Labrador smelling citronella.

Is Citronella Spray Safe For Dogs? What You Need To Know

Written By Vedrana Nikolic | Canine Coach, B.A Ethnology & Anthropology, M.A Semiotics.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 16th January 2024

While all of the dogs are good boys or girls, not all of them are 100% obedient.

Some dogs have an uncontrollable urge to dig, while others may feel the same about starting a fight with another pooch.

If any of these situations seem familiar, then you’ve probably tried tons of methods trying to root out that behaviour. And in that case, you might have heard about the citronella spray.

And as a dog parent, you’re probably wondering not only does it work but, most importantly, is citronella spray safe for dogs?

Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. To source the best possible information, we teamed up with veterinarians and canine behaviour experts to form an independent panel of experts. Together, we took a deep dive into what citronella is, how to use it for dogs, does it work, and so much more. Let's check out our guide on everything you need to know about citronella spray for dogs and if it is safe for use.

What Is Citronella

What we call citronella is not a plant, but a natural oil that can be found in the stems and leaves of certain species of the lemongrass family. The two most common genera, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus, are the ones usually used for extracting this essential oil. What’s more, they’re often grown as patio plants because of their appealing scent.

When we say appealing, we’re referring to humans. Citronella has a grassy smell with crisp citrusy notes that we find rather refreshing. But other living creatures don’t share the enthusiasm. For that reason, citronella is commonly used as both insect and animal repellent.

What Is Citronella Spray For Dogs Used For

Dogs, like other animals, aren’t too fond of the citronella oil scent. It’s highly unlikely you’ll find your pooch resting in the garden next to where your aromatic grass is planted. That’s why certain pet brands came up with the idea to control a dog’s behaviour with citronella scent. There are a few ways citronella for dogs is commonly used.

Control Nuisance Barking

Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, be it the mailman dropping off a parcel or a neighbour's cat sitting on the fence. And if no treat can distract and stop them from doing that, which is how my dog responds in such cases, then this is where a citronella spray can prove handy.

The plant-based fragrance sprayed onto my pooch’s nose usually is diverting enough so that he forgets the reason for barking altogether.

In fact, citronella collars work so well as a distraction that nowadays pet brands use it as a more humane alternative to no-bark collars. Instead of sending out an electric shock every time a dog starts woofing, this type of collar dispenses the fragrance to divert your pooch from doing that (1).

Protection Against Aggressive Animals

Citronella spray can work as a safety tool against aggressive dogs and other animals as well. If you’re walking your pooch in a secluded area, there’s always a risk of encountering animals expressing hostile behaviour to either you or your Fido. And in many cases, your defensive actions can further provoke them.

However, spraying citronella on the animal’s face has shown to be quite successful at deterring without escalating their hostility, giving you and your pooch enough time to flee the scene (2).

How Does Citronella Spray Work

So, we get that dogs don’t like citronella, but why?

As you probably know, smell is a dog’s primary sense for understanding the environment (3). There are more than 100 million scent receptors in a dog’s nose, with some breeds, such as Bloodhounds, having as many as 300 million. To put this into perspective, humans have only 5 to 6 million smell receptors.

“Extra scent receptors don’t just mean dogs can sniff subtle odours we would miss. They also allow dogs to detect a complexity in odours that humans can’t.” Stephanie Gibeault, MSc, CPDT at AKC.

And if we find the citronella scent to be relatively strong, you can only imagine how intense it smells to your pooch. So when you spray it near your dog’s nose, it overwhelms their sense of smell. And since dogs hate citronella scent more than we do a dirty public toilet, it’s not surprising how it gets them distracted from anything they might have smelled before that.

How Does It Affect The Dog

Since citronella makes dogs drop whatever they were doing, I had to wonder if there’s more to it than just an awfully strong smell. And while more studies need to be done on the subject, there are some clear indicators that citronella affects dogs in some other ways as well.

Here's how our team of independent experts believe citronella can affect your dog:


According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, citronella is classified as the third category when it comes to dermal toxicity (4). What this means is it’s slightly toxic to animals and can cause irritation or rash in dogs with skin allergies or sensitivities.


A puff of citronella sprayed onto your dog’s nose can just as likely end up in their eyes as well. Now, citronella doesn’t pose a long-term risk for your pooch’s eyesight. But in the short term, it can cause itchiness and redness. And in case your dog starts pawing at the eyes, there’s also a possibility of developing an eye infection.

Gastrointestinal System

When you spray your pooch with citronella, there’s a high possibility they can ingest it as well. And not just from spraying it directly inside their mouth, but also from licking it off the skin.

While ingesting a small amount of citronella shouldn’t pose a serious health risk, your canine companion can experience certain symptoms, such as stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.


Your pooch can also inhale a bit of citronella when sprayed. An inhaled pump or two every now and then won’t affect the dog’s breathing, but taking in too much of the spray can cause them to be light-headed and disoriented. What’s more, your furry friend can also experience rapid respiration and hyper-salivation as a result of inhaling too much citronella.

The Shady Ingredient List

According to our panel of independent experts, while it can be irritating, citronella won’t cause any serious health issues to your dog. Many canines probably won’t experience any of the symptoms we mentioned above.

That is, if citronella is the only real active ingredient in the spray you’re using.

Unfortunately, I've found that many deterrent sprays marketed as citronella contain only a few percentages of true citronella oil. Instead, they use a variety of other ingredients that aren’t benign to my furry friend's health.


Ethanol is one of the ingredients commonly found not only in dog deterrent sprays but in other pet products as well. The problem with ethanol is that even a small amount is harmful to dogs.

A human liver contains enzymes that metabolise alcohol. But a dog’s body doesn’t work the same way. In fact, alcohol causes permanent damage to a dog’s liver, and higher amounts can be fatal.

Using an alcohol-based spray on your pooch is not exactly the same as letting them drink beer. But regular use of such a spray can eventually lead to ethanol toxicosis (5).

Scented Geranium

Pelargonium citrosum, also known as geranium, is a plant that smells just like citronella when you crush its leaves. But even though the scent is pretty much the same, geranium is in no way related to the Cymbopogon species citronella is extracted from.

Due to the resembling smell, geranium is often mixed with citronella for a more potent product. Don’t be surprised to see a product labelled as “citronella” only feature geranium on its ingredient list.

The problem here is that geranium contains certain citrus oils which are toxic to our furry friends. When ingested, these oils affect the dog’s liver in the same way alcohol does.


Citronella oil can contain methyleugenol, which is an ingredient often used in insect repellent sprays and lotions. Methyleugenol is classified as toxicity category 3, meaning there’s a very low chance of it causing body response in dogs. Still, there’s always a chance an adverse reaction will occur if your pooch is sensitive.


Tetrafluoroethane, also known as freon, is a coolant commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. So seeing it on the ingredient list of a dog spray might not seem right. But unlike previously mentioned ingredients, this isn’t something you need to be worried about. Studies have shown that tetrafluoroethane is not toxic to animals, including dogs(6). So unlike previously mentioned ingredients, this one is an exception to the rule.

My Final Say

Dogs find citronella scent strong, unpleasant and very distracting. This makes the citronella spray a great tool for controlling unwanted behaviours, whether it’s excessive barking, digging or aggression towards other animals.

However, our team of independent experts want to remind you that regular use of citronella spray can cause some short-term health issues, such as skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems and runny eyes. Furthermore, certain spray products also contain other not-so-dog-friendly ingredients.

It’s always best to use the citronella spray as a situational aid, not a training tool. And before buying such a product, always check if the ingredient list contains any harmful substances.


  1. Segelken, R. June 6, 1996. “Study: 'Nuisance-barking' dogs respond best to citronella spray collars.” Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  2. Griffin, B. “How to Break Up a Dog Fight.” Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  3. Gibeault, S. November 07, 2019. “Why Does My Dog Sniff Everything?” American Kennel Club. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  4. US EPA. February 1997. “Fact Sheet For Citronella Oil.” Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  5. PetMD Editorial. February 11, 2009. ”Ethanol Poisoning in Dogs.” PetMD. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
  6. Alexander, D.J, 1, Libretto, S.E. September 14, 1995. “An overview of the toxicology of HFA-134a (1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane).” National Library Of Medicine. Retrieved July 29, 2022.

Vedrana Nikolic

Vedrana Nikolić is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer, Anthropologist & dog lover.

With a Masters Degree in Semiotics & Bachelors Degree in Anthropology, studying the communication between animals and humans, Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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