Your new diffuser emits the calming scent of lavender, your counters and floors gleam from a cleanser suffused with the uplifting odor of peppermint, and you’re thinking of placing a diffuser in your house—maybe with the cheering scent of lemon. But did you know that products like these, all made pleasing with the aromas of essential oils that have taken off in consumer use, could be toxic to your cat, and in some cases even lead to life-threatening reactions? Sometimes products recommended exclusively for cats contain potentially poisonous oils. Just a quick search online leads to recommendations for using cinnamon oil spray as an all-natural way to keep cats from certain areas in your home or garden. But not only will the scent fail to keep cats at bay, if the oil remains absorbable or breathable, it can also make your pet sick.
What’s good for you may not be good for your pet
Essential oils are organic compounds in plants reduced to a liquid form and used to enhance the fragrance of everything from cleaning products to perfumes and air fresheners, add flavorings to foods and beverages, work as disinfectants, and serve as alternative medicines for people. But these same aromatic ingredients can result in problems when our cats are exposed to them in high enough concentrations by breathing them in or absorbing them through their skin. A cat exposed to a toxic essential oil may vomit, drool, have tremors, exhibit a wobbly gait (ataxia), and suffer low heart rate and body temperature, respiratory distress, and even liver failure.
Common essential oils that could prove toxic in the wrong dose:
Concentration is key
Often, essential oils are watered down and mixed with other oils and liquids, leaving your cat free from harm. The diluted oils in cleaning products, for instance, won’t make your cat sick but in their concentrated form, they very well might. For instance, a cat walking through spilled oil, breathing in or standing directly under the mist of a concentrated oil product, or whose home has been treated in various spots with an “all natural” spray containing very concentrated oil may show signs of illness that require immediate veterinary attention. Depending on how sensitive your cat is to the particular oil will make a difference when it comes to its concentration. Never apply such oils directly to your cat’s skin (some websites suggest essential oils for felines who are feeling stressed, while others suggest they are good for prevention of flea infestation) or within your cat’s reach if there is potential for a spill.
Kittens and younger cats are more likely to get sick from a toxic dose of essential oil than a middle-aged cat. In addition, if your cat has respiratory issues, you might want to forego using a diffuser to dispense essential oils into the air — certainly not those known to be harmful to cats. Even without pre-existing respiratory issues, your cat may react to strong scents with anything from watery eyes and nose to nausea with accompanying drooling, vomiting, trouble breathing, and coughing.
How to proceed
Should you throw out all your cleaning and calming products made with essential oils? No. But it would be a good idea to discuss these household items with your veterinarian to see if they might be present in concentrations that could prove deleterious.
And if you want to use a diffuser containing an essential oil, perhaps you’ll want to consider limiting it to a certain room and keeping the door closed. Some models can deliver lots of tiny droplets into the air, and they can have a significant impact if they settle on your cat’s fur or favorite resting spots, becoming absorbed into your pet’s skin or, later, ingested during routine self-grooming.
Question from someone who does not go in for perfuming the home. My Burmese hates the smell of oranges – especially the peel – and runs off until the odour has dissipated (and I have washed my hands thoroughly). His housemate felines are not bothered at all. Can a cat have a bad reaction to natural smells as well as the ‘canned’ variety?
This is yet another example of misinformation on the topic of essential oil toxicity. I’m the only cat expert and essential oil expert in the world with over 30 years experience. It’s a complicated area made worse with the advent of MLM marketing, inadequate training, and adulteration of essential oils. I’ve used essential oils safely on my cats and they enjoy remarkable longevity. The public has the right to be informed by unbiased, science-based data. This isn’t it.