What is lavender?
- Common names: Common lavender, True lavender, English lavender
- Scientific names: Lavendula
- Toxic parts: All parts, especially the flowers and essential oils
- Toxic properties: Linalool and Linalyl acetate
Lavender is a popular garden perennial with 47 species, and also a popular essential oil. Essential oils are highly concentrated oils distilled from plants for use in oil burners, to scent candles and beauty products and as natural remedies. Lavender essential oils are used with people to treat:
- Sooth skin irritation and insect bites
- Wound healing (lavender has antibacterial properties)
- Sleep aid
Cats lack the liver enzyme glucuronyltransferase to process many substances which are completely safe for people. This means that it takes longer to eliminate toxins from the body, and can harm the liver.
How does lavender poisoning occur?
- Ingestion of any part of the lavender plant.
- Inhalation of essential oils used in an oil burner or reed diffuser or oils applied to the cat.
- Inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion of essential oils applied to the skin. While the skin serves to protect the cat’s body from the outside world, anything put on the skin is absorbed into the body and can be ingested when the cat grooms. Some data shows that lavender is effective in killing fleas; however, the risks of toxicosis outweigh the benefit.
Aside from toxicity, lavender essential oils can also irritate the cat’s skin and delicate mucous membranes of the mouth, leading to contact dermatitis and mouth ulcers.
Lavender exposure can cause problems such as gastrointestinal upset, respiratory difficulty and contact dermatitis.
Symptoms of toxicity depend on the amount and type of exposure.
- Loss of appetite
- Central nervous system depression (lethargy, drowsiness)
- Ataxia (wobbly gait)
- Mouth ulcers
Dermal (skin) contact:
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you including the type of lavender ingested (fresh, essential oils, oil burner or reed diffuser), the amount of lavender/lavender oil your cat was exposed to, the age and weight of your cat and any underlying medical conditions. If you know what type of lavender the cat has ingested (such as essential oils, potpourri or a product that contains lavender), bring along a sample or the packaging.
Baseline tests: Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis. These can provide helpful information on liver and kidney function as well as the level of dehydration if the cat has been vomiting or has diarrhea.
If lavender oil has been applied to the skin or fur, bathe the cat with warm water and dishwashing detergent (the type you use in the sink, not the dishwasher). Do not induce vomiting in a cat who has ingested lavender unless instructed to do so.
Treatment will depend on the severity of symptoms and when ingestion occurred. If ingestion was recent, the veterinarian can administer medication to induce vomiting to remove any plant matter from the gastrointestinal tract. Activated charcoal can help bind to any remaining lavender and prevent further absorption.
Fluid loss from vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration which can be resolved with fluid therapy. This can also help to remove any toxins from the body via the urine. Anti-emetics may be prescribed to control vomiting, and the cat will be fed a bland diet for several days to rest the gastrointestinal tract.
If the biochemical profile shows liver derangements, the veterinarian will prescribe liver protectants such as S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and silymarin, an extract of milk thistle which acts as an anti-oxidant and free radical scavenger.
I know as cat lovers, we all want the very best for our cats, but a rising problem reported by veterinarians is toxicosis and/or skin damage due to the use of natural products on cats. There is no doubt that the over-use of man-made chemicals has a detrimental effect on our cats (and people), but we must carefully weigh this up against the risk of natural alternatives. Natural doesn’t automatically mean it is safe.
When looking into alternative treatments, the best place to start is with your veterinarian. Only last week I spoke to a veterinarian who said she routinely sees cats who have been treated at home with lavender. She also listed tea tree and pennyroyal as other common toxins she routinely sees in her practice.
- Do not use lavender essential oil on the skin or fur of the cat.
- If using lavender essential oil in an oil burner (and I don’t recommend it), dilute it in water, only use it in a well-ventilated room and allow ensure there is a scent-free room for your cat to move to. Cats have twice as many olfactory receptors as humans, so what may smell nice to us can be overpowering to a cat.