Is the Smell of Tea Tree Oil Bad for Dogs? (What Science Says)


Tea tree oil is an essential oil known for its antibacterial effects. People use this essential oil as an over-the-counter treatment for different skin diseases like insect bites, lice, acne, burns, & fungal infections. It’s no surprise that the healing effects of tea tree oil have been explored in veterinary medicine. So, is tea tree oil safe for dogs? No, it isn’t.

Even though diluted versions of this essential oil can be found in products made for dogs (insect repellents, ear infection treatments, shampoos, etc.), the smell of tea tree oil is generally considered to be very bad for dogs. At full concentration, tea tree oil can have potentially lethal side effects on your dog.

But, why is intentional/accidental exposure to tea tree oil so bad for dogs? And if the essential oil is very bad for dogs, why is it found in so many healthcare products made for dogs? As a dog owner, I think that knowing the answers to these questions is very important. If you agree, keep reading. Here’s everything you should know about tree tea oil toxicity for dogs.

What You Should Know About Tree Tea Oil Toxicity for Dogs

Most humans can tolerate the application of undiluted, 100% concentration tea tree oil without experiencing any health problems. The same can’t be said about animals, dogs, in particular. A report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2014, documented several cases of tea tree oil exposure causing severe toxicity in dogs.

Similar cases can be found in the Animal Poison Control Center database of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty (ASPCA). According to reports in this database, between 2002 & 2012, 337 dogs in the US were exposed to 100% concentration of tea tree oil. These exposures were either nasal, oral, or topical.

77% of the dogs that were exposed to 100% concentration tea tree oil developed adverse reactions within 2-12 hours. Their symptoms were consistent with toxicity (being poisoned). Tea tree oil toxicity is something that all dog owners should know about. This essential oil is medically safe for dogs only when it’s in minute concentrations (0.1%-1%).

Is the Smell of Tree Tea Essential Oil Toxic to Dogs?

Yes. Tea tree oil contains a variety of bioactive compounds called terpenes. These compounds give the oil its antimicrobial, antifungal, & antibacterial properties. Terpenes also give the tea tree plant its bright & strong scent. Terpenes are found in other aromatic plants as well.

Not all plants that contain terpenes are dangerous to dogs. Not all oils derived from plants that contain terpenes are dangerous to dogs.

But, the terpenes found in tea tree oil are different. These terpenes get rapidly absorbed into the body. Once they’re in, they instantly start affecting various processes in the body. For humans, this isn’t a concern because our bodies contain certain enzymes that instantly process the terpenes. This process is called “glucuronidation.”

Dogs can’t perform glucuronidation. Hence, their bodies can’t process the terpenes that come with tea tree oil exposure. This inability to process the compounds puts immense stress on their livers. The higher the concentration of tea tree oil they were exposed to, the higher the risk of their livers & other critical organs failing.

Symptoms of Tree Tea Oil Toxicity in Dogs

The severity of symptoms of tea tree oil toxicity in dogs will vary depending on how much terpenes their bodies have ingested. Minor exposure will lead to relatively harmless symptoms like vomiting or excessive drooling. But, exposure to higher doses of tea tree oil terpenes typically leads to more serious symptoms like:

  • Tremors
  • Difficulty walking
  • Seizures
  • Elevated liver enzyme levels
  • Hind leg paralysis
  • Coma
  • Death

These symptoms typically manifest 2-12 hours after the initial exposure. If you suspect your dog has ingested tea tree oil, review him/her for symptoms like low body temperature or low heart rate. If your dog’s symptoms worsen & they start appearing weak, visit a vet clinic ASAP.

Is Tea Tree Oil Safe for Dogs If I Diffuse It?

Want to diffuse tea tree oil extracts & use them in a humidifier to freshen up your room’s air quality? Think twice before you do such a thing. Diffusing essential oils around your dog may cause him/her liver & respiratory problems. When you actively diffuse an essential oil, you cause it to split into microscopic oil droplets.

Regardless of their sizes, these microscopic oil droplets still contain terpenes and your dog may inhale them. Of course, the number of terpenes found in microscopic oil droplets isn’t high enough to instantly impact your dog’s health. But, dogs’ bodies can’t process terpenes. When they absorb microscopic amounts of terpenes, the compounds stay in their bodies forever.

The microscopic oil droplets can build up in numbers in fatty tissues in your dog’s brain. Once this buildup crosses over a certain threshold, it can start causing neurological problems in your dog. So, in short: no, tea tree oil isn’t safe for your dog, even if you diffuse it.

Are There Any Potential Benefits of Tree Tea Oil for Dogs? 

Yes. Although evidence is scarce, the antibacterial and antimicrobial effects of tea tree oil can certainly benefit dogs suffering from skin conditions like yeast build-up, dermatitis, dry, damaged skin, etc. But, the risks outweigh the benefits because dogs have fabulous noses. One whiff of mild tea tree oil from your diffuser can cause your dog serious health problems.

If you simply want to treat your dog’s skin problems, there are other essential oils (which I will mention later) that are far less risky than tea tree oil. If you still want to use a product that contains tea tree oil extracts, I suggest you speak to your vet before doing so.

Also Read: Why Does My Dog Lower His Head And Stare? (8 Reasons & How To Stop It)

What Should I Do If My Dog Was Exposed to Tea Tree Oil?

Monitor your dogs for the symptoms I mentioned above. If the symptoms worsen after 3-4 hours of the initial exposure, take your dog to an emergency animal clinic. Before doing that, take the following steps:

  •   If the exposure was nasal (tea tree oil was inhaled), give your fresh air immediately.
  • If the exposure was oral (ingested), DON’T induce vomiting. Tea tree oil may stick to your dog’s lungs and digestive tract & cause severe lung or stomach inflammation. Bring the dog to an emergency hospital ASAP.
  • If the exposure was topical (your dog got it on his/her skin) wash off the oil with soap immediately. Then, monitor your dog for serious symptoms.

Treatment of Tree Tea Oil Toxicity

There are no antidotes for the terpenes found in tea tree oil. So, your dog’s treatment will be based on his/her level of exposure to the substance. Mild topical exposure can be treated with some basic skin decontamination techniques like dish soap bathing. Serious nasal or oral exposure requires extensive treatment & monitoring for 72+ hours after the initial exposure.

Your vet may induce vomiting by administering activated charcoal & some special medications to your dog. Your dog will also be given liver protectants like milk thistle, SAM-e (S-Adenosylmethionine), & Denamarin. Symptoms like vomiting, muscle tremors, seizures, & low heart rate will be treated individually with other appropriate medications.

What Essential Oils Are Safe to Diffuse for Dogs?

Tea tree oil isn’t the only essential oil that’s harmful to dogs. Anise, Cinnamon, Citrus, Clove, Garlic, Juniper, Pine, Thyme, & Yarrow are all essential oils that cause toxicity in dogs. But, thankfully, there are some essential oils that are safe & beneficial for dogs. Here are some of them:

  • Lavender oil’s scent has a calming effect on dogs.
  • Corn-mint oil can provide pain relief for dogs suffering from inflammation.
  • Cedarwood oil can help repel pests like fleas.
  • Bergamot oil has strong antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties & can be helpful for dogs suffering from skin conditions.
  • Lemongrass oil is dog-safe & is often used to treat fleas and ticks in dogs.
  • Frankincense is a dog-safe essential oil with antibacterial properties; it’s frequently used in dog grooming products.
  • Chamomile is a dog-safe essential oil used to treat upset stomachs in dogs.
  • Ginger oil can provide dogs relief from minor breathing issues & settle upset stomachs.

Check with your veterinarian before using any of these essential oils on or around your dog.

Can I Use Tea Tree Oil On Myself Around My Dog?

I’m 100% risk-averse when it comes to my dog. So, I never use tea tree oil on myself around my dog. With that being said, I have given my dog skin products that contain this essential oil in the past. The concentration of tea tree oil in these products was less than 0.1-1%. I will never risk exposing my dog to higher concentrations of tea tree oil so I suggest you do the same.

That’s why I don’t use essential oil diffusers, scented candles, room sprays, or liquid potpourri products in my house. I know my dog will inhale the microscopic particles these products release. If he doesn’t inhale them, he’ll certainly lick them off his fur. 

Final Thoughts

Don’t use tea tree oil around your dog. Don’t take risks with your pet’s health. If you must use it, only use products that contain severely diluted versions of the essential oil. It only takes a tiny amount of tea tree oil to cause long-lasting harm to your dog. As a risk-averse pet owner, I can’t imagine taking such a risk. Use other essential oils that are less harmful instead. 

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