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What are essential oils?
Essential oils are plant-based oils obtained by plants by distillation or cold pressing. They contain a mixture of volatile chemical compounds, which become liquid at room temperature and quickly evaporate when heated. Essential oils are popular as a food flavouring, fragrance, insect repellents and for their therapeutic effects. But are essential oils safe for cats?
Surprisingly, there is not a great deal of research either for or against. Tea tree poisoning has been reported in three Turkish Angora cats, but there is only scant (and conflicting) information on this topic, to the point where I considered discarding this article idea. But due to the popularity of essential oils in the home doesn’t mean that it’s not an important topic to discuss.
Metabolising essential oils
First things first, cats are not small dogs or people. They have an altered metabolism, and as a result, drugs and other chemicals which are safe for humans and dogs can be toxic to cats. The liver is responsible for metabolising essential oils, and cats lack glucuronosyltransferase (UGT), which are enzymes necessary for the metabolisation of many substances. As a result, the half-life of essential oils is greater in cats, that is, the period required for the concentration or amount of compound in the body to be reduced by one-half which means that toxic levels can quickly build up in the liver and body.
Most of us are aware that many plants are toxic to cats, and it stands to reason that essential oils will be too. It is dangerous to assume that because something is natural, it is safe. People look for information on essential oils (or other natural therapies) to combat parasites because they are worried about using synthetic treatments. We must remember that there are many plants and substances which are natural also deadly (certain mushrooms, lilies, anthrax, to name a few).
How does exposure occur?
There are three potential routes for essential oils to enter the body — nose, skin and mouth.
- Nose: Inhalation of essential oils used in an oil burner or reed diffuser, or applied to the cat.
- Skin (dermal absorption): When an essential oil is applied to the cat’s fur or skin. The skin serves to protect the cat’s body from the outside world, but anything put on the skin is absorbed into the body (which is how nicotine patches work) and can be ingested when the cat grooms. A common mistake is to apply essential oils which are either toxic or undiluted.
- Ingestion: When a pet owner administers an essential oil, a cat licks essential oil in a burner, or ingestion during grooming.
- Hydrocarbons which are made up almost exclusively of terpenes (monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes).
- Oxygenated compounds which are mainly esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides.
Essential oils to avoid
The dose makes the poison, and that applies to essential oils, care must always be taken regardless of what type of essential oil you use. Some essential oils are safe to use in the home when diluted, but never directly apply neat essential oils to your cat and be careful with products which contain essential oils. If in any doubt, speak to your veterinarian first.
Essential oils to avoid:
- Citrus (all)
- Sweet birch
- Tea tree
- Ylang ylang
Symptoms of essential oil toxicity
- Watery eyes
- Respiratory distress (coughing, difficulty breathing, sneezing)
- Wobbly gait
- Skin irritation
- Decreased heart rate
- Jaundice (yellow gums) due to liver failure
- Pawing the face (if ingested orally)
Toxicity can occur from single-use, or it can develop slowly, over weeks and months.
Can I use essential oils around my cat?
Opinion is divided, the Canadial Veterinary Association state that while the risk of toxicity with vaporised essential oils is low, there may be an accumlative effect.
Do not use essential oils listed as toxic to cats. Remember too that a cat’s sense of smell is approximately 14 times better than ours, so what smells nice to us can be overpowering to a cat (or dog). Only use oils in a well-ventilated area.
- Never administer essential oils (diluted or neat) to the fur or skin or skin of a cat
- Never administer essential oils (diluted or neat) orally
- Wash your hands before petting a cat after you have been in contact with essential oils
- Avoid the use of essential oils on products or surfaces your cat may come into contact with or lick, that includes litter trays, cat bedding, toys and food and water bowls
- Diffuse essential oils in water when using an oil burner and only place in a well-ventilated room which you cat can leave
- Place oil burners in areas your cat can’t access to prevent spilling essential oils onto the fur or accidental burns from the candle, never leave candles unattended around cats
- Do not use essential oils to treat medical conditions or parasites in cats
- Use essential oils in moderation
- Only use therapeutic grade essential oils
- Do not use around kittens, pregnant, lactating cats or cats with underlying medical conditions, especially liver disease
- Watch your cat’s behaviour and if you notice any changes discontinue use
- See a veterinarian if medical symptoms develop