What are essential oils exactly?

In recent years, essential oils have gotten more attention and become trendy for their versatile uses. Basically, essential oils are concentrated extracts from plants and can be used for everything from aromatherapy and healing to insecticides.

What makes them dangerous to cats and other pets?

While safe for people, essential oils can be toxic to cats because of how quickly they can absorb through the mouth, skin or respiratory system. Cats are particularly at risk because they lack a specific enzyme in their liver that helps metabolize and eliminate certain toxins. This deficiency makes cats more susceptible to toxicity than other species.

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Essential oils are also very concentrated depending on the format you’re using. The most common household essential oils are typically aromatherapy devices like passive diffusers, sprays, candles or direct skin application. There are 4 types of passive diffusers you may have around your home:

  • Reed diffusers – Reed sticks soak up the oil and put its fragrance in the air
  • Heat diffusers – Plug in diffusers or candle burners that use heat to evaporate the oil into the air
  • Personal evaporative diffusers – Pendants or bracelets that use air flow to diffuse the aroma
  • Motorized diffusers – use a flan to blow through a filter that’s been soaked with an essential oil

There are new types of diffusers on the market called active essential oil diffusers (nebulizing and ultrasonic diffusers are the most popular) that actually put particles of the oil into the air. These can be especially dangerous for cats because the droplets can collect on the cat’s fur and then become ingested when groomed off.

If you’re using any of these aromatherapy tools in your home, keep them well out of reach of your cat. Ingestion could occur if your cat knocks the diffuser over and breathing in too closely could cause respiratory irritation. If you apply essential oils directly to your skin, take extra caution to ensure your cat does not lick that area and you do not get it on their fur by accident.

Are all essential oils toxic?

Not necessary, but they all have the potential to be dangerous due to their high concentration. While not comprehensive, the Pet Poison Hotline has identified these oils to be the most toxic to cats:

  • Wintergreen
  • Oil of sweet birch
  • Citrus oil (d-limonene)
  • Pine oils
  • Ylang Ylang oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Clove oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Tea tree oil

What should I do if my cat was exposed to essential oils?

If you think your cat has come into contact with an essential oil, the first thing you want to do is quickly identify what the oil was and how you think your cat came into contact with it. If you can’t do this quickly or the symptoms are so severe that you don’t have time (ie respiratory distress, etc), then go immediately to the vet or closest emergency center. If possible, bring the packaging or product itself with you to the vet.

Either you or your vet can contact the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-764-7661 or the ASPCA Poison Control at 1-888-426-4435 for more information.

Treatment and outcome truly depend on which essential oil, how much, the concentration, and how your cat came into contact with it. For example, if the oil was on their fur or skin, but not ingested then a bath to remove the product for your cat’s coat may be the first part of the plan.

So can I use essential oils if I have a cat?

The safest answer is no because it’s just not worth the risk. However, with caution and extra care, essential oils can be safely used. Here are some tips to help keep your cat safe:

  • Remember to never apply any essential oil directly on your cat.
  • If you’re using oils directly on your skin, make sure the product dries thoroughly before you interact with you cat. Even after it’s dried, make sure your cat does not lick the area.
  • Keep cats out of rooms with diffusers if possible to help minimize the risk.
  • Never use essential oils, aromatherapy, or diffusers if you have a cat with any respiratory illness like asthma. The strong smells can trigger respiratory distress.

If your cat experiences respiratory distress, coughing, vomiting, drooling, unsteadiness, or watery eyes, seek immediate veterinary care. In the case of toxicity, the faster treatment is starter, the better the outcome is likely to be for your cat. For more information, visit ASPCA Poison Control or Pet Poison Helpline.