Tea Tree Oil Toxicity in Dogs and Cats

Have you used or contemplated using tea tree oil to treat one of your pets? If so, please read the following information. Used without significant caution, tea tree oil can cause your pet much more harm than good.

Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is produced from freshly harvested leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia trees that grow in Portugal, Spain, Australia, Florida and some other parts of the southern United States. Tea tree oil is a popular over-the-counter treatment in people for a variety of skin maladies including fungal infections, acne, boils, burns, corns, cold sores, impetigo, insect bites, and lice. The oil is sometimes added to bath water or vaporizers to treat respiratory disorders. It is also marketed in toothpastes, lotions, soaps, and skin creams.

It is only natural that the medicinal uses of tea tree oil have been extrapolated to veterinary medicine. Tea tree oil products have been used to treat skin diseases in dogs and cats, predominantly hot spots  and skin allergies.

Most people tolerate application of undiluted, 100% strength tea tree oil without any problems. Not true for animals.  A report in the January, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association documents multiple cases of tea tree oil exposure and toxicity in dogs and cats. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center database was the source for this information that spans a ten year time period (2002-2012).

The Poison Control Center data includes 337 dogs and 106 cats exposed to 100% tea tree oil, administered topically (to the skin), orally, or via both routes. Of the 443 animals exposed, 343 (77%) developed an adverse reaction consistent with toxicity.  Their symptoms developed within 2 to 12 hours following exposure and lasted up to 3 days. The abnormalities most commonly reported were depression, lethargy, weakness, incoordination, muscle tremors, and increased salivation or drooling. Less common symptoms included vomiting, collapse, coma, and skin rashes. Several animals were documented to have elevated liver enzymes. Young cats and smaller adult cats were at greater risk for development of more severe symptoms. Unfortunately, information documenting outcomes was, for the most part, unavailable. This makes sense given that Poison Control Center data is generated over the telephone only at the onset of symptoms.

Now, here’s the moral of this story. It is imperative to be extremely cautious when treating your pet with tea tree oil (or for that matter, any over-the-counter remedy or medication). First and foremost, obtain the go-ahead green light from your veterinarian. Never administer tea tree oil orally, and be sure to double check that the product you are applying to your pet’s skin has been diluted down to 0.1%-1.0% strength. Most over-the-counter tea tree oil is sold as an undiluted, 100% concentration. In Australia, 100% tea tree oil requires distinctive, child-resistant packaging with a safety warning on the label. No such precautions are required in the United States or Canada. By the way, I just fished the small bottle of tea tree oil I keep out of my medicine cabinet. Upon close inspection (reading glasses needed to do so), I learned that the tea tree oil in my possession is the 100% strength version. I’m glad I never considered sharing it with my pets!

If ever you treat one of your pets with tea tree oil and suspect you are observing an adverse reaction, contact your family veterinarian or a pet emergency care facility right away. As with any toxicity, the sooner your best buddy is treated, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Have you ever treated yourself or one of your pets with tea tree oil? If so, what condition were you treating and what was the outcome?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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4 Comments on “Tea Tree Oil Toxicity in Dogs and Cats

  1. I’ve used tea-tree oil mixed with lavender oil and water to apply to hot-spots. scrapes and abrasions. The Tea tree in both an analgesic and anesthetic.. it also fights fungus!… and the lavender promotes new and healthy skin growth. It never occurred to me to use them full strength right out of the bottle, though I suspect the lavender would be fine. The brand I use is Young Living Oil, which produces the finest therapeutic oils on the planet. I would be wary of cheap oils that are reduced with chemicals that could be toxic in and of themselves! Always best to check with your vet if you are not certain.

  2. We always run everything by our vet. We never used tea tree oil to treat anything, only as part of a natural insect repellent, where it is in very low concentration as one of the ingredients.

    Never had any adverse reaction to that but are aware of the potential risks, particularly when using in higher concentrations.

  3. Any time a product or substance has “active ingredients,” it stands to reason that it can both “do good” or be harmful, depending on circumstances and individuals. So this is a good warning, especially for small dog and cat owners. Whole Dog Journal, a publication I respect, has a list of safe essential oils that I consult, and even then, I use them sparingly.