If you like your home or apartment to feel like a spa retreat, you probably own an essential oil diffuser. While they can make your space feel ultra-relaxing, and make it smell amazing, there has been some debate across the world wide web as to whether using a diffuser is harmful to your pet's health. One woman's story of her cat nearly dying from toxic essential oils went viral this past January, while others have claimed diffusers are perfectly safe to use around animals. So, what's the deal?
"Essential oils need to be used with extreme caution with pets," Dr. Carly Fox, a doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center, tells Bustle. Essential oil aromatherapy may have proven health benefits for us humans, such as relieving stress or pain, but that doesn't mean it will have the same effect on your dog or cat. "I personally wouldn't use a diffuser [with a pet at home], just because of the risk of potential toxicity. Anything you diffuse will be extra sensitive for them. However, if you do decide to use one, you should definitely consult with your veterinarian first."
According to PBS, the part of a dog's brain that is responsible for decoding and analyzing smells is 40 times greater than a human's. Further, studies have shown cats have an even more sensitive sense of smell than dogs. Meaning, Dr. Fox says, an essential oil diffuser "could be nice for you, but very overwhelming for your dog."
But aside from potentially overwhelming their sense of smell, essential oil diffusers can potentially be toxic to your pets. "There are so many products out there, and we don't always know what we're getting. A lot of the oils are mixed with things that could potentially be toxic to your pet. So, it may not always be the actual essential oil itself, but what it's compounded with," says Dr. Fox. Some of the symptoms your pet may experience if the oil diffuser is making them sick include excessive drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea, according to the Pet Poison Helpline. What's more, if your pet ingests a concentrated essential oil, it could "cause severe burns in the mouth or GI tract," says Dr. Fox.
While dogs can still experience toxicity caused by an oil diffuser, Dr. Fox cautions that cats are more sensitive to them, and that they should probably be altogether avoided if you have a kitty. "Cats metabolize things differently than dogs do, and they are at higher risk than dogs when it comes to breaking down these compounds," she says, explaining that oil diffuser can make cats even sicker, and potentially be fatal to them. If you have smaller animals — such as hamsters, guinea pigs, and ferrets — Dr. Fox suggests skipping the oil diffuser, too.
Not only can essential oils cause new health problems in your pet, but they can worsen respiratory issues your animal may already have. "Cats and dogs can have chronic respiratory disease, just like people can have bronchitis or asthma. If you're going to diffuse something in the house, it can aggravate their pre-existing condition," Dr. Fox explains. "Similarly to children, asthma in cats can be triggered by environmental allergies and sprays." Like people, cats with asthma can experience symptoms like coughing, wheezing, rapid breathing or heart rate, increased swallowing, and more. Additionally, Dr. Fox says that birds also have sensitive respiratory systems, so any aerosol sprays or diffusers can be extremely harmful to them.
If you find essential oil diffusers to be therapeutic, but you have a dog, there are ways to minimize the risk of toxicity in your pet. "If you are going to use a diffuser, you have to use a very high quality essential oil," Dr. Fox explains. Store your essential oils where your pup can't get to them, and only use a diffuser for a short period of time, in a room by yourself. Furthermore, Dr. Fox says to avoid certain essential oils entirely, including rosemary, clove, cinnamon, and tea tree oil.
"A common oil people use on themselves is tea tree oil, but that can be toxic to dogs and cats if ingested or applied topically," she says. "A lavender oil is probably more commonly used, and may be consider 'safer,' but I don't think any of these oils are 100 percent safe for pets."
If you've been using a diffuser, and suspect that your animal companion may be sick from it, the best thing to do is seek veterinary care for your pet immediately. Dr. Fox says on the way to the vet, you should call the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control telephone line. "The ASCPA hotline has so much data on any substance an animal can get into that they shouldn't, so they would definitely be the authority on any sort of toxicity ingestion," she says. "They will let you know what to expect, if veterinary care is needed, and how serious [your pet's health issue] can be."
Moreover, Dr. Fox says under no circumstances should you induce vomiting in your pet to get the oil out of their system — with charcoal, or by any other means. "Since all of these are oils, if you were to induce vomiting, it could potentially lead to the oil or vomit getting into their lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia."
Overall, it's best play it safe when it comes to using an essential oil diffuser in a home or apartment with a pet. Always talk to your pet's doc before using essential oil around or on your animals, and prioritize the health of your pet.