Essential Oils and Cats: A Potentially Toxic Mix

Aromatherapy Oils to Avoid Around Your Pet

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

Essential oils,  aromatherapy, and potpourri in your home may be pleasant for you, but natural compounds in these fragrances can be dangerous for your cat. Take precautions when using these products so your cat does not have a toxic reaction. If your cat has any liver impairment, it may be best to eliminate these products from your cat's environment.

Essential Oil Toxicity for 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. Cats lack certain enzymes that provide the ability to properly metabolize the various compounds in essential oils, phenols in particular. These phenolic compounds occur naturally in some plants and are highly concentrated in essential oils. Exposure can lead to serious liver damage, liver failure, seizures, or even death for cats.

Essential Oils Potentially Toxic to Cats

These oils are known to contain phenols and be toxic to cats:

  • Wintergreen oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Citrus oil (including lemon oil)
  • Teatree oil (melaleuca oil)
  • Pine oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Sweet birch oil
  • Clove oil
  • Ylang ylang oil

    The higher the concentration of essential oil, the greater the risk to your cat. If your cat ingests any oils accidentally,  go to the veterinarian immediately.

    Symptoms of Essential Oil Poisoning

    Cats absorb oils that are directly in contact with their skin. Oils diffused in the air are inhaled and also collect on the fur, which results in your cat ingesting them during licking and cleaning.

    Toxicity can occur very quickly or over a longer period of exposure.

    Symptoms of essential oil poisoning include:

    • Drooling
    • Vomiting
    • Tremors
    • Difficulty walking, wobbliness (ataxia)
    • Respiratory distress (wheezing, fast breathing, panting, coughing)

    If you notice any of these signs, take your cat to a veterinary emergency center. The veterinarian may note low heart rate, low blood pressure, and signs of liver failure.

    How Your Cat May Be Exposed to Essential Oils

    Although it is now discouraged, some people treat their cats with essential oils for various problems. You should only do this under the direction of your veterinarian. Even then, you must take precautions that the oils are appropriately diluted and only use the concentration recommended. Be aware that products often vary in concentration from what may be listed on the label.

    Your cat may be exposed to essential oils you use for your own purposes. Keep any essential oils in a cat-proof cabinet so your curious pet doesn't have access to them. Passive reed diffusers or potpourri pots can be knocked over, exposing your cat to the oil-containing liquid. Don't allow your pet to lick your skin if you have applied any products that contain essential oils.

    Essential oil and aromatherapy diffusers, candles, liquid potpourri products, and room sprays are sources of airborne essential oils that cats can inhale or lick off their fur. If you can smell the fragrance of the oil, there is oil in the air and it can affect your cat.

    Kittens, elderly cats, or cats who have liver or respiratory problems should be kept out of any room where essential oil diffusers are used. Don't wear aromatherapy jewelry when you are around your cat.

    Your Cat's 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 of smell than humans, and their noses are much more sensitive. What can smell wonderful to you can be overwhelming to your cat. If you use home fragrances, it's important to have a place that is scent-free so your pet can retreat when it gets too overpowering.

    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 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.