What are essential oils?
Essential oils (EOs) are highly concentrated plant compounds that come from tree bark and resin, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
They are usually extracted via steam distillation or cold pressing methods.
EOs are considered a form of herbal medicine and their therapeutic application is referred to as aromatherapy.
Plant medicine has been used for centuries by various cultures and healing traditions such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and also in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
In recent years there has been an increasing amount of research on EOs’ medicinal and healing properties.
The use of essential oils has been shown to help boost immunity, fight infection, decrease inflammation, accelerate healing, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, and even manage allergy symptoms.
Are EOs safe for cats?
EOs can be highly effective at treating a number of conditions and symptoms in humans, but are they safe for your feline friend too?
The answer is both yes and no.
There are some essential oils, that may be beneficial to certain health conditions for cats, and there are many other oils that are known to have harmful effects.
Some EOs commonly considered safe for cats are:
- Cedarwood oil
- Frankincense oil
- Rosemary oil
- Lemongrass oil
Pet owners in general and cat owners specifically should be aware of the effects of essential oils on their animals.
Caution should be exerted when exposing your cat to EOs in your home.
According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) website:
“Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils, and effects such as gastrointestinal upset, central nervous system depression, and even liver damage could occur if ingested in significant quantities.
Inhalation of the oils could lead to aspiration pneumonia.
There are significant variations in toxicity among specific oils.
Based on this, we would not recommend using essential oils in areas where your pets have access unless pets are supervised or the use of the oil is approved by your veterinarian.” (1)
Cats aren’t able to metabolize EOs in the way humans or even dogs can.
A cat’s liver is especially sensitive to EOs as it lacks the P450 cytochrome metabolic pathway.
This blocks a cat’s ability to metabolize (break down) the active compounds in EOs.
Cats are also missing a liver enzyme called glucuronyl transferase, which helps to break down active compounds like phenols in EOs.
This makes them sensitive to phenols and salicin/salicylate, all common compounds found in many EOs.
For all of these reasons, it’s important to always consult with your veterinarian before using any EO directly on your cat.
Even if an oil has been recommended as safe for cats, the animal may have an adverse reaction or sensitivity to incorrect dosage and application.
Cats with pre-existing conditions like allergies and asthma and cats exposed to second-hand smoke have a higher risk of developing EO-related respiratory problems.
Unsafe oils to avoid
Though this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the most common toxic EOs for cats.
Keep in mind that toxicity also depends on dosage, method, oil quality, and frequency.
To keep your cat safe, these oils should be avoided:
- Sweet birch oil
- Clove oil
- Cinnamon oil
- Tea tree oil (Melaleuca)
- Oregano oil
- Eucalyptus oil
- Thyme oil
- Pine oils
- Pennyroyal oil
- Peppermint oil
- Wintergreen oil
- Citrus oils (orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, bergamot)
- Ylang-ylang oil
- Spearmint oil
Symptoms of essential oil poisoning
- Tremors/Muscle tremors
- Fast breathing
- Difficulty walking
- Low body temperature
- Liver damage/liver failure
- Difficulty breathing (respiratory distress)
- Low heart rate
- Skin redness/rashes
What to do if you think your cat is showing symptoms
Call your veterinarian immediately as soon as you notice your cat showing any of the signs and symptoms above.
You can also call the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-764-7661 and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435.
Best practices: how to use EOs around your cat
- Exposure to EOs via diffusing is less concentrated than direct, topical application. Always consult with your vet before topically applying any oil or diffusing at home.
- The quality of an EO matters. Make sure you’re only using 100% unadulterated, high-quality, certified organic oils for your essential oil diffuser.
- Never leave your cat confined to spaces where you are diffusing; make sure they have a clear way out of the room.
- It’s better to use your diffusers, liquid potpourri, and reed diffusers in large rooms or wide-open spaces instead of small spaces with poor ventilation.
- As a rule of thumb, if you can smell it then it can affect your cat.
- If used improperly diffusers can be harmful as they disperse the oils into millions of microparticles that can land on your cat’s fur. They can ingest the particles by then licking their fur.
- Be careful of applying EOs topically to your skin, too. Your cat may lick the applied area and ingest it that way.
- If you notice your cat pawing at the diffuser or leaving the room when you turn it on it is a sign they’re not tolerating it well and it’s best to stop use or make sure they are not in the room where you are diffusing.