Cats are way more sensitive to the toxic effects of essential oils than humans and dogs. Indeed, death from exposure to essential oils is a very real possibility.
But that doesn’t mean essential oils have no place in feline medicine. Some essential oils, when used in the correct concentrations and delivered by the appropriate means, can be safe and effective. After all, essential oils are found in nature and cats in the wild come into contact with them all the time.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are volatile aromatic compounds made by plants and even animals with the purpose of attracting or repelling pollinators, predators, prey, microbes, and mates. The defining feature of these compounds is that they move from solid to liquid to vapor with ease – that’s what makes them “volatile” and so deliciously (or repugnantly) smelly.
While essential oils are usually in the fragrance, cosmetic, and household cleaning industries, aroma alone doesn’t define them. The medicinal qualities of essential oils have been long-used too. And here’s where we get into the weeds.
Why are essential oils toxic to cats?
The trouble with essential oils is that cats lack the liver enzymes necessary to break down and eliminate these aromatic compounds. When these readily-absorbed oils are applied to their skin or into their mouths, the toxins are free to enter the bloodstream and target sensitive tissues without the ability to excrete them properly.
The liver is the organ in charge of metabolizing these agents, and it’s a sensitive organ that can be easily damaged when it encounters a compound it’s not usually tasked with. Therefore, minuscule concentrations of essential oils are necessary to be both therapeutic and non-toxic to cats. But here it must be stated outright that some essential oils are 100% off limits to cats.
What essential oils are toxic to cats?
Certain essential oils are absolutely not recommended for use in, on, or around cats. Among the most toxic include:
Sweet Birch Oil
Tea Tree Oil
Symptoms of Essential Oil Poisoning in Cats
Symptoms can be brought on due to diffusing essential oils around cats or if they come in direct contact with the oils, and include:
Watery nose and/or eyes
Tremors or seizures
Cardiovascular changes (low heart rate or low blood pressure
Low body temperature
Any veterinarian who’s seen the effects of essential oils on cats never forgets. And the conversations with owners, explaining how it is they’ve inadvertently poisoned their cats is never pleasant.
Treating Essential Oil Poisoning in Cats
Removing the essential oil from the cat’s body is the first thing that needs to happen. If the substance is on the cat’s coat or paws, a quick bath with a degreasing dishwashing detergent (like Dawn) is absolutely necessary. An emergency ride to a veterinary facility is a rapid second step. Keep the cat from licking herself while you’re on your way.
Veterinarians treat afflicted cats with fluids and provide support to the organ systems most affected, whether they be the respiratory, nervous, cardiovascular, or digestive systems. Attempting to remove any trace of essential oils from the body remains an ongoing concern throughout the treatment process.
Which essential oils are considered safe for cats?
This is a controversial subject since some veterinarians believe there’s no need to add any more risks to a cat’s life. Those who hold this point of view believe it’s best to delete essential oils from a cat’s household entirely.
However, other veterinarians believe that essential oils may have a place in cats’ medicinal wheelhouse in a limited extent.
The following oils are considered safest:
Cedarwood (for its soothing & calming effects)
Lemongrass (used in cases of stress & anxiety)
Rosemary (considered energizing & refreshing)
Essential Oil Products, Preparations, and Delivery Methods
Essential oils seem to be in most every household consumer product out there. Here’s a list of their typical preparations and delivery methods:
Candles are generally okay if you’re just burning them intermittently in a central location far from curious noses. But if your cat ingests them, all bets are off. Candles infused with oils can be highly toxic if the concentration is high enough or the oil type is on the list of most toxic.
Soaps, Shampoos & Other Cleansing Agents
These can be packed with essential oils. Always be sure to buy products specifically labeled for cats.
This process involves infusing herbs and spices in oil, so the resulting product is basically essential oil-rich liquid and becomes a potential source of toxins. Cats who come into contact with potpourri pots will eventually clean themselves, thereby ingesting the stuff. It’s among the most common ways cats get poisoned with essential oils.
These sprays can be a serious respiratory hazard because the aerosolized particles are readily inhaled. Moreover, of you spray enough of it, it’ll land on the floor, furniture, water dish, cat food, the cat – you get the picture.
Passive diffusers evaporate essential oils to achieve a desirable aroma. They include everything from reed diffusers to electric outlet plug-ins that move air through essential oil-soaked pads to oil warmers. These are most dangerous should cats come into direct contact with the pads, reeds, or the oil itself.
These devices are more dangerous for a cat’s respiratory tract since they diffuse microdroplets of the water-oil mixture into the air. This means cats can actually inhale them if they’re close enough to the device. Or, as with sprays, they can cling to cat fur, land on food, etc., if these devices are kept in close range of cats or cat items.
Pure or Diluted Oils for Direct Application or Ingestion
Direct application or ingestion of even the most diluted essential oils is considered unsafe for cats. Never administer or apply any of these products! This goes for shampoos and “natural” insecticide sprays too. It’s one big reason why dog products, like shampoos and bug repellents, should never be used on cats.
How to Use Essential Oils Safely Around Cats
Since essential oils toxicity levels are so high, aromatherapy is the only approach considered acceptable. The key is to use only the safer oils via a passive diffusing mechanism. This means the device or technique employed must be 100% cat-proof. In other words, cats should have no access to the oil reservoir itself.
All cat owners who decide to use essential oils need to be aware of any potential risk of exposure and the signs of toxicity.