Tea Tree Oil v. Fleas
Many pet parents are more interested in 'natural' products than those that include long, complex chemical ingredient names. The wide spread perception of a natural product being safer can have serious safety consequences for pets. Here IMPS takes a look at one such product - natural tea tree oil - that is recommended as a flea treatment but that can harm your pet.
Tea tree oil is extracted from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia tree, found principally in Australia. This tea tree can grow to a height of 20 feet and is not especially attractive, though it does have flowers in the spring. Other trees from the same family may also be used to extract tea tree oil so long as the result meets the ISO standard 4730 detailing the 15 chemical components necessary for the product to be called "tea tree oil."
Tea tree oil was for many years thought to be a strong antiseptic but current research indicates the evidence is at best insufficient. Likewise, efficacy of its topical use against acne, athlete's foot, nail fungus and even dandruff is poor.
What is known for certain is that tea tree oil is toxic if ingested orally.
"According to the American Cancer Society, ingesting tea tree oil has been reported to cause drowsiness, confusion, hallucinations, coma, unsteadiness, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach upset, blood cell abnormalities, and severe rashes."
In addition, when exposed to air and light, come components of the oil oxidize. Some research points to the oxidized products as the cause of allergic reactions experienced by some people when the oil is applied to the skin.
But Does it kill fleas?
Yes, tea tree oil can both kill and repel fleas. However, the oil may be more dangerous to your pet than the neighborhood fleas.
As noted earlier, tea tree oil is potentially toxic if ingested. Pet parents should *never* apply concentrated tea oil to their pet's skin or fur and it is also ill advised to create homemade dilutions as the concentrations of the components may be unknown or variable from batch to batch. Commercially prepared preparations contain less than 1 percent tea tree oil, some as little as 0.1 percent.
However, even if the concentration in the topical solution is known and precisely controlled, a pet parent must still apply the product to the dog's coat. How many squirts is ok? One? Two? Three? Was an area overlapped? What will happen when your pet washes its coat? The question is not whether they will be ingesting tea tree oil, but how much.
Note that unlike traditional over the counter products like Frontline and Advantix, tea tree oil can only kill live fleas and does nothing to prevent eggs from hatching. Tea tree oil does not kill ticks and there is no evidence that it will even repel them effectively.
Finally, it is not a long term solution and will need to be reapplied every few days to keep killing fleas. For this reason, its best use is to kill off an existing infestation and not to prevent one in the first place.
The toxicity risks from incorrect application outweigh the immediate flea killing benefit of tea tree oil solutions. Shampoos that contain tea tree oil are some what safer as the oil is uniformly distributed and should remain at low concentration if manufactured correctly.
However, IMPS suggests pet parents avoid the use of tea tree oil as a flea treatment. There are more effective products available that are known to be safe when used as directed.