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Holiday Scents and Pets

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Shorter days, cold weather, and the approaching holidays often lead us to spend more time indoors. As the family gathers inside, many of us look for ways to make our house smell more inviting or relaxing. Essential oil diffusers, candles, and potpourri are commonly used in many households. Are they safe for our pets? It turns out that the answer may be no.

Essential oils are very popular in many homes and come in several forms from oils to candles to diffusers. Several essential oils are toxic to pets including some that are popular holiday scents such as pine, wintergreen, mint, eucalyptus, lavender, and clove oil. Some essential oils that are not specifically toxic in low doses can cause illness such as pneumonia if they are inhaled. Diffusers can be dangerous because your pet may breathe in the microdroplets, causing irritation and inflammation of their lungs, leading to respiratory distress. If your pet already has an existing respiratory problem, the inflammation caused by inhaled essential oils may become serious quickly. In some cases, the oil is absorbed into the body and into the bloodstream, where it can build up over time causing a slow-onset toxicity.

Symptoms of a reaction to essential oils range from mild to severe. If you can smell essential oils on their fur, skin, breath, or vomit they have been exposed to too much. Some pets have difficulty breathing, drooling, fatigue, and weakness. It may progress to vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, difficulty walking, or muscle tremors. Some pets will paw at their face or mouth and have redness or burns from the oils. More serious effects, especially from longer-term exposure, include liver damage, anemia, or organ failure. If your pet shows any signs of respiratory distress, move them to an area away from the diffuser, air out your house, and call your veterinarian right away. If they have accidentally gotten oils on their skin or fur, you can bathe them with Dawn dish soap to help remove the oil before calling your veterinarian.

Not all pets are affected equally. Birds are extremely sensitive to essential oils, scented candles, Teflon (PTFE) fumes, perfumes, incense, air fresheners, and cigarette smoke. It is best to just avoid those items with birds! Essential oils can be especially toxic to cats. You should avoid wintergreen, sweet birch, citrus, pine, ylang-ylang, peppermint, cinnamon, pennyroyal, clove, eucalyptus, tea tree, thyme, oregano, and lavender with cats. Dogs are affected as well. Avoid cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree, wintergreen, ylang-ylang, anise, clove, thyme, juniper, yarrow, and garlic with dogs.

Potpourri is not always a safer alternative. Dry potpourri may have been soaked in an essential oil. It may also be chewed or swallowed by a cat or a dog. This could be dangerous as a choking or intestinal foreign body hazard in addition to being potentially toxic. Liquid potpourri is also a potential hazard due to microdroplet diffusion as it is heated. Pets may also be tempted to drink the liquid because it smells good resulting in potential poisoning.

Something as simple and ordinary as making our home smell inviting for the holidays doesn’t seem like it could be dangerous. Be mindful of the potential hazards to your pets with essential oils and other scented products. If you have an accidental problem or concern, be sure to call your veterinarian for advice and prompt treatment.

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