Essential Oils and Cats: A Potentially Toxic Mix

essential oils dangerous to cats
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

Aromatherapy, potpourri and the use of essential oils have been popular for decades. Many people love to change up their home's scent with the seasons: lavender in the spring, roses in the summer and pumpkin in the fall. But when it comes to cats, household fragrances can be dangerous. 

Scents and Cats

Years ago, certain essential oils were considered to be safe for cats and were recommended for such uses as treating ear mite infestations, upper respiratory problems and for stress relief.

In recent years, however, compelling evidence has accumulated that essential oils can be toxic to cats, whether taken internally, applied to the skin or simply inhaled.

The liver is most often the organ which is affected by essential oils. Cats' livers are simply not the same as humans' livers, and they lack the ability to properly metabolize the various compounds in essential oils. 

Toxicity in cats can occur very quickly, through an internal or external application, or over a longer period of time, through repeated or continuous inhalation of essential oils, but either way, it can lead to serious liver damage or even death.

Essential Oils Potentially Toxic to Cats

The use of essential oils on cats is typically discouraged. In some circumstances, some can be used to treat certain ailments under a veterinarian's supervision if they are diluted; otherwise, they should be avoided. (Note that this list is not all-inclusive.)

  • Peppermint
  • Lemon Oil
  • Lavender Oil
  • Melaleuca Oil
  • Tea Tree Oil
  • Cinnamon Bark Oil
  • Wintergreen Oil
  • Thyme Oil
  • Birch Oil
  • Other oils containing phenol

If ingested or applied to the skin, essential oils can damage the skin and even induce seizures. If your cat ingests any oils accidentally, get him to the veterinarian immediately.

Sense of Smell

In addition to scents' toxic effects, some scents can irritate your pets in other ways. Cats and dogs have much stronger senses than we do, and their noses are much more sensitive. What can smell wonderful to you can be overwhelming to your cat. If you do use home fragrances, it's important to have a place that is scent-free so your pet can retreat when it gets too overpowering. 

A Word About Hydrosols

Hydrosols are often touted as a more natural, safer alternative to essential oils. Hydrosols are also known as "flower waters." They are less saturated than essential oils. They are the water that remains after steam-distilling flowers or herbs, such as lavender, in water.

While hydrosols are safer for use on human skin, since they do not have to be diluted, they still are dangerous for cats and other pets. The water can hold on to residual matter from the plants that can be toxic if ingested or even inhaled. Some pets can tolerate hydrosols, but others are more sensitive. Limit your pet's access to them and their scents to minimize the risk of any health issues. 

While aromatherapy can be helpful in managing your stress or other conditions, they can be toxic to pets. Take precautions to protect your pet and keep them away from harmful essential oils.