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Essential oils are having a moment, turning up in everything from cleaning and personal products to medical treatments and more. But what about cat products? Are there essential oil products for cats? And are essential oils suitable for cats? Here's what cat parents need to know.
Essential Oils: What Are They?
Essential oils are extracts of plants, such as rose and frankincense, known for their aromatic and/or medicinal properties and used in personal and household products. Note that these are different from essential fatty acids, which are important nutrients found in your cat’s food.
Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, the practice of inhaling diffused oil or applying it topically to the skin, such as during a massage. The Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Trust explains that the scents and chemicals in the oils can “produce different emotional and physiological reactions” that may be helpful in reducing pain, relieving tension, and improving mood.
Personal and Household Use
With an uptick in online retailers and a renewed interest in natural health care, essential oils are more accessible than ever. People are incorporating them into everyday use in lots of different ways: cleaning sprays, hand sanitisers, fragrances, laundry detergents and skin moisturisers, to name just a few.
What does this all have to do with cats? When you have feline housemates, you want to create a safe household for cats, which means keeping harmful substances, such as essential oils, out of reach.
Essential Oils Toxic to Cats
Much like some common houseplants that are toxic for cats, Cats Protection warns that the majority of essential oils are harmful to your cat. This is especially true when they’re very concentrated, but even small amounts can be toxic. According to the PDSA the following can be especially dangerous:
- Citrus oils
- Sweet birch
- Tea tree
- Ylang ylang
Essential oils can be bought individually, but they often appear in other household products too, such as insect repellent and paint thinner/white spirit/”turps” (turpentine is an essential oil). Products like these can be extremely toxic to cats, notes International Cat Care.
Tea Tree Oil: A Special Warning
Tea tree oil in particular is very hazardous to cats. Tea tree oil spray is often promoted as a “natural” flea remedy for pets, but The Veterinary Nurse journal warns that tea tree oil can cause skin problems, serious neurological side effects, and even death in both cats and dogs. The risk is especially high when the oil is used undiluted, with just a few drops reported to have caused side effects. To be safe, never use tea tree oil on your cat (or your dog!).
Are Any Essential Oils Safe for Cats?
In short, there are no safe essential oils for cats. Cats Protection explains that exposure to essential oils can cause organ damage, liver failure, seizures and death in cats. This might happen via:
- Skin exposure, e.g. rubbing or spraying oil onto the cat’s fur/skin.
- Ingestion, e.g. the cat licking the oil from its fur/skin/paws or eating/licking something containing oils.
- Inhalation, e.g. the cat breathing in oils from a spray or cleaning product.
However, there are precautions you can take if you wish to use essential oils in the home. The PDSA and Cats Protection caution that products that spread essential oils into the air, such as reed diffusers, plug-ins, nebulisers and ultrasonic diffusers, may be risky as your cat can inhale the oils. Droplets of diffused oils can also land on your cat’s fur, so they could ingest oil while grooming. If you do use diffuser products, the PDSA recommends using them only in rooms where your cat can be kept out, and making sure the room is well-ventilated before allowing them back in.
Try to use cleaning and personal products without essential oils when possible. If you do use essential oils, make sure to dilute them to minimise the risk, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards before you touch your cat. Cats are great at getting onto high surfaces and into small spaces, so make sure to store essential oils (and any products that contain them) out of your cat’s reach.
Finally, never use essential oils as a flea repellent or treatment for your cat; ask your vet for a recommendation or prescription product instead. If in doubt about using essential oils safely, speak with your vet for advice.
When to Call the Vet
According to the PDSA, symptoms of essential oil poisoning include:
- Dribbling or drooling excessively.
- Shaking or having tremors.
- Walking unsteadily.
- Seeming lethargic.
- Having difficulty breathing or wheezing.
- Having seizures.
Contact your vet or an emergency clinic immediately if you suspect your cat has ingested an essential oil and discontinue the use of any essential oil product you think may be causing their symptoms.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mum, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA and Brana Bonder, B.S, M. S