By Dr. Becker
Tea tree oil is used as a treatment for a myriad of human maladies, such as bites, stings and burns, and in bath and vapor treatments for respiratory discomfort. It is also useful as an antimicrobial for fungal infections, and popular as an ingredient in everything from lotions to toothpaste.
Sometimes called melaleuca oil, tea tree oil is extracted from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia trees, found in subtropical climates, especially Australia, but it also grows well in Spain, Portugal and some of the southernmost regions of the U.S.
Tea Tree Oil for Dogs and Cats Potentially Toxic
The healing properties of tea tree oil for pets have been reported in the treatment of skin irritations, drug allergies, and environmental allergies. Wounds and hot spots, which are painful, infected skin sores, can also be treated with a topical solution made from manuka honey, derived from the tea tree plant.
While it’s true tea tree oil has shown effectiveness for humans, and most people handle undiluted exposure without any problem, its safety for animals is another story.
Recently, warnings have emerged regarding the use of tea tree oil for pets. In January of this year, a Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association report1 listed numerous instances of tea tree oil toxicity in dogs and cats from 10 years of incident data from the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center database. According to the study:
“Tea tree, or Melaleuca alternifolia oil, does have toxic potential, depending on the circumstances of exposure. Clinical effects that may occur following dermal exposure to significant amounts of tea tree oil include loss of coordination, muscle weakness, depression, and possibly even a severe drop in body temperature, collapse and liver damage. If the oil is ingested, potential effects include vomiting, diarrhea and, in some cases, seizures. If inhalation of the oil occurs, aspiration pneumonia is possible.
“When it comes to flea control, we always recommend that pet owners consult with their veterinarian to get advice on the proper product to use, based on the individual pet's species, age, size and health history. Additionally, reading the label first and following the product’s directions exactly are key in helping to avoid any potentially problematic situation.”
The study involved oral and/or skin exposure of 100 percent tea tree oil to 337 dogs and 106 cats, reporting that “of the 443 animals exposed, 343 (77 percent) developed an adverse reaction consistent with toxicity.” Toxicity symptoms appeared within 2 to 12 hours and lasted up to three days. Negative reactions included:
- Lack of coordination
- Muscle tremors
- Increased salivation (drooling)
Other noted symptoms included skin rashes, elevated liver enzymes and vomiting. A few animals collapsed or became comatose. Small adult cats and kittens showed higher risk. Outcomes for the animals in the study were unavailable since Poison Control Center records were obtained from phone calls made when the symptoms appeared.
The Key to Effective, Safe Tea Tree Oil Use
Research shows tea tree oil is safe for dogs and cats and effective only when it is diluted correctly – i.e., diluted in large amounts of water. The recommended ratio is 0.1-1.0 percent strength, to be dispensed topically. Oral application is not safe for your pet.
A few items are important to note:
- Using undiluted tea tree oil on animals is always a mistake. Unless diluted correctly, it’s not recommended for cats, and while it’s effective for dogs, never apply it to raw, open wounds.
- In the U.S., child-resistant packaging or safety warnings aren’t required for 100 percent tea tree oil as they are in Australia, where the bulk of the plant is grown.
The upshot is, use care any time you make decisions that will affect your beloved pets, just as you do whenever you feed or expose them to any kind of treatment. When it comes to treating your dog or cat, it’s important to be well informed about safe and effective natural treatments to avoid expensive trips to the vet, as well as exposure to potentially harmful medications and treatments.