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Tea Tree Oil and Pets

Dr. Anna Piper, DVM Cat and Dog Health Tips Leave a Comment

While some products that are good for us as humans are also okay for our furbabies, many things are actually toxic to them.

We are finding more and more products containing this oil which is toxic to our furbabies!

Tea Tree Oil is an essential oil produced from the Australian tea tree. The oil is also known as melaleuca oil. It is marketed for use on dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses and can be found sold in a variety of concentrations (<1% to 100% pure form).

Unfortunately, while tea tree oil is marketed as a safe “natural” therapy for our pets, and is even found in several brands of shampoos, lotions, sprays and skin gels, it does have toxicosis potential with topical application and ingestion. The exact toxic dose is not established, but clinical signs are most often noted with direct application of 100% tea tree oil. Clinical toxicosis occurred in a dog after 8 DROPS of 100% oil was applied to the skin. In Australia, 100% tea tree oil is labeled as a schedule 6 toxin and requires child proof containers and cautionary labeling.

Several body systems are affected with tea tree oil toxicity. The nervous system is often the most pronounced, with depression and coma noted. Elevated liver enzymes are common due to insult to the liver metabolizing the oil. Generalized weakness or rear limb paralysis is another common sign. Skin (contact irritation), cardiovascular (peripheral vasodilation), and respiratory (secondary due to central nervous system depression) have also been documented. Cats tend to be more sensitive than dogs.

The onset of clinical signs is 1-2 hours after application, but can take up to 8 hours. Clinical signs gradually resolve over 2-4 days. Often the pet presents hypothermic (low body temperature), weak, depressed, ataxic (uncoordinated movement), with generalized muscle tremors. More severe cases can also have slow breathing rate, slow heart rate, hypotension, paralysis, and coma. These signs can be very vague, and without the knowledge that tea tree oil has been applied, it is difficult to definitively diagnose these cases.

The recent poison control center data include 337 dogs and 106 cats exposed to 100% tea tree oil. 77% of the animals developed an adverse reaction, ranging from severe to mild.
Personally, our doctors have treated several cases of tea tree oil toxicity. The most severe case took approximately a week to fully recover. The signs are very scary and there is not an antidote available. This means that appropriate health care is supportive, often involving hospitalization, with medical therapy as needed. Skin and gastrointestinal absorption are extremely rapid, which makes detoxification difficult unless it is immediately accomplished.

Recently, a client informed Dr. Kovach that her groomer advised a Tea Tree Oil Medicated Spray. After investigating the bottle, Dr. Kovach could not find the concentration of the oil listed. The directions simply stated, “Spray affected area 1-2 times daily or as often as needed for relief.” Even a low concentration could become toxic if applied “as needed”.

Studies exist showing tea tree oil has antifungal, antimicrobial, and even anti-itch capabilities. However, it is our medical opinion the risks to our pets greatly outweigh any possible benefit the oil may provide. This is especially true when we have so many other extremely safe alternatives.  In fact, tea tree oil has not been proven to be more effective than traditional medications. Also, the concentrations suggested for most skin problems far exceeds the concentrations found in over the counter pet products.

While we strongly support any owner that wants to use natural products, we want to share the information we feel important to keep our patients happy and healthy! If you are considering any over the counter products, please call us before using it on your pets.

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