Is Tea Tree Oil Safe for Dogs?

Tea tree oil has long been touted for its medicinal qualities, making its way into many mainstream personal care and household products. But is it safe for our furry friends? Here’s what you need to know about using tea tree oil on your dog.

Tea tree oil: The basics

Detail of tea tree plant (Melaleuca alternifolia)Credit: narvikk/Getty Images

Tea tree oil comes from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a native Australian tree that’s part of the myrtle family. And though it’s commonly referred to as the tea tree, “it should not be confused with the plant that produces leaves used to make black, green and oolong tea,” according to Healthline. For centuries, native Australians have used the plant for its healing properties, crushing the leaves and using the extracted oils in treatments.

Today, people around the world use tea tree oil as an alternative remedy for acne, fungal infections, insect bites and more. “Tea tree oil contains a number of compounds, including terpinen-4-ol, that have been shown to kill certain bacteria, viruses and fungi,” Healthline says. “Terpinen-4-ol also appears to increase the activity of your white blood cells, which help fight germs and other foreign invaders.”

Tea tree oil can be an effective component of hand sanitizers, all-purpose cleaners and even insect repellent, according to Healthline. On the body, it can be used to make an antiseptic for cuts and burns, as well as a treatment for acne, natural deodorant, nail fungus remedy, chemical-free mouthwash, dandruff treatment and more.

But it’s important to note that for humans and animals alike, tea tree oil can be toxic if it’s ingested. “In Australia 100 percent tea tree oil is categorized as a schedule 6 toxin,” according to PetMD. “Packaging there requires child-proof containers and cautionary labeling. Such packaging and labeling are not necessary in the U.S. and Canada.” Moreover, tea tree oil can irritate the skin, especially if you apply it in its undiluted form, which is why many remedies use it in a diluted strength and/or mixed with other ingredients.

So while tea tree oil has its benefits, it also comes with a few risks. And you must be especially aware of those risks if you plan to use tea tree oil on your dog.

Tea tree oil and dogs

Thanks to its prevalence in human personal care products, tea tree oil has crossed over into the animal world — especially in skin care remedies. “In small concentrations (.1% to 1%), tea tree oil is tolerated and safe for cats and dogs,” according to PetMD. “Unfortunately, the oil’s popularity has resulted in larger numbers of households with bottles of 100 percent tea tree oil, and accidental ingestion or improper dilutions of this highly concentrated oil can be harmful to pets.”

A 2014 report from the American Veterinary Medical Association documented cases of tea tree oil toxicity between 2002 and 2012, using the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center database. Researchers looked at 337 dogs and 106 cats who had been exposed to 100 percent tea tree oil — either on their skin, orally or both — in amounts ranging from 0.1 to 85 milliliters. And in 89 percent of the cases, the exposure had been intentional, not accidental. More than three-quarters of the animals who had been exposed developed toxicity symptoms, with the younger and smaller ones being hit the hardest.

So why can tea tree oil be so toxic to dogs (and cats)? It has to do with the terpenes. “These are the chemicals that make the oil effective against bacteria and fungi,” PetMD says. “They are also the toxic agent.” The body rapidly absorbs the terpenes, both orally and topically. So even intentional topical use can end up being dangerous. And if your dog happens to lick the oil off their skin, it will amplify their toxicity risk.

What further complicates matters is there’s no antidote for terpene toxicity. “Skin decontamination and support therapy with intravenous fluids is the standard treatment,” according to PetMD. “Vomiting, muscle tremors, and seizures are treated with medications as needed.” Plus, sometimes liver-support medications are given to help the liver metabolize the toxin. And still there are no guarantees these treatments will work to help your dog pull through.

Signs of tea tree oil toxicity

Labrador retriever lying on table at the vetCredit: THEPALMER/Getty Images

Tea tree oil toxicity can be moderate to life-threatening, so it’s important to recognize the symptoms. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, signs of tea tree oil toxicity include:

  • Low body temperature
  • Weakness
  • Walking drunk
  • Inability to walk
  • Tremors
  • Coma
  • Increased liver enzymes
  • Death

The symptoms usually arise about two to 12 hours after exposure, and they may vary depending on the quantity your dog absorbs, according to PetMD. Minor toxicity can result in drooling or vomiting, while “animals with moderate illness may appear weak, have difficulty walking, or seem partially paralyzed.” Life-threatening symptoms include seizures and reduced consciousness. If any of these symptoms arise or you know your dog has been exposed to a toxic amount, don’t waste any time. Contact your veterinarian or poison helpline immediately for treatment.

So is tea tree oil safe for dogs?

Under vet supervision, tea tree oil can be a treatment option for certain conditions in your dog, such as hot spots or skin allergies. However, other medications still might be safer and more effective. “In fact, the concentrations of tea tree oil suggested for many skin problems far exceed the concentrations found in most pet products,” according to PetMD.

If you do wish to give tea tree oil a try, VetStreet has a few tips to follow:

  • Always get your vet’s approval to use tea tree oil, even for minor issues.
  • Only use tea tree oil topically, never orally.
  • Be certain that your tea tree oil is diluted to a strength between 0.1 percent and 1 percent.

Because only a few drops of full-strength tea tree oil can be enough to cause toxicity, it’s critical to be confident about the formulation of your product. “The use of dilutions of 100 percent tea tree oil should be avoided in pets,” according to PetMD. “It is too easy to miscalculate the amount of oil to use.”

Always store oils — and other health care products for that matter — safely out of reach from all pets. And closely monitor your dog if you do choose to use tea tree oil as a remedy. Plus, if you have multiple animals, make sure they don’t end up grooming each other or otherwise ingesting any tea tree oil from the treated animal. As long as you know the risks and practice proper safety and handling, tea tree oil can be a part of your health care arsenal for your dog.

Main image credit: PeopleImages/Getty Images

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