Essential oils and our pets…. Putting the fear and misinformation to bed once and for all. By Karen Read

May 20, 2024
Dr Conor Brady
Essential oils and our pets…. Putting the fear and misinformation to bed once and for all. By Karen Read

I’m sure we’ve all done it: gone to a search engine, typed in something like “Is tea tree oil safe for my pet…?” And what comes up first? A plethora of fear-mongering articles on how eucalyptus is insanely toxic to your dog or how lavender will kill your cat instantly jump off the screen. So, of course, as the wonderful pet owners that we are, we decide never to expose our pets to these awful, dangerous oils, and we go with our lives.

I, too, believed these articles for many years until I discovered Zoopharmacognosy and started training with Caroline Ingraham - the Don on all things essential oils, herbs and animal self-selection. Before I continue, I will quickly explain what Zoopharmacognosy is as I will be using examples of this to explain why essential oils are not toxic (when used in the correct way) and can be extremely beneficial and, often, life-changing for our pets.

What is Zoopharmacognosy?

Zoopharmacognosy, in Ancient Greek, means “Zoo” - animal, “pharmaco” - drug/medicine, and “gnosy” - knowing. A truly fascinating way that animals will self-medicate by using plants, herbs, clay and many other natural remedies that, in the wild, they would have free access to. Animals innately know what their bodies need and how much to heal themselves. Of course, our domesticated pets are often denied this innate ability to forage and self-select plants as they no longer roam free and are given whatever we feed them or think they need.

Offering your dogs and cats essential oils (usually by inhalation but can be needed topically), herbs, clays, etc., and letting them self-select is a wonderful way to gain insight into the health issues your pet may be experiencing, from pain and gut issues to anxiety and aggression from the oils etc that they select. Please research more about how to recognise whether your pet is selecting an oil or not before embarking on this, as nothing must be forced upon them, added to food/water, etc, as this IS where toxicity can be an issue.

Why do so many articles say oils are toxic though?

So, if essential oils are readily selected by dogs and cats to heal them, why all the hype about how toxic they are? Firstly, we need to understand more about essential oils and the enzymatic abilities of our dogs and cats… let's get our nerd on…

Let's start with cats, as they are the species most often denied the opportunity to self-medicate with essential oils due to misinformation about toxicity. You may have read that cats do not have the enzymes to break down essential oils, but this is much more complex than just stating they lack them entirely.

The issue is that cats have very low levels (but not lacking entirely!) of the major UDP glucuronyl transferase enzyme, which breaks down some chemicals like phenols, which essential oils such as cinnamon and clove are rich in. However, when using self-selection methods and allowing the cat to choose what and how much they need, they may still select these types of oils if they are needed; they will just select much less than another species, such as horses, who have high levels of this enzyme so can break down and eliminate phenols much quicker. If you were to force a cat to keep inhaling an oil or rub it into their fur, then yes, you are in danger of causing an overdose as the body could not break down and eliminate such high levels quickly enough.

Your pets biological diet indicates how well they can break down essential oils...

What is also important and quite fascinating regarding how different animals react and break down these essential oils is what that particular species' biological diet is. For example, a horse is a herbivore and, therefore, consumes plant material all day, every day and has much higher levels of the enzymes needed to break down secondary plant metabolites, so it stands to reason that when it comes to essential oils (which are all secondary plant metabolites) they will be able to take in much more of these, at much higher doses than a cat which is an obligate carnivore and hopefully has little or no plant matter in his diet, meaning he does not need as high levels of these enzymes, which shows why cats will only select small doses of essential oils - they still benefit them greatly, they just don’t need a lot. Dogs, who have evolved to consume some plant matter, can take higher doses of oils than cats.

Another important enzyme that every living being possesses is the CYP450 enzyme. This enzyme is important for xenobiotic metabolism. Xeno - meaning stranger. Anything that the body deems foreign and of no nutritional value, it will want to eliminate. The secondary plant metabolites from essential oils will be seen as foreign by the body. Hence, this enzyme helps to inactivate the pharmacological plant compounds, convert them into water-soluble molecules, and they will be excreted by the body. If we and our pets did not have this enzyme, these could reach toxic levels and cause poisoning/overdose - these enzymes also break down chemicals in our home, pesticides and the like.

Essential oils are complex organic substances mainly created in the plant via two biosynthetic pathways.

The Shikimate pathway and the Melanovate pathway. The shikimate pathway is more potent; phenylpropanoid oils like thyme and oregano use this pathway. The Melanovate pathway is much gentler, which are terpene-based oils such as lemon & lime.

As stated earlier, the issue with phenol-rich oils is that cats lack the enzymes to break them down. However, terpene-based oils are broken down by the CYP450 enzyme, so cats are much more likely to select these oils, and they will be broken down much more efficiently and quickly than the phenylpropanoids. However, this is all still based on letting the cat select how much they need and not forcing anything on them.

I think you may have already pieced together the issue of why there have been concerns and possible cases of cats being overdosed with essential oils…. They weren’t given the opportunity to self-select and dose themselves correctly, and the oils were often “forced” upon them in high doses. A perfect example of this and the “study” that started the whole “essential oils are toxic to cats” business was way back in 1972, examining the toxicology of benzyl alcohol to cats, which concluded that benzyl alcohol, which is a phenylpropanoid, was toxic to cats; therefore all phenols are toxic to cats. One teeny, tiny little thing to note here (I jest) is that the benzyl alcohol was injected into the cat… yep, injected. I’ll leave you to think about that little gem.

"BUT garlic is toxic to dogs..!!!"

Another example of this, but in dogs, would be the good old, “But garlic is toxic to dogs” retort whenever garlic is mentioned in the same sentence as the word dog! This all stems from a study in 2000 where, due to changes in the red blood cells of dogs fed garlic, despite no outward signs of toxicity, the researchers stated that garlic and foods containing garlic should be avoided by dogs… when you look further into the study at the amount of garlic these dogs were fed, it’s not hard to see why there were changes in their blood. These dogs were given 1.25mls of garlic extract per kg of body weight for seven days… that’s around 20 cloves of garlic given to a 40lb dog! I’m sure we can all agree that it is a ridiculous amount of garlic to feed a dog and something no sane person would ever dream of doing!

In actual fact, when self-selection principles are adhered to, garlic essential oil offers amazing healing properties, from antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-cancer properties to ridding the gut of unwanted bacteria and fighting respiratory tract infections.

Some cautions when it comes to essential oils...

I have witnessed first-hand, many times, the absolute joy and, quite frankly, magical moment when an animal selects an oil they KNOW that they need; I have seen them settle, breathe deeply, and watch their pain or anxiety start to fade away in front of my eyes, all just from using essential oils and mostly from giving them a choice—something which so many of our domesticated pets do not get the freedom to do anymore.

While I’m very passionate about essential oils and their enormous benefits for pets, we need to be sensible and remember a few important things.

  • The quality of the essential oil is vitally important - as diffusers are becoming ever popular, essential oil quality lowers with the inevitable money-making of some companies. Always use pure, high-quality, organic essential oils - I highly Caroline Ingraham’s shop on her website.
  • Store the essential oils safely and out of the reach of pets.
  • ALWAYS use self-selection principles and never force any oils on an animal. They know exactly the dose they need; let them guide you.
  • Never drop essential oils directly onto a cat's fur—they will go straight through the fur and dermal layer into the bloodstream and could lead to overdose. Before embarking on this practice, please research Zoopharmacogsnosy and how to read your pets' body language around the oils.
    Always wash your hands after using essential oils before touching your cat.
  • If you use essential oils in diffusers, ensure that the room is well-ventilated and your pet can leave it whenever needed. Keep them well out of their reach so they cannot tip them onto themselves.
  • It goes without saying (but we must say it!): if you suspect your pet has overdosed on essential oils, seek veterinary attention immediately.

What angers and frustrates me is that we deny our pets, especially cats, the option to choose these healing oils “because they are toxic”, but we are told that using a spot-on chemical pesticide flea treatment every month or bleaching our floors with ANTI bacterial chemical cleaners that said dog or cat lays on then licks their feet full of these harmful chemicals is all absolutely fine, no problem, go for it.

Our pets are exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals from the scotch guard on the carpet, the glyphosate in their overpriced, ultra-processed food to the fire retardant on their beds, not to mention the EMF bombarding them day and night. But because of a few very poor, outdated “studies” that sadly go viral on social media amongst pet owners to strike fear, our pets are missing out on the opportunity to use their innate, most natural instincts to heal themselves without the side effects of most pharmaceutical drugs they are given for that arthritis or skin issue.

But then, healing our pets using inexpensive (often free, if you grow your own herbs etc) natural compounds and their instincts takes away some extra billions from big pharma (the true toxic entity in our pets' lives) … And we can’t have that now, can we…?


My old guy, Newton selecting wild carrot seed oil and German chamomile during one of his canine massage sessions.


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