With everyone talking about and using essential oils, cat owners are asking good questions about the benefits and dangers of oils for their fur friends. Are essential oils safe for cats? Recently, a meme has been circulating about essential oils and the danger they pose for cats, which has caused some cat owners to become alarmed. Since our pets are part of our families, we naturally want to make sure products we use in our homes—for cleaning, for ourselves, and for our pets—are safe for them. The short answer to whether or not essential oils can harm our cats is…sometimes. And, it depends.
How Essential Oils are Used in the Household
If you are not up on essential oils, which are all the rage for use in everything from food preparation to beauty products to cleaning supplies to homeopathic medicines, they are naturally occurring, volatile aromatic compounds found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of plants. They are, in short, what make a rose smell like a rose.
Essential oils’ properties are not just for our enjoyment, but they are thought to play an important role in the life of the flowers that produce them. Essential oils can attract bees and other insects that aid in pollination. In addition, they can repel other insects that may prove dangerous to the plants. Essential oils may also protect plants from funguses and other microbes.
When we say volatile aromatic compound, what we are referring to are organic molecules that quickly change from a concentrated liquid to a gas at room temperature. These potent gases travel rapidly through the air, interacting with our olfactory sensors and stimulating the brain’s limbic system. This quick transition from liquid to gas also allows essential oils to be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. While there are oils that can be ingested, this application is said to be the least effective and can pose risks—this method is not generally recommended.
There are hundreds of oils commercially produced and even more aromatic plants. Most that are produced on large scale are used for the fragrance and flavor industries, but many are also used for aromatherapy and direct application to skin. There are even suggested benefits to using them for animals.
But I’ve heard essential oils are dangerous for cats. Is that true?
Remember how we mentioned that essential oils are thought to repel certain harmful insects—a sort of natural insect repellent? That same neurotoxicity can be harmful to some animals, especially cats. While this property may boost our immunity, it can poison our cats. Essential oils get metabolized through the liver. Cat livers lack a specific enzyme that leaves them susceptible to various kinds of toxicity (from certain plants, chocolate, caffeine, lead, certain household medicines, and many others). For this reason, avoid oils containing polyphenolic compounds that are harmful to the feline liver. Also, liquid potpourri and some oils burn and irritate the skin. Young kittens and those with compromised livers are even more sensitive, so we advise you to use extra caution around them.
Here is a list of dangerous essential oils to avoid with your cat:
Basil, birch, cinnamon, clove, fennel, melaleuca, oregano, peppermint, thyme, and wintergreen as well as oils high in d-limonene (citrus oils) can all have harmful effects on your cat.
Use caution even if you are only using these oils for yourself. Just because you are not applying them directly to your cat does not mean they are risk-free. Wash your hands after applying oils to your own skin before petting your cat. Never diffuse harmful oils near you cat, and make sure he is never trapped in a room where oils are being diffused. Do not leave diffusers or liquid potpourris accessible and unattended where your curious cat can knock them over and be exposed through skin or ingestion.
What are the warning signs that my cat is suffering from essential oil toxicity?
The signs of essential oil toxicity in your cat are similar to the signs of other poisonous or toxic substances. Specifically, watch out for:
- Fragrance or scent on hair coat, skin, or in breath or vomit
- Labored breathing
- Difficulty walking or uncoordinated gait
- Lethargy or weakness
- Muscle tremors
- Pawing at the mouth or face
- Irritated or burned lips, gums, tongue, or skin
What should I do if I suspect a reaction to essential oils?
If you think your cat has ingested or come in contact with essential oils, call Ambassador Animal Hospital right away. The sooner your cat is diagnosed and treated, the better her prognosis. In addition—not instead of—you can also call the Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680).
Bring packaging or information about the oil with you to the vet in a sealed plastic bag. Lightly wash your cat’s fur with a gentle hand soap and warm water to remove as much oil as possible. If the cat has ingested oils, do not induce vomiting or medicate the cat; you may increase the danger.
How will the vet treat my cat?
Treatment will depend on which oils your cat was exposed to (some oils are more dangerous than others) and how sick your cat is. We will likely draw blood to determine if there is damage to the liver or kidneys. Your cat may need IV fluids or a special diet. If necessary, we may administer medications to reduce pain and protect the stomach and liver.
Is it ever a good idea to use essential oils for my cat?
We have focused on the risks and dangers of essential oils to cats. Research, however, supports the use of certain oils, but there are some critical guidelines to follow to keep your pet safe. Our highest priority is the health and safety of your pets. If you are interested in exploring the safe use of essential oils for your cat, call Ambassador Animal Hospital and schedule an appointment for a thorough consultation. In addition, we will provide the proper care and supervision that is critical if you use essential oils for your cat.