A veterinary toxicologist breaks down the potential risks.

Essential oils may be lauded for mind and body benefits—from boosting your mood to calming inflamed skin—but because of differences in how they're processed by animals, they can pose a threat to pets. (The one exception: If a holistic veterinarian has prescribed them for a pet's particular ailment, in which case it's smart to follow usage instructions carefully.) As for diffusers, which dispel essential oils into the air by way of water vapor or pure evaporation, the health risks for pets are generally dose-dependent, says Ahna Brutlag, director of veterinary services at Pet Poison Helpline: The more exposure, the greater the risk. Here's what to consider if you have one or you're planning to start using one in your home.

Wooden aroma diffuser with a bengal cat
Credit: Cavan Images / Getty Images

A diffuser could be unpleasant for a pet.

Although breathing in essential oils can have beneficial effects in people by triggering a release of neurochemicals in the brain, the same inhalation can cause sensitivity and discomfort in animals. "It's important to remember that their sense of smell is so much more potent than ours," says Brutlag. "What we can just barely smell on the surface can be really overwhelming and irritating to them."

It can also cause respiratory issues.

Some pets' lungs aren't as equipped to handle oil droplets as our own. This is particularly the case for birds: "Their anatomy makes them more likely to suffer from any sort of inhaled product in comparison to people, cats, or dogs," Brutlag says. But that still doesn't exempt feline and canine friends from concern. While some exposure may not be an issue, a substantial amount—if you run one constantly, for example, or place it right next to Fluffy's bed—can cause coughing, sneezing, and watering of the eyes, especially in an animal with any type of chronic respiratory condition like asthma (particularly common in cats).

If ingested or absorbed, essential oils can have more serious effects.

“What we know to be unique about essential oils is that if they come in contact with skin, they can actually cross the skin barrier and get into the body,” says Brutlag. This applies to cats and dogs, too—which means that if one happens to knock over a diffuser and some of its contents spill on her skin, the oil could enter her bloodstream, potentially triggering neurological or liver issues. (This is more likely to be the case with tea tree, pine, and peppermint oils, which the metabolic systems of pets have more difficulty processing.) If she then goes a step further and grooms herself, attempting to clear the oil from her fur, the ingestion could cause vomiting or diarrhea—and in large quantities, seizures or liver failure.

Focus on minimizing exposure to reduce the risk.

The bottom line: Although the above reactions are frightening, they're unlikely to occur without a large degree of exposure. If you're just using a diffuser occasionally in one room or in an area where your pet does not often go, it may have no effect on her at all. But if you're using it in a space that your pet frequently occupies—perhaps near the litter box or a dog bed—it'll put her at greater risk for a health issue. In that case, Brutlag advises, "Think about the 'why.' If you're using it to cover up pet odor, redirect the conversation to consider the reason for the lingering smell." Maybe it's time to toss the dog bed, for example, or you may need to wash it more often. This way, Brutlag says, you're not just masking the smell, but getting to the root of the issue.


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