For many of us, using essential oils is part of a weekly or even daily routine. With a plethora of fragrances to choose from, it’s easy to get caught up in the world of aromatherapy. Unfortunately, essential oils do pose a threat to our four-legged friends. The potential danger that comes with introducing essential oils and cats is nothing to “sniff” at. So, are there any essential oils safe for cats?
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are natural, highly concentrated oils extracted from the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits of certain plants. These oils retain the characteristic fragrance of the plant. In aromatherapy, it’s believed that molecules of the oil that are inhaled or absorbed through the skin can ease stress, boost mood, or aid in a better night’s sleep, among other benefits.
Methods of using essential oils include, but are not limited to, topical application (applying to the skin like perfume); liquid potpourri; candles; room sprays; heat diffusers like plug-in/electric oil diffusers, candle burners, or table top warmers; reed diffusers; motorized diffusers; and nebulizing and ultrasonic diffusers.
Essential oils and cats: A toxic combination?
Many essential oils contain phenols, an organic compound that is unsafe for cats. Cats do not have the essential enzyme in their liver that would normally metabolize and eliminate certain toxins, such as phenols. Therefore, essential oils that are airborne (through diffusers, room sprays, etc.) may also be inhaled by cats or ingested when cats groom themselves (by licking the particles off their fur). This can contribute to respiratory irritation or symptoms of poisoning.
Another serious threat is a cat directly ingesting essential oils (through liquid potpourri, a spilled bottle, etc.). Not only can this potentially cause corrosive burns on a cat’s mouth and esophagus, but it can contribute to severe symptoms like liver failure or even death.
Avoid these essential oils if you have a cat
The following essential oils contain phenols and are known to be toxic to cats. (This is not a comprehensive list.)
- Tea tree (melaleuca) oil—this is considered to be one of the most dangerous essential oils for cats
- Wintergreen oil
- Birch oil
- Citrus, lemon, lime, and grapefruit oils
- Pine oil
- Ylang Ylang oil
- Peppermint oil
- Cinnamon oil
- Pennyroyal oil
- Clove oil
- Eucalyptus oil
- Thyme oil
- Oregano oil
- Lavender oil
- Bay oil
- Bergamot oil
- Copaiba oil
- Fir oil
- Geranium oil
- Sage oil
- Spruce oil
Symptoms of essential oil poisoning in cats
Depending on the type of oil and the method of exposure, a poisoned cat may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Watery eyes or runny nose
- Skin redness or rashes
- Respiratory distress (labored breathing, fast breathing, panting, coughing, or wheezing)
- Difficulty walking, wobbliness (ataxia)
- Low heart rate
- Low body temperature
What to do if you think your cat was poisoned
Cats exhibiting severe symptoms of any kind should be taken immediately to an emergency vet clinic or animal hospital. If your cat is experiencing slight respiratory distress or a runny nose/watery eyes, move him into fresh air right away. Call your veterinarian, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435), or the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661) if his symptoms don’t clear up within a short time.
How to safely use essential oils in a household with cats
Are any essential oils safe for cats? Yes—with the huge caveat that they’re properly diluted, diffused, and used in moderation. Avoid the specific oils listed above; for all others, never allow your cat to directly ingest essential oils.
Keep these important do’s and don’ts in mind when you’re around essential oils and cats:
- DON’T use essential oils around kittens, elderly cats, or cats that have liver or respiratory problems.
- DO always check the label—some brands of oils may contain phenols while others don’t.
- DO only use therapeutic-grade essential oils.
- DON’T apply oils directly on your cat (even those considered safe) without first talking to your veterinarian.
- DO wash your hands before petting your cat if you have recently handled essential oils.
- DO keep all essential oils in a cat-proof cabinet so your cat doesn’t have access to them.
- DON’T allow your cat to lick your skin if you have applied any products that contain essential oils.
- DO supervise when your cat is around essential oil diffusers or pots that can be knocked over.
- DON’T wear aromatherapy jewelry when you are around your cat.
Finding essential oils safe for cats is a complicated undertaking. Just remember—it is always better to err on the side of caution. Learn more about the top poisons and toxicities that land cats in the emergency vet. When in doubt, talk to your veterinarian!