Summer Safety: Will Citronella ‘Bug’ Your Dog?

Close-Up Portrait Of Dog Resting Against Illuminated Candle

(Picture Credit: Angelika Rózanecka / EyeEm/Getty Images)

Summer is great for spending more time outside, for both you and your dog. Unfortunately, some uninvited guests will also likely show up to your summer outings.

Citronella is a common deterrent for pests like mosquitoes. But do you need to worry about it negatively affecting your dog?

The short answer is your dog probably shouldn’t come into contact with any citronella product, but it’s a little complicated. Here’s what you should know about dogs and citronella.

What Is Citronella?

Part of the complication surrounding citronella is confusion over what the plant actually is.

Many plants marketed as “citronella plants” only smell like citronella and don’t actually contain citronella oil.

One common copycat is the citronella-scented geranium. Besides having no mosquito-deterring citronella oil in it, as a member of the geranium family, they contain geraniol and linalool, both of which are highly toxic to dogs and could cause gastrointestinal distress.

If your “citronella plant” has fern-like leaves instead of looking like grass, it is likely a citronella-scented geranium.

A true citronella plant is actually a grass found in two varities: Cymbopogon nardus (“Ceylon”) or Cymbopogon winterianus (“Java”). Native to Asia, they can grow in most climates as either annuals or perennials, depending on the warmth.

Interestingly, to get the mosquito-deterring effect, the plant has to be crushed to release the oil. However, the plant does naturally deter other garden pests without needing to be crushed, like whiteflies.

Another plant causing copycat confusion is lemongrass. While the two may smell the same, again, the beneficial oil is only in true citronella grass.

Experts seem divided on if this one is dangerous for your dog — the ASPCA says yes, while others say it is harmless or even beneficial. The disparity may again be due to the confusion over the plant varieties, but it may be safest to have your dog avoid eating this one.

Don’t Let Your Dog Eat Or Touch Citronella Plants Or Products

Blue and yellow citronella candles lit in the garden are being used to keep mosquitoes at bay in the late evening

(Picture Credit: Teodor Costachioiu/Getty Images)

While citronella products might smell like a tasty lemon treat to you, do not let your dog eat, lick, or get too close to a citronella plant or product.

All three categories of the “citronella confusion” cloud listed above — citronella-scented geraniums; true citronella grass; and lemongrass, potentially — are toxic if your dog eats them.

Citronella-scented geraniums and citronella oil can also cause a rash or skin irritation on your dog.

Many citronella products don’t have much citronella in them. It’s unusual for candles to be even 5 percent citronella oil. However, there’s nothing good for your dog in that candle; the parts that aren’t citronella are not edible, either.

While citronella naturally deters cats, it doesn’t seem to always have the same effect on dogs. Dogs don’t seem particularly attracted to it either, but it does smell lemony. So if you have a curious dog, be sure to keep these products out of reach.

Give It to Us Straight, EPA

You can’t get much more down to brass tacks with research than looking at the US EPA fact sheets.

According to the EPA, “Oil of citronella is a biochemical pesticide which has a non-toxic mode of action.” It even says that in laboratory trials with animals, citronella oil caused minimal or no toxicity, with skin irritation being the biggest concern.

More specifically, where Category III constitutes “slightly toxic” and Category IV constitutes “practically non-toxic,” the EPA rated citronella oil a III to IV for oral toxicity, a IV for skin toxicity, a IV for inhalation toxicity, and a III for eye toxicity.

So in short, citronella oil is only slightly toxic to practically non-toxic for most animals that were tested. Still, why risk it? Even if these products cause only minor toxicity in your dog, it’s easily avoidable by using alternative repellents. Ask your vet for suggestions.

It seems, then, that you’re best off keeping your dog from ingesting citronella oil or any of the citronella plants, true or copycat. Your dog should also not touch citronella plants — again, true or copycat — or direct citronella oil.

However, the research indicates that the fumes from citronella products are not particularly dangerous for your dog, especially in open air outside.

Do you avoid citronella with your dog? What insect repellents do you use instead? We’d love to hear your personal experience in the comments below!