Essential oils can pose a toxic risk to any household pet, or small animal, but can be especially dangerous to cats. This is because cats, unlike other animals, lack a particular enzyme in their liver responsible for the metabolizing and elimination of certain toxic compounds.
It is because of the lack of this enzyme that I do not recommend applying essential oil directly onto the fur, or skin, of a cat. And don’t be fooled by the labeling found on many essential oil products that convince you they are cat friendly.
All-natural, 100% pure, or totally “organic” may not mean that the product is completely safe or 100% authentic!
Similarly, don’t be fooled by the small quantities of oil that are required for diffusers or homemade natural cleaning recipes.
Even small amounts of essential oils can prove to be fatal to a cat; whatever its size and weight. As the cat is lacking an essential enzyme in the liver, toxicity from essential oils can begin to steadily increase.
This can take place over a long period but will eventually overwhelm the liver resulting in liver failure.
The time that this takes will be dependent upon factors such as age, health, and level of ingestion. Other factors might include any pre-existing allergies or cat-specific conditions that might be present.
Just like humans, the detrimental effects within the liver might be hidden, and gradual, but will eventually be devastating.
Be Careful – Not All Essential Oils Are Genuine
Essential oils have gained in popularity and become a much sought after product in recent years. This gain has also lead to the rise of counterfeit products hitting the market. And sadly these counterfeit/fake products have the very real potential to be deadly to our feline friends.
Moreover, not all genuine essential oils are made in the same way, have the same purity, or are 100% of what they claim to be.
Did you know that there is no universal standard for essential oil companies to abide by?
So just because it says that it’s natural and organic does not mean that every bit of it is. It is possible that some of the ingredients may be tainted in some way. They may even have come into contact with pesticides or other chemicals before being bottled.
And these chemicals may be toxic to your furry friend, even though it was marketed as a “safe” oil.
Without an operating standard and safety checks being put in place, who can really say what is in the bottle?
So I would say always read the label carefully, investigate the company, and check the packaging before purchasing.
I will cover how to spot fake and potentially toxic essential oils in greater depth towards the end of this article.
Why Are Some Essential Oils Toxic To Cats?
Essential oils are volatile, organic constituents of plants that are extracted via distillation or cold pressing. However, the extracted oils are extremely concentrated and can be up to 100 times their original concentration.
It is this high concentration that can quickly overwhelm a cat’s senses, or even fatally poison a small animal.
Did you know that it takes an average of 75 lemons to make one small 15ml bottle of lemon essential oil!
Knowing this, can you now appreciate how dangerous just one small bottle of oil can be?
So as I mentioned earlier, cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver that can metabolize and eliminate certain toxins from the body. Without this enzyme, toxic substances will build up within the liver and will eventually lead to liver failure.
The toxins I refer to might be the concentrated essential oil itself, or perhaps, the phenols and phenolic compounds present within them.
So let’s get a greater understanding of these dangerous compounds?
- Phenols, sometimes called phenolics, are a group of compounds that can be found in many commercial disinfectants. These compounds are also found in some essential oils. These oils include cinnamon, clove, thyme, and oregano and are known to be toxic to cats.
- Monoterpene Hydrocarbons (Terpenes) are another group of compounds found in essential oils and these are highly toxic to cats. They are especially highly concentrated in oils like coriander, dill, rosemary, citrus (limonene), and petitgrain essential oils.
It should also be noted that Monoterpene Hydrocarbons occur to a very high percentage in all of the citrus (limonene) essential oils. The highest concentrations are in grapefruit, wild orange, lemon, and lime where concentrations can reach up to a staggering 95%!
Petitgrain oil is taken from a tree’s twigs and leaves which is steam distilled to produce an herbaceous essential oil such as pine. This is why a cat licking a bowl of liquid potpourri for instance may receive a deadly dose with just one lick.
I hope that this information gives an understanding of why some essential oils are particularly toxic to cats.
However, It does not show all the essential oils that are toxic to cats, and as such, should be avoided. To that end, I have researched and created a list of essential oils toxic to cats which I have submitted below.
This list may not be exhaustive due to the lack of scientific research available into the study of essential oils.
Essential Oils Toxic to Cats
All of the listed essential oils are toxic to cats, but in particular, you should be aware of those highlighted:
- All Citrus (d-limonene) variants
- Birch (all variants)
- Tea tree (melaleuca) exceptionally toxic
Please note that even if you use an essential oil that is not on the list and is deemed as “safe,” there might still be problems.
This is because of the high-fat levels present in the carrier oil that is used to dilute the “safe,” essential oil. This high fat or unknown additive content may cause tummy upsets or even an adverse, (allergic) reaction.
It should also be noted that as there is no universal standard for essential oil companies to abide by. This has resulted in their being very little documented and verified research on the effects of essential oils on cats.
Therefore, the list above is being expanded primarily as our home-based knowledge increases. Also, as the popularity of essential oil, usage expands, it is perfectly possible that your cat could be in distress by coming into contact with an essential oil that is not on the list.
Please also note that some cats are individually more sensitive than others. Therefore, closely observing their behavior is the best indicator of how they are reacting to the oil. Education is everything and you know your cat better than anyone else.
Furthermore, check your aerosols for underlying ingredients which may include essential oils. Ylang-Ylang for example is often included in fresh air aerosols, but only listed in small lettering underlying the main scent.
Essential Oils Toxic To Cats In Commercial Flea And Tick Products
Essential oils, including Peppermint, tea tree, limonene, cinnamon, and lemongrass can all be found in some popular flea control products. However, cats can have serious adverse reactions to some of these ingredients, even when the product is used according to label directions.
This is because, just like humans, cats can be individually sensitive to the world around them. Cat allergies are not uncommon, and any oils on the fur will be ingested when the cat begins the cleaning process.
The side effects of these commercial products may include skin irritation, agitation or lethargy, drooling, vomiting, tremors, and seizures.
I believe it to be best practice when using these products to start small and work your way up. If your cat does show signs of distress then stop using the product immediately and consult your local veterinarian.
It is essential never to use flea or tick treatments intended for dogs on your cat. This is because some of these products contain Permethrin, and this is very poisonous to cats. Permethrin however is well tolerated and highly effective on dogs.
Symptoms Of Essential Oil Poisoning In Cats
Accurate observation and diagnosing of symptoms of essential oil poisoning in cats are linked to three main factors.
These factors are:
1. Type of essential oil involved
2. Period since poisoning occurred
3. Level of exposure involved.
Visible symptoms can include:
- Lethargy, depression, or dullness
- Low heart rate
- Respiratory distress (breathing with their mouth open)
- Ataxia (wobbliness)
- Low body temperature
- Liver failure
- Redness or burns on their tongue, gums, lips, nose, or pads (not always present)
- Collapse or seizures.
If a cat displays any of these symptoms then they need to be taken immediately to a source of fresh air. If however, they do not recover quickly then you need to take them to a veterinarian urgently along with the suspected oils.
Please note that cats do vomit a lot as they frequently cough up hairballs, Therefore be mindful of this when diagnosing the symptom of vomiting.
A stressed and struggling cat, possibly poisoned, will be close to the ground and trying to vomit.
This is different from a furball cough vomiting action that is off the ground with little to no abdominal movement.
Remember, if you suspect your cat has been poisoned by an essential oil, contact your vet immediately. Do this even if they aren’t showing symptoms.
It is far better to be safe than sorry.
What To Do If You Suspect your Cat Has Been Poisoned
Signs of poisoning tend to appear suddenly, depending upon the poison, so it is important to be aware of this.
However, even if you only suspect that your cat has swallowed or touched something poisonous, action must be taken immediately. Essential oils can, for example, be quickly absorbed into the pad of a cat and enter the bloodstream.
Contact a veterinarian immediately. Don’t wait for signs of illness as by then your cat may be too sick to survive.
If you can see the poison, remove the cat away from it immediately. If possible, take a sample of the poison and the original container with you to the veterinarian. This will be invaluable in helping the vet evaluate the best course of treatment.
The veterinarian may ask you to bring the cat in immediately or may give you advice over the phone.
Forcing, or encouraging, a cat to vomit may not be helpful, and you should not try to treat a cat’s symptoms without a veterinarian’s advice.
Essential oils cannot be completely removed from a cat’s system without a veterinarian’s assistance. Any delay in treatment can be deadly so, when in doubt, always contact a veterinarian for advice.
The sooner the cat has the correct medical attention, the sooner the treatment can begin. This reduces the time for the poison to have a devastating effect and will increase the chances of a notable recovery.
Common Ways A Cat Can Be Poisoned by Toxic Essential Oils
Your cat could easily come into direct contact with toxic essential oils in the following ways:
- Direct skin/fur contact. Never apply any essential oils to your cat’s skin or fur as they are at risk of licking it off and ingesting it. The licking action may even cause noticeable burns to the tongue, mouth, and throat.
- Eaten/swallowed. Cats are very inquisitive by nature and can easily swallow oils if they happen across them. An example of this would be drinking the liquid contained in/on reed or other passive diffusers.
- Inhaled. The immediate toxic effects of inhalation are relatively easy to combat because the essential oils used are quite diluted. However, for cats with underlying medical conditions, like asthma, using neat essential oils in sprays or active diffusers can greatly increase the risk.
Essential oil Poisoning Hazards Around The Home
Diffusers are one of the most common household devices that can expose cats to essential oils that are toxic to their systems. So let’s take a closer look at these and the dangers they represent.
Evaporative cold air diffusers work by the slow evaporation of essential oil and the resulting fragrance then being released into the air. These types of diffusers include reed diffusers, where the reeds soak up the essential oil and disperse its fragrance into the air. And motorized diffusers that use a fan to blow air through a filter that has been permeated with essential oil.
Evaporative warm air diffusers work by rapidly heating the essential oils to the evaporation point. As the heated oil evaporates, the fragrance is released into the air and this occurs at a higher rate than traditional cold air diffusing.
However, the heating of essential oils in this manner can change the chemical compound of the oil. This can give rise to unpredicted effects and this may prove dangerous if the oil in question is counterfeit.
If a non-toxic essential oil of good quality is used in a passive, warm, or cold air diffuser the main risks to cats is, arguably, low. The highest risk of toxic exposure being direct contact with the oil through spillage or licking. This can be coupled with a lower risk of respiratory problems from the inhalation of a strong unwelcome fragrance.
Active oil diffusers disperse microdroplets of essential oil into the air in addition to the fragrance. These types of diffusers are more dangerous to cats and include nebulizers and ultrasonic diffusers.
My advice would be that if you are going to diffuse essential oils around cats safely, then please diffuse small amounts, and for a shortened period of time.
Other essential oil poisoning hazards around the home.
Misting from natural homemade recipes has the same effect as active diffusers so care must be taken here. This is especially true of those recipes that use citrus essential oils sprayed as a mist as these oils are particularly toxic to cats.
Misting also makes it much easier for the oils to enter a cat’s bloodstream via inhalation into the lungs. Respiratory problems may first occur and then the oils will be quickly transported to, and accumulate in, the Liver.
Topically applied oil on humans is another way of inadvertently poisoning a cat. Cats love their owners and will rub, lick, and cuddle them to show affection. This will result in the transference of the oil to the cat and become a route for possible poisoning.
With this in mind and most importantly, concentrated essential oils should never be directly applied to cats. However, some people will dilute essential oils with a carrier oil and then apply it to a cat’s fur. An example of a carrier oil would be coconut oil.
However, I prefer not to play Russian roulette with my cat’s health and so never apply oils to my cat.
Exposing A Cat To Essential Oils (Do’s And Don’ts)
When exposing a cat to essential oils it is vitally important to give the cat an escape route. This will also help to relieve any stress felt by yourself which will then be picked up and mirrored by the cat.
An escape route can be achieved by simply leaving some doors and windows open and the cat flap unlocked.
Start by Introducing essential oils to a cat in small quantities to avoid any stress and always monitor the cats’ reactions. Small quantities refer to half the recommended quantities of oil, over shorter periods, with a break for observation.
It may also be a good idea to contact a veterinarian first, especially if the cat has any underlying health issues. I would also strongly recommend that one should never diffuse essential oils and leave the house.
This is especially important if the oils are being introduced for the first time or it is a new combination of oils. And it is equally important to not leave liquid essential oils unattended as an ‘inquisitive’ cat may wish to sample them.
Signs of ingested oils may include; a watery nose or eyes, a burning sensation in the throat, nausea, drooling, heavy breathing, and/or vomiting (perhaps with blood). Ingested oils may also leave burn marks around the mouth, tongue, and nose area.
Also, remember that oils diffused into the air from active oil diffusers must fall somewhere. Oil droplets in the air may settle onto a cat’s fur, and in time; these oils will be ingested as the cat cleans and grooms itself.
Additionally, cats by their nature get everywhere and oil droplets that settle on surfaces that the cat frequents can be absorbed by the cat fur. In this way, secondary contamination can occur, further compounding the problem.
How to Spot Fake And Potentially Toxic Essential oils
Even a ‘safe‘ essential oil can be toxic to cats, or any other pets if it is from dubious origins. So every precaution must be taken to buy only Pure and third-party tested essential oils.
Third-party testing means that the essential oil has been tested by a laboratory that has no connections to the original manufacturing company and is not on their payroll.
Third-party testing ensures that all of the ingredients are pure, have never come into contact with pesticides, and have no added chemicals. This is why third-party testing is so important in an industry that has no universal standard agreements.
So Consider these questions before you buy your essential oils:
- Have you heard of the company before?
- Can the company prove that its essential oils are third-party tested?
- Does the bottle list the Latin name for the plants used to make the oil?
- Is the price of the essential oil comparable to similar oils and brands, or very cheap?
- Does the label state the purity as 100%?
- Have you heard of the company before?
- Does the product smell like you would expect it to smell?
- Is the bottle a dark, well-sealed container? (essential oils degrade more quickly when exposed to heat and light)
- Is the bottle plastic? (plastic bottles are never used to store essential oils).
- Does the label or packaging include a statement about the growing practices used and if it’s pesticide-free?
- Does the essential oil leave a residue on white paper? (Pure essential oils do not leave a residue when they dry).
- Does the essential oil feel greasy? (Pure essential oils are absorbed quickly and do not leave a greasy feeling).
If there is a question in your mind after you have run through the above checks then do not buy the oil. I cannot stress enough that essential oils have become very popular and as such are open to abuse.
A poor standard oil with unknown additives can be very dangerous to the health of any cat.
Trusted Third-Party Tested Essential oil Suppliers
Do not look upon this list as being full, complete, or totally trustworthy. Like any list, it is only as good as the day it was compiled so things may have changed.
My advice is always to Double-Check everything to your own satisfaction.
However, I hope this list will help to guide you when you are looking for an essential oil that is not toxic to cats.
- Plant Therapy
- Eden’s Garden
- Original Swiss Aromatics
- Rocky Mountain Oils
- Young Living
- Aura Cacia
- Lisse Essentials
- Mountain Rose Herbs
- Now Foods Essential Oils
I Use Essential Oils In My Home – How Can I Reduce The Risk To My Cat?
Actions to take that will minimize the risk of your cat coming into contact with essential oils.
- Always store essential oils away from your cat. In this instance, curiosity might kill the cat! So find a lockable box or container and always return sealed bottles directly to it.
- Don’t touch your cat after handling essential oils. If you touch undiluted essential oils, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before touching your cat.
- Only use diluted essential oils in natural cleaners when cleaning. Avoid using undiluted essential oils for cleaning or misting (fresh air spray). Cats get everywhere and essential oil droplets can easily be absorbed by their fur.
- Thoroughly check the ingredients list on all commercial products. Many products contain essential oils to enhance the sweet smell experience and these are predominately listed. However, this is not always the case and some oils are added surreptitiously. Always read the ingredients list thoroughly and check for hidden oils. Ylang-Ylang is a favorite hidden additive that is toxic to cats.
- Try to use oils that are diluted for personal grooming. If you use essential oils for personal grooming, or around the home, try to make sure that they are always diluted first. Also never use the essential oils on the toxic to cats list and place them on a non-cat-friendly spot on your person. This will help to minimize the risk to your cat but allow you to comfort them.
- Keep your cat away from diffusers. Whether you use passive reed type diffusers or active diffusers such as a nebulizer, always have good ventilation and an easy escape route for your cat. Never leave your cat and an exposed essential oil alone in the room together. Remember, all essential oils are poisonous if taken in the right quantities. (75 lemons in one 15ml bottle)
- Use a commercial flea product with care. Dogs and cats react very differently to certain chemicals so NEVER use a dog product on a cat. Moreover, as essential oils aren’t very well-regulated, commercial flea products may use oils with a more than dubious heritage. So I would always recommend getting a prescription flea treatment product from your vet or a pharmacist.
A Final Word On Essential Oils Toxic To Cats
I would just like to say that personally, I do not recommend using essential oils around cats as they lack an important enzyme in order to deal with them.
If you feel as though you want to use essential oils around your cat, I would advise you to always use common sense and start slow. Introduce them to your cat in small quantities to avoid stress and always monitor their reactions.
If you have young, weak, or sick animals, of any kind, then don’t use the oils until you believe that they can cope with them.
Always ask your veterinarian’s advice before using essential oils near your cat in order to check which ones are potentially harmful. Research is limited and all cats are individuals with individual peculiarities and allergies.
When using an essential oil or a combination of oils for the first time, always monitor your cat for at least ten minutes to see how it reacts to them and give them an easy escape route.
Look out for signs that suggest that they are uncomfortable, stressed or feeling unwell, and if so, stop immediately and monitor for the next 24 hours.
Always diffuse in an area that is open and well ventilated. And never use essential oils in a small enclosed space with little or no ventilation or a viable escape route.
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Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.
He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.
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