Why Citronella Isn't the Safest for Your Pup and What Insect Repellents You Should Try Instead

·7 min read
woman running with her maltese at sunset
woman running with her maltese at sunset

Miodrag Ignjatovic / Getty

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. On This Page

    • What Is Citronella?

    • Is Citronella Safe for Dogs?

    • Dog-Friendly Mosquito Repellents

Summer may officially be a dog parent's favorite season. So many fun things to do together: hiking, digging in the dirt, hitting a patio bar. And while we can't wait for warm nights with our canine companions, there is one rather pesky downside to the season: mosquitoes.

These uninvited guests not only leave people (and pups!) scratching away at red, itchy bumps, but they also carry diseases. Worst visitors ever, right? Which brings us to citronella—the widely praised, natural pest repellent that comes in several forms from plants to sprays. And although citronella may be convenient for us humans to use, you might wonder: Is citronella safe for dogs, and does it prevent them from being bitten?

The short answer: not exactly.

A veterinarian shares what you need to know about citronella, along with other safe mosquito-repelling methods to try.

What Is Citronella?

When we say "citronella," we're referring to two different plants: citronella grass (from the Cymbopogon species) and a scented geranium (Pelargonium citrosum) that's known as a mosquito plant or as a citrosa geranium. Citronella oils come from the grass; the geranium has a citronella-type smell but does not actually contain citronella oils. Researchers have found that the essential oils and extracts from the grass are effective in keeping mosquitoes away, thus making citronella a popular repellent.

Is Citronella Safe for Dogs?

Beyond the plants, there are different kinds of citronella products, such as candles, essential oils, and sprays. However, these aren't the safest to use on or around your dog, says Carling Matejka, DVM, a spokesperson for pet food company Solid Gold.

Despite citronella candles and oils being marketed as rave-worthy products, they can cause harmful side effects to your pooch. As for the citronella plants, Matejka says they can be toxic to dogs if ingested and may cause mild to severe signs of poisoning.

Citronella Plants

Citronella grass has naturally occurring oils that can be used to keep pests away. But when it comes to the efficacy of the plant, it doesn't actually do much to deter mosquitoes. This is because you need a higher concentration of citronella oil than the plants alone can offer. (One plant that is effective? Lemongrass! But you'll want to keep this away from your pets, too, because it's also toxic.)

Matejka says the plant's essential oils and tannic acid are gastrointestinal irritants for pets. This could result in your pup having abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea.

And although a small amount shouldn't cause any issues if ingested, she says, it's important to make sure your dog isn't eating the plant. If too much citronella is ingested, your dog may experience:

  • Vomiting

  • Hypersalivation

  • Rapid respirations

  • Convulsions

  • Hyperthermia

  • Cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin or gums)

  • Shock

To prevent your dog from eating citronella or any other plants in your backyard, try using a gate to keep the area off-limits—and your fur baby safe.

RELATED: Poisonous Plants for Dogs & What to Do if Your Dog Eats One

Citronella Candles

Aah, the smell of summer. Citronella candles have been widely advertised as a seasonal essential to prevent bloodthirsty mosquitoes from getting anywhere near you or your pooch. However, studies show citronella candles don't give much protection due to their low concentration of ... well, citronella.

Matejka says if your dog were to ingest a citronella candle, the citronella could cause GI symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) and the wax may act as a laxative and cause severe diarrhea.

Another concern? Simply breathing in a candle's fumes—citronella-scented or not—can be harmful to your dog, especially if your pup has asthma or any other breathing issues.

"It is best to keep your pet away from citronella candles," Matejka says. "If you burn these candles around your pet, please ensure you are not in a confined space so your pet can get fresh air, as they can be a mild respiratory irritant."

If you'd like to burn a citronella candle, light one outside and supervise your pet if they join you for some backyard time. But keep in mind that while you'll be smelling a pleasant, citrus-scented candle, it's likely you'll still be swatting mosquitoes away because they don't know they're supposed to hate that candle.

Citronella Essential Oils

Essential oils are complicated—and dangerous—when it comes to our pets. Whether an essential oil is safe to use anywhere near (or on) our dogs depends on whether it's diluted and has an extremely low concentration of oils. Always avoid using 100-percent concentrated oils around your pet.

"Citronella essential oils are volatile oils composed of mixtures of complex hydrocarbons and other chemicals distilled from plant material," Matejka says. "Because of the natural variation in type and amount of essential oil content of a given plant, different formulations can vary significantly depending on the quality of standardization of the manufacturer."

What makes essential oils potentially harmful to dogs is their different toxic properties and the severity of risks that come with using them. Matejka explains, "Citronella essential oils have a low acute toxicity, but if ingested or absorbed topically in large amounts, it can potentially cause vomiting, hypersalivation, hyperthermia, rapid respirations, convulsions, cyanosis, and/or shock. When applied topically, it can also cause skin irritation or rash."

So, although citronella essential oils may help rid your backyard or home of mosquitoes, it's best to avoid diffusing this essential oil near your dog. Talk with your veterinarian to learn more about essential oils before using them.

Citronella Sprays

Matejka recommends refraining from using citronella-based sprays on your dog because they have the potential to cause harmful side effects.

"Since citronella sprays are applied topically, they can cause skin irritation or rash, especially in high concentrations," she says. "Because our pets groom themselves, there is the potential for ingestion and GI irritation if consumed in high concentrations. If it gets in the eyes, it can cause irritation, too."

If you discover your dog has ingested something potentially toxic, whether it's a citronella candle or essential oil, call your veterinarian, a local emergency vet, or 24/7 helplines including the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 or Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661.

Dog-Friendly Mosquito Repellents

But mosquitoes don't have to be a summer bummer! There are a few effective products that can help keep these bloodsuckers away from your dog, Matejka says.

"Products containing permethrins [like] K9 Advantix II and Vectra 3D have some mosquito-repelling qualities, while also keeping your pet free from fleas and ticks," she says. Both products containing the insecticide are applied topically and can protect your pup for weeks after application.

As with any treatment, consult your vet to make sure it's a suitable option for your pup.

If you'd like to add another line of defense to deter pests from invading your yard, Matejka recommends planting herbs such as basil, catnip, lemon balm, rosemary, and peppermint. Just keep an eye out to make sure your dog isn't munching on these plants.

"There are also different products that contain essential oils from the herbs above that can be used to repel mosquitos but may not work as well as permethrin-based products. If you use any of these repellents, follow the label carefully to ensure proper dosing," Matejka advises. "Never use DEET-based products or products that are not safe for dogs."

Keeping these preventatives and precautions in mind, you and your dog can have a safe, mosquito-free (or at least mosquito-reduced!) summer.

RELATED: 6 Bug Sprays for Dogs That Safely Keep Pests Away