Are Essential Oils Toxic to Cats?

In a span of two days, I had three different warnings pop up on my personal facebook page about the toxicity of essential oils in relation to cats.  Not only did they show up, but the friends who posted them, with concern, asked me if it was true.

First, I want to say how thankful I am that I have shared my essential oil journey with my friends, family, and the public.  Had I kept to myself, these friends (who are genuinely concerned about their kitties) wouldn’t have anyone to turn to for honest answers.

Second, I want to tell you that these warnings are TRUE!

I have a secret to share.  I have always been a….wait for it….dog person.  A love for felines was never a part of my growing-up experience.  Everyone in my family always had dogs, except for my Granny who had a cat named “Princess.”  I thoroughly disliked that cat!  She walked on me, rubbed on me, caused my allergies to flare up, and my eyes to swell shut.  She was a thing of mystery.  Why would anyone want a cat?  Enter into my life my husband.

When I met Eric, he had three cats in his home.  Being allergic made it difficult to be around his house, though, and this was before Claritin, Allergra, and Zyrtec became household allergy medications.  When we got married, he had to re-home his cats and that was very difficult for him.  Once those allergy meds were made available, though, we’ve had cats in our house ever since.  We currently have three inside: a Norwegian Forest cat mix, a domestic long hair, and a domestic short hair. We also have two outside: a Russian Blue and a Chantilly.  ALL of our animals are rescues; they either found us, or a friend who found them passed them on to us.

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This is “Happy,” our Norwegian Forest cat helping me with my morning Yoga.

Since welcoming cats into our home, I have come to actually, kinda, like having them around.  They are a source of quite a bit of enjoyment, companionship, and even therapy in our lives.  So, the thought of causing harm to one of these little fur-babies breaks my heart.

Olfactory System of a Cat

A cat’s sense of smell is probably one of its most important (Harper & White, 2008).   Cats have about 60-80 million olfactory cells where a human has only about 5-20 million (Harper & White, 2008).  This means cats can smell things we don’t have a clue are there!  The part of their brain that is attached to the olfactory system is larger than ours, as well, and they even have a special scent organ, the vomeronasal sac or Jacobson’s organ, located in the roof of their mouth (Harper & White, 2008).

Sometimes you may notice your cat opening up its mouth, curling its tongue and almost grimacing.  He is enabling the Jacobson’s organ ducts to open up and connect to the nasal cavity, to enhance whatever scent he is encountering (Harper & White, 2008).

Before cats were domesticated, they were hunters and workers.  Most ancient cultures have drawings, carvings, and paintings of cats performing a variety of tasks from hunting birds alongside their humans to killing plague infected rats to exploring the world with the Vikings and protecting their food stores (Harper & White, 2008).  Cats have to have a strong sense of smell to ferret out prey and dispatch them.

When chemicals enter into the bloodstream- through ingestion or smell- they are carried through the body to the liver, lungs, and kidneys, where they are broken down, metabolized, and excreted.

The Detoxifying Body Organ

The liver is responsible for metabolizing nutrients and detoxifying substances (Patton & Thibodeau, 1960).  Our livers process the blood that has absorbed nutrients and other substances and then distribute them throughout the body (Patton & Thibodeau, 1960).  Excess nutrients can be stored and toxins can be removed from the blood before they reach other parts of the body (Patton & Thibodeau, 1960).  Patton and Thibodeau tell us that “there are many complex chemical reactions, regulated by many different hormones, that assist in the storage and release process” (1960).

Bell tells us, in the book Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, that cats do not have the necessary enzymes within their livers to break down certain substances which leads to the buildup of toxins in their bodies (2012).  Toxin buildup does not always immediately manifest; it can be hours, days, weeks, months, or even years (Bell, 2012).  Many cats are brought to their veterinarians because they are despondent, clumsy, uncoordinated, sometimes partially paralyzed, vomiting, drooling, and in a haze and the cat is treated for poisoning and given fluids to help flush the liver (Bell, 2012).  Bloodwork will show that enzymes in the liver are elevated, but because the cat lacks a way to excrete the toxins, the count remains and impairs liver function (Bell, 2012).  There are many documented cases of death related to essential oil toxicity in cats (Bell, 2012).

An Excerpt…

“…veterinarians have determined through toxicology reports that cats are most sensitive to a specific group of essential oil constituents which other mammals are not–monoterpene hydrocarbons.  Specifically, pinene and limonene have been discovered to cause the most adverse effects.  These two substances, found most commonly in citrus and pine essential oils, are common ingredients in natural flea and tick repellents and shampoos, as well as natural citrus and pine cleaners. (Bell, 2012)

It is vitally important to remember that NATURAL does NOT equal HARMLESS; especially where our kitties are concerned.  Many of us like to use natural cleaners and even essential oils in our homes for disinfection and general cleanliness.  keep in mind that a cat’s skin is much thinner than ours or a dog’s and those cleaners can seep through into their bloodstream (Bell, 2012).

A Way of Escape

Whether you choose to diffuse your essential oils, apply them to your skin, or clean with them, you must allow a way of escape for your pets.  Because dogs and cats have a much more sensitive olfactory system, they are more likely to recognize when a scent is no good for them.  I sometimes diffuse in my bedroom, but I never close the door and trap my animals in with me.  I make blends in my kitchen, but I usually have a window open and the animals always have the option of moving to another room.  If you live in a small space (most diffusers are good for up to 400sf) be sure to offer ventilation for your feline companion when essential oils are being used.  I even tell my clients, if they work with animals in any way (professionally or just as a pet-parent), to not apply their essential oil blends and then handle the animals, but to allow the blend to soak into the skin at least 20 minutes before resuming contact.

What Can I Use?

If you are interested in using holistic remedies for what ails your kitty, there are options.  Bell recommends using hydrosols, a natural diet, acupuncture, massage, herbs, and flower essences (2012).  Seek out the advice of your veterinarian and a Registered Aromatherapist.

Remember…

Essential oils are a wonderful way to bring about wellness for humans and animals, alike, but they must be used with caution.  Always consider the health of, not just yourself but, everyone in your home when choosing to use an aromatic remedy.

Following essential oil use in your home, if your cat begins exhibiting any of these symptoms

  • despondent
  • clumsy
  • uncoordinated
  • partial paralysis
  • vomiting
  • drooling
  • disorientation

Take him/her to the veterinarian immediately.  Bring with you a list of the oils you have been using (diffusing, cleaning, applying, etc) or even bring the labeled bottle with you.  Your veterinarian cannot counteract what has happened if they are not armed with the correct information.

Everyone makes mistakes.

Many of us are uninformed.

I hope, and pray, that this information helps even one cat owner prevent harm to his/her beloved pet.

Due to the fact that each essential oil has a myriad of chemical constituents, and they are highly individual, a list of oils that are harmful to cats is not provided.

**Seek out the advice of a Registered Aromatherapist
for any essential oil use around your pets.**

References

Bell, K. L. (2012). Holistic aromatherapy for animals. Scotland, UK: Findhorn Press.

Harper, L., & White, J. (2008). The complete illustrated encyclopedia of cats & kittens. Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing.

Patton, K., & Thibodeau, G. (1960). Structure & function of the body (Fifteenth ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier.