Are essential oils safe for cats?
In 2018, a Facebook post went viral, in which a Michigan woman claimed that she inadvertently poisoned her cat, Ernie, while treating her head cold with diffused eucalyptus oil.
That same year, a woman reported to the Today Show that her formerly healthy cat, Dinah, had suddenly become lethargic and lost three of her nine pounds. Her vet, who’d conducted blood tests, ultrasounds, and even performed exploratory surgery, could find nothing wrong with the cat.
It turned out that Dinah’s owner had been defusing lavender and eucalyptus oils in the bathroom, where the cat liked to sleep, and had been using lavender oil on her wrists for pain, which Dinah would lick. Thankfully, the cat returned to health once essential oils were removed from her environment.
Are essential oils really that dangerous? Or is this all hype?
This is a difficult and controversial topic. Essential oils are big business. The estimated size of the essential-oil market in 2020 was over $18 billion, and growing like crazy. Consumers of essential oils enjoy using them, and many believe that they confer certain health or wellness benefits. Some cat guardians, who believe holistic treatments are somehow “better” for their beloved pets, use essential oils to address a variety of veterinary conditions from flea infestations to anxiety.
As of today, there are few scientific studies that have evaluated the safety of essential oils with cats. Consequently, no one can say definitively that a particular essential oil is safe, that a certain amount of oil is safe, or that a certain way of using an oil is safe with cats.
Cats, because of the way their bodies work (more on this below), appear to be particularly sensitive to essential oils – more than humans, more than dogs. My view is any use of an essential oil on a cat for a veterinary health purpose should only be done under the express guidance of a veterinarian. Dosages should be followed precisely.
Household or personal use of an essential oil is another matter entirely. I don’t believe that essential oil use and good guardianship of cats are compatible. Until there is more scientific data that helps us decide which, if any, oils are safe to use around cats, I believe the risk to cats’ health is too great to justify the use of essential oils.
What are essential oils?
An essential oil is a liquid that is made from a plant part, like bark or flowers. The oils are extracted from the plant any number of ways, including distillation using steam, pressing (like the way olive oil is made), or with the use of a solvent.
Note that the word “essential” in essential oils does not refer to their importance to human health, like an essential vitamin. “Essential” refers to the fact that the oils represent the “essence” of the plant.
Essential oils may be made from more than just plants
Essential oils are often mixed with other ingredients, or diluted with cheaper oils, alcohols, or other fillers, including those oils labeled, “natural.” Some essential oils are made with synthetically reproduced chemicals.
There are “pure” essential oils, too, that supposedly contain nothing but compounds from the plant listed on the label. You might be surprised to learn that the “purer” the oil, the more potentially toxic.
Essential oils are an unregulated product
Note that essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. government. Even though many essential oil companies make claims about the health benefits of their products, essential oils are not considered a food or a drug, and thus are not approved by the FDA before they come to market.
An essential oil can be described however the manufacturer would like to describe it. Terms like “therapeutic” or “pharmaceutical grade” or “pure” have no legal definitions. The label on a bottle of essential oils may or may not include an ingredient list, or the ingredient list may be incomplete.
So, when you buy an essential oil, you might not know what you are actually getting. The purity, or strength, and thus the toxicity, of a product can vary considerably, even within a brand, but especially from brand to brand.
Why do people use essential oils?
Many people enjoy using essential oils for a variety of reasons, including potential psychological (affecting emotion), pharmacological (affecting body chemistry), and physiological (affecting the function of the body) benefits.
Some people believe that essential oils are the cure-all for whatever ails you in both mind and body, from dandruff, acne, and arthritis, to depression, anxiety, and stress. Others simply enjoy the fresh scent in their home, or on their laundry.
Note that the purpose of this post is not to defend or refute the benefits of essential-oil use in human health, but rather to explore essential-oil safety for cats.
How are essential oils used?
Essential oils can be used in a number of ways:
Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is an ancient practice and a form of alternative medicine in which the strong scent of the oil is inhaled. It’s believed that the scent molecules travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, which, according to practitioners, produces some psychological benefit, such as relaxation, or improved focus, depending upon the oil.
There are a variety of devices that allow the aroma of essential oils to be dispersed into the air, including candles, liquid potpourri, room sprays, and diffusers.
Diffusers are very popular. Today there are many different kinds, including passive diffusers, which soak up oil and let them evaporate naturally, heated diffusers, ultrasonic diffusers, which create a mist, and nebulizing diffusers that release tiny particles of oil into the air.
Different kinds of diffusers pose different risks for cats, which I will discuss in a moment.
Applied to skin. Essential oils are sometimes applied directly to the skin and are absorbed through the skin. A massage therapist might add a drop of peppermint oil for an invigorating sports massage. Tea tree oil may be applied to blemishes on the skin, for example.
Note, however, that even in humans, some essential oils can be poisonous if applied directly to skin. Essential oils have been known to cause chemical burns, allergic reactions, respiratory issues, phototoxicity (in which the chemicals in the oils react to UV light), and other serious side effects.
Taken orally. Some people ingest essential oils, something experts recommend doing only under the guidance of a trained herbalist, doctor, or certified aromatherapist. Just because something is “natural” or plant-based, does not make it safe.
Essential oils are probably already in your house
Essential oils are everywhere and in everything. If you clean your house, wear perfume, use a bathroom spray, burn candles, or even eat certain foods, chances are you’re using essential oils whether you intended to or not.
Researching this post has made me rethink many of the products that I purchase for home use, and has made me more of a label-reader. It’s made me conscious of how much of these products I use, and how frequently, and whether I allow my pets to have access to rooms in which these products have been used.
Why essential oils are especially toxic to cats
Robert Tisserand, founder of Tisserand Institute, which trains and certifies professionals in the use of essential oils, and one of the foremost experts on evidence-based use of essential oils, answered the question of whether it’s safe to diffuse essential oils around cats in a recent article:
“Diffusing essential oils can be toxic to humans if it’s over-done, causing neurological symptoms such as headache or fatigue,” he said. He went on to explain that cats almost completely lack the liver enzymes that humans have to metabolize the compounds in many essential oils.
Cats lack the liver enzyme glucuronyl transferase (and other related enzymes), making it difficult for their bodies to process the chemicals found in many essential oils. Humans, dogs, and many other animals are better able than cats to metabolize these compounds because our livers produce a greater quantity of these important enzymes.
The absence of these enzymes can result in a potentially toxic buildup of these chemicals in a cat’s liver. The higher the concentration of the oil, the greater the exposure, the greater the risk to your cat. Exposure to essential oils can lead to liver damage, liver failure, respiratory failure, seizures, and even death in cats.
Tisserand acknowledges that certain essential oils are extremely toxic to cats, but believes that small amounts of other oils will do no harm. Do you know which essential oils are the most dangerous? Or how much is a "small" amount?
Are certain cats at special risk from essential oils?
Kittens, elderly cats, and cats who have pre-existing liver or respiratory problems, such as asthma or allergies, should not be exposed to essential oils of any kind. Cats who are exposed to second-hand smoke in their homes are also at greater risk for developing complications from exposure to essential oils.
If you must use essential oils and you have a young, old, or ill cat, do not allow your cat to enter any room in which essential oils have been used.
What else makes essential oils especially dangerous to cats?
Motorized diffusers spread droplets of oil. Some of the active diffusers described above, including motorized diffusers that atomize oil to send fragrance into the air, actually spread tiny micro-droplets of oil into a room. As these micro-droplets fall, they may land on your cat’s fur.
Cats are fastidious self-groomers, and thus may unintentionally ingest potentially toxic essential oils. Cats are also thin-skinned, so oils that land on the skin are often rapidly absorbed, becoming quickly poisonous.
Essential oils can also burn or irritate a cat’s skin or the delicate mucous membranes in her mouth.
Passive diffusers can cause respiratory distress. Oil dispersed through passive diffusers can cause severe respiratory irritation. Inhaling fragrances can cause some cats to develop watery eyes or nose, a burning sensation in the nose and throat, nausea, and difficulty breathing.
Note that cats have a very acute sense of smell and the scents that we find pleasant can be overly strong and very unpleasant to cats.
Some cats may be attracted to essential oils. You may think you’ve kept your bottles of essential oils safely stored, but some cats manage to find their way in to a closed drawer or cabinet anyway. A cat may inadvertently step in a spill from a broken bottle, getting oil on her fur or paw.
Diffusers and liquid potpourri pots can be easily overturned or licked by a curious cat.
How do you know if your cat has been poisoned by essential oils?
If you suspect your cat may have been exposed to essential oils, look for these signs of toxicity:
- Scent on your cat’s hair, skin, or breath
- Difficulty breathing, including coughing and wheezing
- Muscle tremors
- Low heart rate
- Low body temperature
- Pawing at the mouth
- Redness on the lips, gums, tongue, or skin 
Note that coughing can sometimes be mistaken for a cat trying to cough up a hairball. However, if a cat is coughing due to respiratory distress, there will be little abdominal movement and no hairball will be produced.
What should you do if you suspect that your cat has essential-oil toxicity?
First, move your cat to fresh air.
If his symptoms don’t resolve quickly, he will need emergency veterinary treatment.
Put the product (and its packaging), that you suspect may have poisoned your cat, into a sealed bag, and bring it with you to the emergency hospital.
If your cat has gotten oil on his skin, wash it off as quickly as possible with liquid dishwashing soap (the kind you use for hand washing, not the kind that is used in the dishwasher).
What you should never do if you suspect your cat has essential-oil toxicity
Don’t induce vomiting or give your cat activated charcoal. Essential oils can stick to a cat’s airway, leading to lung inflammation or airway obstruction.
How will my cat be treated for essential-oil toxicity?
There is no antidote for essential-oil poisoning, but with early intervention and supportive treatment your cat may survive. This is why it’s important to bring your cat to an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible.
Your emergency vet may give your cat IV fluids to keep her hydrated. If she has chemical burns in her mouth or esophagus, she may be given a tube feeding or soft diet. She will likely be given anti-vomiting medication, stomach protectants, pain medication, and medication to protect her liver.
Are hydrosols or “flower waters” safe for cats?
No. Hydrosols, also known as “flower waters,” are less-concentrated than essential oils, making them safer for use on human skin without having to dilute them further.
But hydrosols and flower waters are still very dangerous to cats.
If you must use essential oils…
If you must use essential oils, there are steps you can take to make your home environment safer for your cat:
- Understand that no essential oils are known to be safe for cats. Do not place oils on a cat’s skin, fur, or paws.
- Keep your essential oils in a safe place that is completely inaccessible to your cat.
- Keep all lids and bottle tops tightly closed.
- Use a diffuser in large, well-ventilated areas, or in rooms that are off limits to your cat.
- Clean any surfaces an oil has touched.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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