With their sensitive skin and noses, it pays to practice caution when using essential oils around cats.

Essential oils are known for their use in aromatherapy and alternative medicine. They're made from the highly concentrated scents of plants, herbs, and flowers, which are steamed or pressed to extract the "essence" out of the plant. Fans of essential oils say they have health benefits including stress relief, energy and mood boosting abilities, for use as digestive aids, and even as topical agents for pain relief.

But while herbal remedies have been used for centuries, many of the potential benefits touted as natural solutions have yet to be proven in scientific studies, or have not yet been approved by the FDA for therapeutic use. And for cat owners, it's best to use caution around essential oils, since eating or being exposed to many essential oils can actually be toxic to cats.

cat sitting next to an essential oil diffuser; how to keep cats save around essential oils
Credit: Daily Paws / Grace Canaan

Is It Possible to Safely Use Essential Oils Around Cats?

Essential oils might smell great—after all, who doesn't love a scent-infused bath bomb or an invigorating fragrance diffused into the air? But because many types of essential oils can pose a risk to cats in the home, it's important to use them safely around your feline friend.

We asked Tina Wismer, a veterinarian and senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, for her expert advice to help pet parents learn how to safely use essential oils around their cat. The number one rule? Be cautious.

"The best way to avoid exposing your pets to dangerous substances is always to err on the side of caution and by 'pet-proofing' your space," Wismer says. 

To help pet parents create a safe space for cats and essential oils to coexist, Wismer and the team at ASPCA Animal Poison Control offer these guidelines for minimizing the risk to cats and other pets:

  • Don't apply highly concentrated oils to cats, dogs or other animals. It can be difficult to know for sure how diluted or concentrated an essential oil is, so Wismer doesn't recommend applying it to cats: "Due to the variability in concentration and quality, it's best to completely avoid directly applying them to your pet," she says. 
  • Avoid essential oil diffusers if cats or other pets have underlying health problems, especially respiratory issues. Never use diffusers around birds, who are particularly sensitive to breathing problems.
  • Keep essential oil containers, diffusers, and warmers out of cats' reach. 
  • Give cats and other animals easy ways to leave an area in your home if the smell of a diffuser or warmer is too strong for them. While cats' sense of smell isn't as sensitive as dogs, it's more sensitive than yours.
  • Keep diffusers out of rooms where cats or other animals groom themselves. Diffusers and warmers put essential oils into the air, which can then land on a cat's fur.
  • Keep essential oils off cats' fur and skin. Use diffusers and warmers in rooms without cats for short periods of time, and you should be OK.

Are There Any Benefits to Using Essential Oils for Your Pets?

Some companies advertise the benefits of using essential oils as natural solutions for cats and dogs. While claims range from repelling fleas and mosquitos from the home with oils like citronella and lavender, to helping to calm animals with essence of chamomile, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these products—and many show up on the list of essential oils to avoid using around cats.

And while natural solutions like essential oils may help keep the occasional flea away, most vets agree that the best preventative measure to keep your pets safe from parasites like fleas is a monthly medicine that works as a preventative treatment.

Their size, sensitive skin, and fastidious grooming habits mean that essential oils pose a bigger problem for cats than dogs. So just because your vet gave the OK for something to use around your canine companion doesn't mean the same rule applies for your kitties. As with any new substance, it's best to ask your veterinarian before using anything on or near your cat.

What Are the Risks of Using Essential Oils Around Cats? 

The main danger posed to cats by essential oils is respiratory irritation, which can cause a burning sensation in the cat's nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. If your cat is experiencing these signs of respiratory distress, the Pet Poison Helpline advises that you move the cat to fresh air as soon as possible. If their symptoms do not immediately improve, a visit to the vet should be in order.

Essential oils are sold and used in very different concentrations. Some include only 1 to 20 percent of the particular plant essence, and others have as high as 100 percent of a plant's essence. The risk of adverse effects of essential oils increase when concentrations are higher. Be sure to properly dilute concentrated oils before using them. In addition, the sensitive skin of your cat—as well as any other small pets like rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters—may make them more prone to allergic or toxic reactions if essential oils are applied to skin or accidentally spilled there.

If your cat has underlying health conditions, like asthma or allergies, they may also be at higher risk for poisoning, Wismer warns. It's best to avoid using diffusers or sprays that make the droplets airborne, since these cats may have difficulty breathing well with essential oils in the air. But you may also want to avoid using essential oils as a topical agent on your cat as well, since at-risk pets may struggle to metabolize the oil once it's absorbed on the skin or through broken skin. This is because cats lack important enzymes to break down the phenols in some oils

In cases handled by ASPCA Animal Poison Control, cats who have a reaction to skin exposure to essential oils showed signs of unsteady walking, muscle weakness, depression, changes in behavior, and even hypothermia or collapse. Cats who drank essential oils experienced vomiting, diarrhea, and decreased breathing and heart rate. Pneumonia is also a possibility for cats who breathe in the essential oils that are diffused in the air.

Which Essential Oils Are Dangerous to Cats?

Certain essential oils are more dangerous to cats than others. Pennyroyal and melaleuca (tea tree) oils have been implicated in some severe cases of seizures and liver damage. Some oils, like tea tree oil, are more toxic than others in smaller amounts.

Other essential oils that are considered particularly dangerous to cats when either ingested or exposed on the skin include cinnamon, citrus, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, wintergreen, and ylang ylang.

If you suspect your cat has ingested these or any other essential oils, or has gotten essential oils on her skin, call your veterinarian and bring any packaging from the product with you to the veterinary hospital. And like any new ingredient you introduce to your cat's environment, it's better to be safe than sorry: give your vet a call if you have questions about what kinds of essential oils are safe to use around your cat.