As the popularity of essential oils in human medicine rises, so has the essential oil poisoning cases in animal medicine. Fads in the human health industry often spill into the animal health industry and can occasionally lead to detrimental health injuries in our pets. Animals are both being willingly given essential oils by their owners without proper veterinary guidance and pets are unintentionally consuming essential oil products that owners have left within reach. With proper guidance and medical advice, essential oils can be beneficial for animals. However, when consumed without proper product knowledge there can be significant health risks to pets nationwide.
Essential oils are volatile, organic concentrates extracted from plants via distillation or cold pressing. Currently, there are over 3,000 known essential oils and roughly 300 of them are commonly used. Essential oils are utilized in a variety of ways including aromatherapies, insecticides, personal care products, flavoring, herbal remedies, and air fresheners.
Essential oil toxicosis can affect all species, but cats and birds are at the greatest risk. Clinical signs can vary depending on the type of essential oil, dose, route, and concentration. The most common clinical signs include drooling, vomiting, lethargy, anorexia, respiratory, dermal, and mucus membrane irritation. However, it is important to note that more severe signs can develop with certain essential oils. Signs usually develop within 6-8 hours with most essential oils. Mild cases will resolve rapidly within a few hours, while severe cases can take between 3-7 days for full resolution.
Essential oils often contain mixed hydrocarbons, usually terpenes, and contain 20-200 different chemical components in varying concentrations, which can vary among plants. Toxicity can vary widely depending on the specific oil, route, dose, concentration, and specific chemical makeup of the oil. High concentration exposures are much more concerning than low concentration product exposures. The toxicity risk varies by route with oral exposures considered the highest risk, then dermal, and then respiratory. However, it is important to keep in mind that route type is often mixed with pet owners. A list of common essential oils that can cause poisoning include bitter almond, boldo leaf wormseed, citrus oils (orange, lemon, lime, bergamot, mandarin, grapefruit), clove, eucalyptus, hyssop, mustard horseradish, pennyroyal buchu, pine oil turpentine, sassafras, tea tree, melaleuca, wintergreen birch, wormwood, armoise, tansy, thuja, lanyana, mugwort, southernwood, cedar, sage, cypress, some juniper oils, and tarragon.
A poisoning diagnosis is based on a history of ingestion or use on animals, discovery of spilled essential oils, or characteristic smell on the hair coat or skin of the animal when visiting the veterinary clinic. With any potential essential oil exposure, owners should be instructed to read the product labels closely and always note the concentration of the oil.
Treatment varies depending on route of essential oil exposure. Decontamination methods include bathing with liquid dishwashing detergent if exposed via dermal route, early oral dilution with water or food if exposed via oral route, and fresh air inhalation if exposed via respiratory route. Do not induce emesis in these patients due to risk of aspiration. Asymptomatic patients with minor exposure can be monitored closely at home but should be referred to a veterinarian if clinical signs develop. Symptomatic animals should be treated with fluid therapy and gastrointestinal support (if essential oils were ingested orally). Monitoring vitals and providing supportive care as needed is important for essential oil toxicosis as hepatoprotectants and seizure control may be necessary if a severe enough exposure took place.
Prognosis is generally good for essential oil cases, but can depend on the type of oil, amount of exposure, and severity of clinical signs. Clinical signs may need up to 3-7 days to fully resolve. The skilled veterinarians and veterinary specialists at Pet Poison Helpline® are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist with determining the amount of essential oil exposure, and to guide therapy.
PET POISON HELPLINE
Pet Poison Helpline®, an animal poison control center based in Minneapolis, is available 24 hours, seven days a week for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline®’s consultation fee includes follow-up consultation for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline® is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at www.petpoisonhelpline.com.
By Shiloh Walker, DVM student extern
University of Minnesota Veterinary Student, Clase of 2023