Using Essential Oils with Pets: the myths

Let's clarify some important details about essential oils and their use in animals!

Myth #1: Essential oils are a gentle and safe medicine

According to the definition of a gentle medicine, NO, the use of essential oils is not one. There is potential for toxicity and harm depending on the concentration, dosage, and use of the oils.

Knowing this, YES, it is possible to use them safely - for oneself, for children, and for animals - by respecting certain basic principles and seeking information from valid scientific sources.

Myth #2: All essential oils are toxic to cats

There is a lot of confusion on this topic. Dr. Melissa Shelton provides a good summary in the chapter "Metabolism Theory"1 and in the following "Just the science" (including 8 pages of bibliographies of scientific articles showing that cats are cats, and do not metabolize molecules in general like dogs and humans!).

In essence, the confusion about phenols comes from a study done in 1972 (there have been research and medical advances since then!) which, when read carefully, does not target the use of essential oils, but rather the injection of benzyl alcohol, which is a synthetic molecule from the phenol family.

It is not the presence of phenols that one should be wary of with cats (and other animals), but rather the quantity and quality of the oils used. For example, an oil that is of low quality will have a greater toxic potential than a therapeutic grade oil, even if they have the same percentage of phenols in the analysis. And it's not just phenols that are targeted with cats!

Yes, they can metabolize them, no, their effects do not accumulate in the liver. Cats are cats. They are individuals of a particular species, which function differently from dogs and humans. This means that a cat's metabolism can be faster or slower than that of a dog or a human for the same molecule. This is the basis of dosage concepts for medications (the doses for a dog, a cat, and a human are not the same!).

Essential oils should always be seen as medicines: each species has its safe dosage, safe frequency of use, and safe methods of use.

A cat's metabolism can very well eliminate a certain component that is naturally formed in its body (take bilirubin for example), whereas when these enzymes are formed to metabolize phenols, a smaller amount is eliminated than when they are natural.

Research shows that cats have a "weakened" capacity to metabolize phenols through the liver, which does not mean they do not metabolize them at all. Research tends to show that phenols are not metabolized solely through the liver in cats. Indeed, although cats have deficiencies in liver enzymes compared to some other species, it seems that their way of metabolizing phenols is simply different and slower.

Most reported cases of toxicity in cats (and other animals, and children!) are due to improper use, poor quality, and/or incorrect dosage. Few scientific studies prove the actual toxicity of certain components in essential oils for animals in diffusion. We mostly see cases of severe skin irritation or ingestion poisoning, but always in uncontrolled settings.

Another common example: tea tree oil. Yes, this oil has killed cats. The reported cases involve cats on which a low-quality oil (likely synthesized) was used, and in large quantities. Another case involves a cat that came into contact with a spill of essential oil (from a basic natural products store), had seizures, and died the next day. The most used research to talk about the toxicity of this oil, however, is a reported case where three cats had over 60ml of essential oil on them (to repel fleas they were infested with2), and licked it. This is a clear case of overdose, where even a human would have had adverse effects!

Some research has labeled oils as "toxic" by ingesting more than 50ml by rabbits. Firstly, 50ml of liquid at once, for a dwarf rabbit, is like 2L for a human... there are risks of drowning just at that quantity. Moreover, giving pure essential oil to drink to an animal, especially in these quantities, is a form of abuse.

1 SHELTON, M. The Animal Desk Reference II: Essential Oils for Animals. Self Published, 2018. ISBN: 9781986827010. Pages 34 to 53.

2 BELL, K. L. Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals: A Comprehensive Guide to the Use of Essential Oils & Hydrosols with Animals. Inner Traditions/Bear, 2012. ISBN:9781844099603., Pages 164-165

Myth #3: Essential oils are just for smelling good

Well no! Not only can they be used to soothe muscle pain, but also to help sleep, increase concentration, boost the immune system, counteract certain diseases, and even help manage emotions.

They can be used in cooking, as well as diffused on jewelry or fabric to enhance focus at the office, but also to help calm oneself or others... Aromatherapy!

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