Tea tree oil can be a useful natural remedy for some skin conditions but it is important to use it carefully, as it is not completely harmless.
In 2014, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center published a ten-year retrospective study of calls to their hotline regarding pets exposed to tea tree oil They found 443 cases – 337 dogs and 106 cats – of exposure to 100% tea tree oil which required veterinary care.
Results of the Animal Poison Control Center Study
Keeping in mind that the study only looked at exposure to 100% tea tree oil, the most important finding was that cats, especially young and low body weight cats, were most likely to develop significant problems.
In addition, cats tended to either have mild symptoms or severe symptoms.
Coma, unconsciousness, a semi-comatose state or unresponsiveness were noted in 16%; depression, lethargy or listlessness in 20% and ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) in 23%.
The high level of sensitivity in young and slender cats should be considered when tea tree oil is used at any strength on cats.
Dogs were more likely to develop moderate symptoms (64%) such as depression, lethargy, ataxia, hind limb weakness and muscle tremors. Mild symptoms, such as increased salivation and mild vomiting were seen in 30% and only 5% developed major symptoms.
In both dogs and cats, effects lasted up to three days after exposure, despite treatment.
What is Tea Tree Oil, How is it Used, and How Safe is It?
Tea tree oil can come from three different melaleuca plants-Melaleuca alternifolia, Melaleuca linariifolia, and Melaleuca dissitiflora– however; the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH, formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine or NCCAM) only recognizes Melaleuca alternifolia as the medicinal plant that’s a source for ‘tea tree oil.’
Many people use tea tree oil to treat bacterial and fungal skin infections, joint and muscle pain, and external parasites such as fleas and sarcoptic mange. Some add it to baths and vaporizers to treat their respiratory problems and use it topically on acne, athlete’s foot, cold sores and dandruff.
There is some suggestion from preliminary studies that tea tree oil may be useful as an adjunct treatment for wounds where resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, are hampering healing. NCCAM cautions however, that further studies with more participants are needed to determine how effective it really is in these cases.
Tea tree oil is generally considered safe at dilutions of 0.1-1.0% but even at that level some animals, and people, will have an allergic reaction. It is best to test a small area of bare skin with dilute tea tree oil before initiating treatment for skin conditions or parasites.
If there is a reaction, washing the area thoroughly to remove the oils will generally relieve the irritation but that animal should not be treated with tea tree oil.
Full Strength Tea Tree Oil is a Regulated Product in Australia
While dilute tea tree oil can be useful, 100% tea tree oil is treated as a Schedule 6 Poison under the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Drugs and Poisons in Australia. It is listed as having moderate to high toxicity and the potential to cause severe injury or even death, and must be labeled as a poison and include the warning to keep out of reach of children. In addition it must be packaged in a container with a child-resistant closure and an insert that ensures it can’t pour out of the bottle too quickly.
Similar regulations do not exist in the US – however this is certainly a clear indication that pet owners electing to purchase full strength tea tree oil and dilute it themselves need to handle it carefully, and store it safely away from their animals.
What if Your Pet is Exposed to Tea Tree Oil and Has a Negative Reaction?
If a pet is exposed to a small amount of tea tree oil on the skin and develops a rash or mild irritation washing with mild dishwashing soap may be all that you need to do. You should, however, monitor your pet for central nervous system (CNS) signs such as tremors, shaking or ataxia (loss of muscle control resulting in loss of coordination and balance). If CNS signs are present, take your pet to a veterinary hospital for treatment before you try to clean off the oil.
Keeping Pets Safe From Tea Tree Oil in the House
Most people who opt for natural products do so with the intention of living a healthier, less toxic lifestyle. But it is not uncommon to make the mistake of thinking that anything that comes from nature is completely safe for people and their pets.
This is not always the case. To put this in perspective, poison ivy is natural, but it is a plant that causes reactions ranging from slightly unpleasant itchy rash to life-threatening allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock.
Ideally, per owners should only keep dilute (0.1-1.0%) tea tree oil in the house and that should be kept in a pet-safe cabinet (above counter level is best). If an owner does keep full strength tea tree oil it should be kept in a locked cabinet, particularly if there are children in the house as well as pets.
Safe use of natural remedies requires a little research. It is important to remember that every pet is different and his or her reaction to any medication may be different from that of another animal. In addition, reading labels and doing some research into the potential side effects of products to be used on pets may help prevent that call to a pet poison hotline.