Essential oils are a kitty no-no. Here's what to do if your favorite feline is licks or touches them.

By Brendan Howard
August 24, 2020
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Essential oils—concentrated extracts produced by steaming or pressing the "essence" out of plants and flowers—smell good. The comforting scent of chamomile, the warm and spicy power of ginger, the gentle, green aroma of lavender; scents are a big reason essential oils are a growing business in the United States as fragrances and ingredients in thousands of products.

Companies and fans of these oils also tout possible health benefits for people and pets, including managing anxiety and depression in human beings and repelling fleas or managing separation anxiety for pets.

So, is it safe to use essential oils in your home or on your pets if you have cats? Are essential oils—diffused into the air through diffusers or warmers, or added to skin or clothing—bad for your feline housemates? Unfortunately, veterinarians say yes.

How Cats Can Be Hurt by Essential Oils

Essential oils are sold and used in a variety of concentrations. Some essential oils include only 1 percent to 20 percent of the particular plant essence. Other products contain as much as 100 percent of a plant's essence. That's a strong scent.

In addition, the heightened skin sensitivity of animals like cats, 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.

"Animals with underlying health issues may also be at higher risk," warns Tina Wismer, DVM, MS, DABVT, DABT, a veterinarian and senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. These at-risk pets may struggle to metabolize the oil once it's absorbed on the skin or through broken skin because cats lack important enzymes to break down the phenols in some oils. Cats may also have difficulty breathing well with essential oils in the air. 

Credit: Eric Jeon

What Can Happen to Cats Exposed to Essential Oils

In cases handled by ASPCA Animal Poison Control, cats reacting badly to skin exposure of essential oils showed signs of:

  • Ataxia, or unsteady walking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Changes in behavior
  • Hypothermia
  • 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 diffused in the air.

Many users question if tea tree and peppermint oils are safe for cats. Pennyroyal and melaleuca (tea tree) oils have been implicated in some severe cases of seizures and liver damage. Some oils, like tea tree oil and peppermint oil, are more toxic to cats than others in smaller amounts. Other essential oils particularly dangerous to cats either ingested or exposed on the skin include:

  • Cinnamon
  • Citrus
  • Peppermint
  • Pine
  • Sweet birch
  • Wintergreen
  • Ylang ylang

If you suspect your cat has ingested these or any other essential oils, or has gotten essential oils on his skin, call your vet and bring any packaging from the product with you to the veterinary hospital.

Keep Cats Safe From Essential Oils

Wismer and the team at ASPCA Animal Poison Control offer these guidelines for minimizing the risk to cats and other pets from essential oils:

  • 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," Wismer 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 the feline 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 and use diffusers and warmers in rooms without cats for short periods of time, and you should be OK.

"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.