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Are Candles, Essential Oils, and Air Fresheners Safe For Pets?

Evoking memories of pumpkin patch visits, jumping in falling leaves, and eating apple cider donuts, the smells of fall are powerful triggers of times long past. It is about this time of year when we pull the blankets a little tighter and light the maple sugar or cinnamon apple scented candle.

Estimates are that our dogs have up to 100,000 times more ability to detect scent vs. their human counterparts, so what do they make of all the appetizing and botanical scents we surround ourselves with every day?

For some dogs, our scented candles, air fresheners, and essential oils, while masking noxious odors, may pose a health risk. Let’s sort out which products can be harmful, as well as determine how we can safely incorporate the heavenly scents of the season into our home environments.

Dangers of Candles and Essential Oils

Both scented candles and some aerosol or plug-in fresheners can release volatile organic compounds as well as toxins like lead, naphthalene, formaldehyde, and phthalates. Synthetic fragrances and carcinogenic soot from paraffin candles, a petroleum product, can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as asthma in humans and pets.

Phthalates, another airborne product released from burning candles, have been implicated in causing endocrine system disruption leading to diabetes, birth defects, and cancer.

In addition to the harm caused by the burning of candles and the release of artificial chemicals into the air, the delicious smells can entice dogs to nibble on candles, wax, or ingest oils. Ingestion of most candles will generally lead to nothing more than an upset stomach and diarrhea. Consuming or absorbing essential oils through the skin and mucous membranes can be a whole different matter.

Essential oils are the volatile organic compounds extracted from plants that contribute to their fragrance and taste. Pets are especially sensitive to these products and depending on the concentration and formulation, just a few drops of tea tree or eucalyptus oil can cause severe illness; clinical signs can range from weakness, to depression, seizures, low body temperature, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, and even death.

It’s best not to apply any oils directly to the skin of your pet for this reason, and even diffusing some oils can trigger a cough or symptoms of allergy. Which oils should never be used around pets? Some suggest pine, wintergreen, cinnamon, citrus based oils, peppermint, camphor, clove, bitter almond, garlic, horseradish, mustard, and pennyroyal essential oils are dangerous to dogs and cats.

Safe Candles and Plugins

There are safe ways to coexist with the smells we associate with cleanliness and holiday cheer. When purchasing candles, look for those that are made from natural ingredients such as soy, beeswax, and bluecorn and are free from artificial fragrances. A wick made from cotton is cleaner to burn than those that have metal wires in the center which may emit heavy metals into the environment.

Sprays such as Febreze are perfectly safe to use in your home, though you want to avoid direct contact with your pet as they may be a stomach or skin irritant. If you choose to diffuse, monitor your pets for any respiratory symptoms. As no long-term studies have been conducted to verify safety of inhaling oils, let the buyer beware. Most importantly, keep all diffusers, candles, and sprays out of reach. Pets are susceptible to burns when lit candles and hot wax meet skin.

Purchasing wide based-candles and placing burning candles in a dish of water can decrease the potential risk of fire. When in doubt about any products you introduce into your home, keep the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center phone number (888) 426-4435 on hand to get safety data and toxicity information.

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