As homeopathy grows in popularity, so does the use of essential oils. Essential oils are the distillation of a particular plant or compound and are typically used in aromatherapy or even directly applied to human skin.
Essential oils, however, can be very dangerous for cats.
Let’s talk about why (and what you can do about it.)
Why Are Essential Oils Particularly Dangerous to Cats?
Cats are naturally deficient in an enzyme called glucuronyl transferase. That matters, because it’s glucuronyl transferase that helps most animals break down phenol, which is a compound found in many essential oils. Phenol, also known as carbolic acid, is processed in the liver. Cats’ inability to process phenol can cause serious liver damage and even death.
How Do Cats Get Poisoned by Essential Oils?
Well, in more ways than one, which is what makes these products so dangerous. Not only can essential oils be dangerous if swallowed by cats (or by any animal, since they’re so concentrated), they’re also readily absorbed by the skin. If your cat knocks over a bottle of essential oil and then steps in it, for example, he can still face many of the adverse effects he would have had if he had ingested it.
Aromatherapy machines, humidifiers, and diffusers are all designed to transmit diluted oils into the air. Any of these methods can affect your cat’s health if you use an oil that’s known to be toxic. Even if you’re using a non-toxic oil (like cedarwood or rosemary), your cat will probably find the smell overwhelming.
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Are All Essential Oils Poisonous for Cats?
No! They’re not. Since phenol is the particular compound that makes essential oils so dangerous for cats, the higher in phenol an oil is, the more problematic it becomes. Any essential oil that is “pure” (i.e. 100% oil essence) is chock full of phenols. Conversely, many essential oils are diluted with water or other non-essential oils making them less deadly to cats.
Certain essential oils innately have high levels of phenols and should always, always be kept away from cats no matter their concentration. These include:
- Wintergreen oil
- Peppermint oil
- Eucalyptus oil
- Tea tree oil (melaleuca oil)
- Oregano oil
- Lavender oil
- Thyme oil
- Pine oil
- Citrus oil (including lemon oil)
- Pennyroyal oil
- Cinnamon oil
- Ylang ylang oil
- Sweet birch oil
- Clove oil
So I Should Get Rid of All My Oils?
While it’s not necessary to dispose of your favorite essential oils, think twice about keeping them in the house if you have a cat. Odds are, if you’re using one of the oils above on yourself or even in an aromatherapy machine, your cat is coming into contact with it. Likewise, the risk of your cat finding your oils and accidentally coming into contact with them is something you should take into consideration.
For decades, well-meaning cat owners have been using essential oils to “treat” their cats’ ailments. Never use an essential oil or other “natural” product on your cat’s skin, her eyes, her nose, or her mouth without talking to your vet first.
What Does Essential Oil Poisoning Look Like?
It’s good to know what to look for in case you ever suspect your cat has come into contact with a dangerous essential oil. The primary signs to watch for include drooling, wobbliness (ataxia), vomiting, tremors, and respiratory distress. Less-obvious signs might include a fragrant smell in your cat’s coat or breath, pawing at the face, or even redness at the gum line or on the mouth which could indicate chemical burns.
If you notice your cat suffering from any of the preceding conditions after suspected contact with an essential oil, rush him to the closest emergency veterinary clinic. If you know which oil he was exposed to, take it with you.
Remember that oils are highly concentrated. It doesn’t take much to affect a cat. As little as a few drops of a particularly dangerous compound can send your cat into a medical emergency, so don’t delay your response.