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Is melaleuca oil safe for animals?

By Jo Hunt
Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Melaleuca alternifolia, or Tea Tree oil – its use is controversial in small animals, and almost every veterinarian I know will tell you that it is toxic. In my opinion, this unnecessarily frightens pet owners and oil users. So I’d like to spend some time discussing this topic with you today.

In January 2014, JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) published a study entitled “Concentrated tea tree oil toxicosis in dogs and cats: 443 cases (2002–2012).” This article took all of the toxic exposures to Melaleuca that were reported to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center of dogs and cats over a 10 year period and analyzed them. This included reported toxic exposures throughout the US and Canada. The article concludes by stating that use of tea tree oil in dogs and cats is not recommended. And this is why your veterinarian tells you it is toxic.

They analyzed 443 cases – over 10 years… a little over 44 cases reported each year. To put that into a little bit of perspective, it’s estimated that 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats are owned in the United States alone. Granted, not everyone uses essential oils. Of those cases, only 31 were classified as major illness.

The brands of the essential oils that caused toxicity were not disclosed in this study, it is likely that they are not known. Being that different purity levels and potency exists between brands, I believe this is a contributing factor in toxicity of this oil in most cases.

The amount of oils that caused toxicity was “dose dependent.” In other words, the larger the dose or amount of oils used, and the smaller the animal, the more severe the symptoms were. The animals ranged from 0.2 kg (less than 0.5 lb newborn/ juvenile kittens) to 71 kg (156 lbs dogs). The toxic dosage ranged from 0.1 mL to 85 mL – in terms of standard sized essential oil bottles, that is 5 drops to over 5 Bottles worth of essential oil. Two dogs were reported with applications that resulted in death – one was accidently given 0.4 mL of this essential oil IV (in the vein) which is about 20 drops. The other was a small dog (miniature poodle) that was given 28.5 mL (that’s a little less than 2 full bottles) topically for 3 days straight. None of the cats that had toxicity died from exposure. There were no reports of toxicity from diffusion.

The symptoms of Melaleuca toxicity in dogs include depression, lethargy, listlessness, somnolence, or appearing subdued, paresis, weakness, or hind limb weakness, ataxia, muscle tremors and fasciculation, and rarely: coma, collapse, recumbency, dermatitis, pruritus, rash, stiffness, increased salivation, and high serum liver enzyme activities. In cats symptoms include salivation or drooling, ataxia, coma, recumbency, unresponsiveness, unconsciousness, or a semicomatose state, muscle tremors or fasciculation, dermitis, pruritus, or rash. These symptoms will develop within 2-12 hours and may last up to 72 hours.If you think your dog or cat has had a toxic topical exposure, wash your animal with mild dish soap and rinse thoroughly. If you think your dog or cat has ingested this oil, do not induce vomiting. They can be fed activated charcoal. Contact your veterinarian if either of these is the case.

Interestingly, in one year (2003), the American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 787 exposures to Melaleuca in humans; 518 of these were in humans less than 6 years of age, 57 in those 6 to 19 years of age, and 212 in those over 19 years of age. Based on these numbers compared to those in the 10 years of reported dog/ cat cases, Melaleuca may actually be safer for pets than humans! (If you were basing it solely on reported cases).

All of this to say, that Melaleuca should not be feared and avoided at all costs the way it seems to be around animals. If you have a newborn or young kitten, I do not recommend using it on them, or small dogs less than 20 lbs, or even large dogs in large amounts, or animals with liver disease. Because this oil is so common, we tend to think it is very safe to use on ourselves, but the truth is it is very potent and should only be used in small amounts or diluted, even with people. Be knowledgeable about the information that is out there. Be sure to look at all the facts and ask questions. The margin of safety for this oil may be larger (or smaller) than what you may have originally thought. That being said, there are other oils that are equally as effective as Melaleuca that have an even higher margin of safety for small animals.

Information from ASPCA website - If you have been on social media lately, you may have seen articles or posts concerning essential oils, oil diffusers and the potential danger they may pose to your pets. Essential oils have been, for a long time, a popular home remedy for a number of maladies including nasal congestion, anxiety, sore muscles and skin conditions, among others. With the sudden popularity of oil diffusers—an easy way to release these oils into your home—there has been an emergence of alarm about how these oils may affect animals in the home. So, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) wants shed some light on this trending topic.

Are essential oils potentially harmful for your pets? And if so, what precautions should pet parents be taking?

The answer, as we so often see, is slightly more complicated than a simple “yes,” or “no.”

In their concentrated form (100%), essential oils can absolutely be a danger for pets. Dogs and cats who have either walked through oils, gotten some on their coat or had oils placed directly on them can develop health concerns.

Symptoms include:

  • Unsteadiness on the feet
  • Depression
  • Low body temperature (in severe cases)

If a pet ingested concentrated essential oils, you may see vomiting, diarrhoea and depression, as well.

Are some oils/scents more dangerous than others?

Some oils may in fact be more harmful than others. However, there are several factors that affect this such as concentration level, and what the product is mixed with. For example, concentrated forms of tea tree oil (melaleuca oil) may cause issues for your pets with only seven or eight drops, whereas another oil may take more or less. Due to the variability in concentration, formulation and possible quality of essential oils, it is best to completely avoid directly applying them to your pet. You should also keep any oils up and out of paws' reach to prevent potential ingestion.

So, does that mean you should return your diffuser?

According to APCC, not necessarily. Using an oil diffuser for a short time period in a secured area— one that your dog or cat cannot access—is not likely to be an issue.

However, if your pet has a history of breathing problems, it may be best to avoid using one altogether. Keep in mind, that your pets have a much better sense of smell than we do, so something that seems light to us may be overwhelming to them.

If you do decide to keep your diffuser, you’ll want to ensure that it is in a place where your pet cannot knock it over and potentially expose themselves to the oils. The best way to avoid exposing your pets to dangerous substances is always to err on the side of caution and by “pet-proofing” your space.

While these same concerns with essential oils will apply to other pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, it is best to avoid using an essential oil diffuser in your house if you have birds. Birds’ respiratory tracts are very sensitive, and they may develop more serious problems if you use a diffuser.

Here is another link with further information for Cats & Emotional Oils - https://mailchi.mp/84d05339fa01/cats-essential-oils-research-references?e=[UNIQID]

Thank you to the Essential Oil Vet for sharing this information with us, greatly appreciated.