Updated November 29, 2020
This is Toyah’s gift to all dogs with itchy skin. She had mild dermatitis for a while and her owners quite rightly thought a bath would help. They found a nice-looking soothing shampoo with tea tree oil and gave her a good clean. Instead of getting better, her dermatitis got dramatically worse, and three days later when she came to us her skin was looking angry and sore.
Toyah’s story is worth sharing because like many people, her owners have been sold the idea that tea tree oil helps skin problems. This falsehood has been around for generations and any vet will roll their eyes when the stuff is mentioned. The truth about tea tree oil is that it is irritant to the skin, worse if it gets on mucous membranes or in the eye, and toxic if swallowed. We’ve all seen Toyah’s story repeated endlessly, fed by the myths and marketing around tea tree oil.
For example, if you visit www.teatree.org.au you will see them say: “tea tree oil can also be used as treatment for arthritis, fleas, bad breath, gum disease, abscesses, dermatitis, lice, parasites, ringworm, rashes and sprains”. This baseless advice is verging on criminal and I hope it does not induce anyone to try using it instead of getting sound veterinary advice.
What about the commonly held view that tea tree oil is antibacterial? This may be true; so is bleach, but we don’t put that on skin either. Most of the time we just want to soothe and have no interest in killing skin bacteria. Even if we do, the depth of pyoderma means that topical therapy alone is very unlikely to work. In practice we observe most skin disorders will worsen after a tea tree preparation is used.
Perhaps a more debatable thought is that if you see a product containing tea tree oil, it marks it as one which does not follow either the available evidence or modern practice. Therefore, it may also be outdated in other areas. The classic example would be in the harmful detergent effect in older shampoos.
If you want to soothe your dog’s itchy red skin, there is nothing wrong with trying a bath. It often works if you use the right gear, and a knowledgable pet supplies shop or the vet will be able to show you what to use.
To avoid being sued, I should add that the above represents only my opinion and is as lacking in evidence as the claims made by the tea tree oil sellers.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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