are made from hundreds of compounds and they ARE toxic. Think scented candles, perfumes, artificial fragrance, dryer sheets, etc. 

My guess is, the article that was sent to us was written as a way to scare pet parents and get website clicks instead of taking the time to educate on what is safe and what isn't safe. You can’t educate others when you don’t know something yourself.

Whatever the answer, the author of this article is simply spreading bad information and clearly has no first hand experience of using essential oils on animals. This is why it is not acceptable to go find an article in a Dr. Google search and start spreading it around as fact.  Verify, verify, verify!  Where are the citations to veterinary, medical and scientific research?  If not provided, then you should immediately question the source and their so-called expertise.  This is how bad information gets perpetuated on the internet.  Somebody writes an inaccurate article and posts it.  Then, that same inaccurate article gets copied to countless other websites so false information is now everywhere.  The fact that it appears in searches gives it “credibility” because why would it be on so many websites if the information wasn’t true?  We are ALL familiar with how that thought process has gone the past couple of years.  People need to take responsibility for verifying information they find before spreading it as fact.  But…back to essential oils!

I get it - essential oils are complex (seriously - they contain complex hydrocarbons).

Used correctly, essential oils for dogs can be tremendously beneficial when they are high quality, pure, and diluted properly. 

Let me be very clear: 

Low quality, undiluted, adulterated or synthetic oils are not safe for dogs, cats or humans.  You will never find any of those in 4-Legger products.

What Are Essential Oils? 

To understand essential oils, you need to understand their origin and the industry.

Learning about essential oils is like going down the rabbit hole. So, we are going to attempt to simplify.

Essential oils aren't "really" oils in the traditional sense of the word.

When you think of oils - like the olive oil we use in our organic dog shampoo, the olives are cold pressed to get the oil out of the olives. Simple, right? 

To get the essential oils from plants, large amounts of harvested plant material (roots, leaves, stems, fruits or flowers) go through steam distillation, cold pressing, CO2 extraction, or a solvent extraction process to release their chemical compounds which are called their essential oils. 

When extracted correctly, the plant's natural aroma is captured and they are very beneficial to both physical, cognitive and mental health.

It takes about 14 oranges to make a 15 ml bottle of orange essential oil and 4-5 pounds of lavender flowers to make a 15 ml bottle of lavender essential oil.

Yes - really! 

While the amount of plant material needed doesn't change to make an organic essential oil, growing plants organically for organic essential oil extraction IS more expensive, time consuming, and a lot more paperwork! A true organic essential oil starts with plants grown under the standards set by the USDA National Organic program.  Even essential oils that are not officially certified organic, if they are being used as an ingredient in a product that IS Certified Organic, they must be grown and harvested according to the exact same guidelines as essential oils that are Certified Organic.

Why am I making this point? 

I want you to truly understand how much work (and time) goes into essential oils - from the soil the plants are grown in to the extraction, transportation, record keeping, etc.  

A USDA certified organic essential oil will not be adulterated with synthetic compounds. Further, they won't be contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, etc. 

Understanding the Essential Oil Industry

In the early 1990s the essential oil industry boomed and large multi-level marketing companies began to make essential oils a household necessity. With demand rising and the amount of material it takes to make pure essential oils, many of the oils became mixed with synthetic versions to increase the volume of oils to meet demand. 

Today there are synthetic oils marketed as pure essential oils; pure essential oils mixed with synthetic oils; and even oils being marketed as “pure essential oils” that aren't truly organic and aren't even essential oils! 

Marketing synthetic oils as essential oils should be governed with regulation to stop the practice. Unfortunately, the science has gotten so good, it is sometimes hard to discern between synthetic and non-synthetic oils.

I recently reviewed an analysis of a highly rated company on Amazon that sells "pure essential oils".  They also posted their essential oil gas chromatography results on their website to "prove" they are pure essential oils. Well, they are selling nothing even close to essential oils. The are selling synthetic compounds. Most are adulterated with significant quantities of mineral oil and isopropyl myristate. In other words, the company is committing fraud. Yet, they have a 6 pack of "pure essential oils" they sell for $9.99 with over 100,000 reviews.  

Learn more about essential oil quality, fragrance oils and more, here

The bottom line when it comes to essential oil quality is having a source you can trust and knowing those essential oils are high quality, diluted properly and you have proper instruction on how to use them on your dog, cat or other animal. 

We use animalEO essential oilsin our house. Each lot of essential oil is hand selected by a holistic veterinarian and blended by hand into formulations she has tested within her own practice to assess their benefits. Dr. Melissa Shelton has essential oil blends that can be applied topically, orally, and by diffusion so they have earned the distinction of being Veterinary Grade essential oils.

How We Select Essential Oils for Our Dog Shampoo

4-Legger spends a significant amount of time sourcing high quality oils (by lot number) that meet our stringent standards as well as the standards of the National Organic Program (NOP).

Because our products are USDA Certified Organic (the highest NOP standard), or made with Certified Organic ingredients (human grade - the next highest NOP standard), we can trace each oil to the field they were grown in and each step of their lifecycle until they are in our bottles.  All of that information is documented as part of the USDA organic process. No exceptions.

This ensures our ingredients are not tampered with - no synthetics are added and we are 100% confident in their quality and safety.

We also review the safety profile of each oil (again by lot number) to ensure its quality and then dilute them for use in our products in accordance with safety guidelines specific to the individual essential oil and in conjunction with animal and human wellness practice.

We took the extra step of attending Dr. Melissa Shelton's educational course on the use of essential oils with animals and how to properly select essential oils that would be considered veterinary grade and therefore, safe for use both for healing and for routine wellness maintenance.  

Let's go back to the article written by the veterinarian and address their  statement:  "Many essential oils are straight up toxic to pets" and then look at each of these oils for the therapeutic benefits they actually provide.

Eucalyptus essential oil can be very beneficial for respiratory conditions, fungal conditions, as an insect repellent and to help reduce skin irritation and naturally deodorize. Eucalyptus that is high in 1,8-Cineole levels have been shown to be linked to breathing issues. Therefore, when sourcing eucalyptus, one should review the key constituents to find a pure eucalyptus that is lower in 1,8-Cineole and should be diluted below 20% for dermal applications. We use eucalyptus in two of our shampoos. In our cedar dog shampoo we use it as an insect repellent, to reduce skin irritation and to naturally deodorize. In our tea tree dog shampoo, we use it to help naturally deodorize and reduce skin irritation. 

Tea tree is one of the most controversial essential oils for animals. It became wildly popular in the mid 1980s and as a result there was a surge of poor quality, contaminated or synthetic products that flooded the market - all claiming to be pure tea tree essential oil. Many of the articles written about tea tree safety with pets use an unreasonable dosage of tea tree on animals and you'd expect toxicity at those levels. Using a high quality (pure) tea tree that is safely diluted is an incredible oil - antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic and anti-inflammatory. It is a powerhouse for yeast and bacterial infections of the skin, ringworm and other skin infections. The maximum dermal use of tea tree on skin is 15%. We use tea tree in our USDA organic dog shampoo as a holistic alternative to medicated dog shampoo

Cinnamon essential oil is another oil that is commonly adulterated. It contains moderate levels of Eugenol which is often implicated in toxicity (especially with cats). However, pure cinnamon bark essential oil (without any synthetic cinnamaldehyde) can be beneficial when used in small doses to stimulate circulation, reduce stress, relieve pain, help fight off infections and protect against pests. We do not use cinnamon essential oil in any of our dog shampoos. 

Citrus - aka sweet orange essential oil is one of the most popular artificial scents and food flavorings. As you can probably guess, there are a LOT of fragrance oils on the market all trying to capture the essence of the orange. Orange has GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status and is known for its ability to be uplifting to the mind. It is also packed with natural Vitamin C to promote the production of collagen (repair skin) its ability to reduce inflammation and bacteria. We use it in our organic neem dog shampoo and our organic dog deodorizing spray. It is used in many of the animalEO blends including one of our favorites, Sunshine in a Bottle - a citrus based essential oil blend for your diffuser that is safe for all animals and smells amazing! For skin, the recommendation is below 2%. Our use of sweet orange is well within that guideline. 

Peppermint essential oil is yet another that is wildly popular and as a result there are many low quality or adulterated / synthetic products in the market. A high quality peppermint essential oil is actually quite safe and very beneficial. It can help to balance the sebum in your dog's coat and cool hot inflamed skin. Peppermint's benefits are incredibly beneficial - anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and more. It has GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status with dermal restrictions based upon 0.8% menthofuran and 3% pulegone content.  We use peppermint in two of our products and the the levels for dermal contact are very safe: Our cedar and peppermint dog shampoo and our tea tree and peppermint organic dog shampoo. Peppermint is also the powerhouse in the animalEO blend GI Joe for nausea and digestion and a great touch-up spray in our peppermint deodorizing mist. It is also used in our natural Dental Powderto help sooth inflamed gums and delicate tissue in the mouth.  As a side note, cats do not really prefer peppermint so we recommend not using it around them. 

Pine scent has become associated with "clean" in many households and as a result, there are a lot of low quality and synthetic pine fragrance oils on the market. There are many pine needle oils adulterated with terpenes and passed off to consumers. High quality pine is a very useful essential oil for lice, fleas, mange and skin parasites along with urinary tract infections and hormonal imbalances. It is not recommended for oral use. While there are many different species of pine, Scotch Pine is the best for animal use. We do not currently use pine in any of our organic dog shampoo products but it would smell terrific! 

Wintergreen essential oil is one of the most synthetically created essential oils on the market today. As a result, it is very difficult to find a true pure high quality wintergreen. When it can be found, it may be used for blood clots or to dilate blood vessels to increase circulation. Unfortunately, given that it is so hard to find a true pure wintergreen and there are so many essential oils that can be used for the same therapeutic benefit, we recommend avoiding wintergreen essential oil. We do not use wintergreen in any of our products. 

Ylang Ylang essential oil being on the list surprised me a little until I remembered it is often in liquid potpourris where the norm is low quality. I've always known it to be a balancing oil - like the "Yin and Yang" - helping to balance energy, coat and skin conditions, mind imbalances. There are multiple types of distillation of Ylang Ylang essential oil - and each has their own combination of fractions. "Complete" is the preferred oil for veterinary use. It also has a GRAS status and is very beneficial. We use it in our USDA organic dog conditioning rinse as it helps reduce inflammation and reduce the presence of unwanted bacterial activity. It will also help to balance the oils in the coat. 

What Have We Learned?  

By now you have probably seen an important trend.

The majority of the essential oils that are toxic to dogs are flagged as such because they are adulterated (synthetic, contaminated, not pure, etc.) or not diluted properly.  

So, are there essential oils that you should absolutely avoid around dogs? Yes.  

Essential Oils To Avoid

What essential oils do we NOT recommend using around any animals (including yourself): 

Birch - due to high methyl salicylate content and again because it is often synthetic and very difficult to find a safe high quality source. There are so many better safe options, there is no need to use Birch.

Boldo which has high toxicity concerns to to the levels of ascaridole.

Pennyroyal due to toxicity concerns. 

Wintergreen due to high methyl salicylate content and again because it is too difficult to find a high quality / pure source and there are so many other safe options. 

Wormwood due to high Thujone content. 

Essential oils are powerful and beneficial but they must be high quality and they must be diluted to safe levels for use and with knowledge of proper applications.

Essential oils should never be applied directly to your skin or your animal's skin without being properly diluted. 

Honoring The Essential Oils and Their Origin 

As you can probably guess, we also have an essential oil pet peeve (pun intended).

Because of the sheer amount of plant material that it takes to get a pure essential oil, we hate seeing these precious plant materials in synthetic dog shampoo as any benefit they could provide is counteracted by the chemicals in the shampoo. It is such a waste of these precious compounds to mix them with toxic chemicals! 

If you have questions about the ingredients in pet shampoo, check out 4-Legger's Pet Shampoo Ingredient Database and do your own research on ingredients. 

Whether an essential oil is in your dog's shampoo, you are diffusing it, applying it topically or orally, it must be pure, diluted properly and used as directed. 

All of 4-Legger's pet shampoos are made with sustainably sourced organic oils and pure essential oils. All of our products are safe and effective and free from synthetic chemicals. 

If you want a safe and non-toxic "chemical free dog shampoo" then you've found it with 4-Legger! View our product recommendations here

Learn more about Essential Oils and Animals

If you want to learn more about the use of essential oils, we highly recommend these 2 books written by the actual experts. They are our “go to” resources for identifying the key constituent safety profiles and the use of essential oils with animals.

The Animal Desk Reference II: Essential Oils for Animals 2nd Edition by Melissa Shelton DVM.

Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals 2nd Edition by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young.