The growing popularity of essential oils for health, ambiance, and behavior modification has led to real feline-safety concerns. The problem is that cats have a unique set up for enzymatically metabolizing many compounds in their liver, so something safe to use around dogs and humans may still be toxic to your cat.
Among the known toxic-to-cats essential oils are:
-Citrus oil (d-limonene)
-Oil of sweet birch
-Oil of wintergreen
-Tea tree oil
-Ylang Ylang oil
However, it’s important to check with your veterinarian and never assume an oil is safe just because it isn’t listed here. Both the ASPCA Poison Control Center and Pet Poison HelpLine recommend avoiding the use of essential oils around your cat unless specifically approved by your veterinarian for aromatherapy.
Contact Through Skin and Air
Safety concerns relate to different modes of contact with related symptoms of toxicity. For starters, never apply any essential oil to your cat’s skin. Many oils can have a local dermal irritant effect, especially in areas with minimal hair, such as the groin. Some oils may be absorbed through the skin, plus cats may lick off and ingest oils on their hair coat.
Many essential oils are diffused into the air with an “active” diffuser, which means droplets of oil are put into the air. If she gets close enough, the cat may get oils on her coat. She may also inhale some of the oil droplets. According to the Pet Poison HelpLine, “Liver failure can potentially develop depending on the type of essential oil that was used and the dose that the cat was exposed to.”
With passive diffusers, your cat is unlikely to get oil on her coat, but she can inhale the compounds, causing respiratory irritation. This is true of any strong odor/fragrance. Watch for signs of distress: labored breathing, fast breathing, panting, coughing, or wheezing.
If you see any of the red-alert warning signs, something is not right. Your cat should immediately be removed from the room with the odor and given fresh air to breathe. If your cat does not recover rapidly, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.
Not All Oils Are Bad
All warnings noted, essential oils are sometimes used for cats, including for parasite control. In these cases, the site and frequency of application, and the amount applied, are important. Always look for the highest quality and purity of essential oils, if you use them, and check with your veterinarian as a precaution to be certain the oil is safe.
If you suspect toxicity from the use of essential oils, be sure to note how the oils were used, the brand, concentration, and exact combination of oils when you contact your veterinarian or an animal poison control center.