One of the most interesting questions I’ve gotten lately is “Are essential oils safe for cats?”
I am neither a veterinarian nor an aromatherapist. I’m up front about that right off the bat because I want you to know what you’re getting into. I use essential oils and through my acupuncture schooling and my own trial and error, I’ve learned a lot.
The popularity of essential oils has grown enormously over the past couple decades. Even if you haven’t used them yourself a family member, a friend or a co-worker has probably talked about them with you. You can find essential oils everywhere from metaphysical and herbal shops to dollar stores these days.
Along with the increased popularity of other CAM (complementary and alternative medicines) modalities, people have taken essential oils out of the domain of perfumes and back into medicine. But along with this, we have seen an uptick in “adverse events” or injuries as well.
This is common; statistically speaking the more people are utilizing a modality, the more injuries are going to happen. But for such a gentle medicine there seems to be a disproportionate amount of injuries and this usually happens when people see a gentle medicine as safe. It is safe, but you need to still be treating it as a medicine.
One of my biggest rules for natural health care is: if you are going to treat something as a medicine you have to recognize that it will have side effects. There is no remedy on this planet that will be both effective and not have a side-effects or the possibility of an adverse reaction. No matter how gentle a medicine is, respect the possibility that when used wrong, it can make a patient sick.
Essential oils can be harmful to cats, dogs and other pets
A few months ago stories like these were floating around my Reddit front page.
One common argument is that people are using poor quality or cheap essential oils filled with “toxins” or adulterants and that certain brands of essential oils are free of these “toxins.” Saying “our essential oils won’t cause problems because they’re more pure” is incorrect because it’s the purity of essential oils is the problem.
The active component of the oil that has a therapeutic effect for humans is what is harmful to cats, dogs and pets. The more an oil is refined the more active components are present per drop if the oil is not diluted properly before use.
How are essential oils toxic to cats?
Cats process chemicals differently than humans and dogs. One notable difference is that cats lack an enzyme known as glucuronosyltransferase or GST. This important enzyme helps with metabolism but also helps protect animals from scents and is usually found in the liver.
The type of compound that cats are most sensitive to are phenols. Phenols and pheonolic compounds are any compound with a hydroxyl group linked directly to a benzene ring. Many of these compounds are found in essential oils, and make up a component of their scent.
But since cats lack GST, their major detoxification organ can’t handle the phenols in essential oils. The compounds will damage their liver, making them more susceptible to further poisoning from the phenolic compounds as well as other toxins they would otherwise be able to handle with a healthy liver.
Another compound that cats are sensitive to are ketones. While you may be familiar with the word due to the popularity of the ketogenic diet, ketones are different than the ketone bodies the dieters are trying to produce.
Ketone bodies are water soluble molecules our liver produces by breaking up fatty acids during periods it needs extra energy like low carb diets, high intensity workouts, starvation and low calorie intake. Ketones are an organic compound formed by an oxygen atom that has a double bond with a carbon atom. The simplest form of a ketone is acetone, a popular industrial solvent.
The third compound cat owners should aware of is d-limonene. Like phenols, d-limonene compounds are processed by the liver. If your cat’s liver is compromised their ability to metabolize otherwise safe compounds is impacted and they can become sick and possibly die.
The final scent component that is toxic to cats is alpha-pinene and is found in many of the pine scents.
Signs of essential oil toxicity in cats
Occasional exposure to toxic compounds may not be an issue so if your cat has gotten into your shower after you used your tea tree oil shampoo, don’t worry. But take a look at your natural cleaning products – many use high phenol and ketone compounds because they’re so good at disinfecting.
Signs that your cat has possibly had a toxic exposure and should be immediately taken to the vet are:
• difficulty breathing
• changes in behavior or play patterns
• fatigue or low energy
• low heart rate
• low body temperature
• changes to sleep patterns
• changes to eating patterns
• wobbling or muscle weakness, (otherwise known as ataxia)
• liver failure
With prompt treatment your fur baby will probably be ok but take these signs seriously! Liver failure leads to death and even if treated can result in lifelong consequences.
Essential oil safety for cats
So what can you use?
1) Oils that do not contain the above compounds
- clary sage
- lavender (high grade, not perfume grade)
- roman chamomile
2) Safe oils in appropriate dilutions
Never use a dilution that is stronger than 1% essential oil within the carrier oil
3) Use only under the guidance of a veterinarian
Like with people, you should always check with your cat’s primary care provider before starting any intervention.
4) Listen to your cat
I joke with people that my favorite patients to massage are kids and animals because “they’re the most honest.” They don’t put up with an intervention if it’s making them uncomfortable and they don’t hide symptoms. Even if you’re using a “safe” oil, if your cat is showing any of the above symptoms of possible liver issues stop use immediately and make an appointment with your vet.
The Main Take-aways
- Many recommendations for essential oil use around cats ignores the physical makeup of the oils and this can negatively impact their health
- Avoid oils high in phenols, ketones, d-limonene and alpha-pinese
- Refining oils does not take this compounds out as these are the active compounds of the oils
- Talk to your vet
- Stop any oil use at the first signs of illness
- Use only if properly diluted
Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian and any interventions with your animals should always be discussed with your vet. I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and Links
2008 National Health Statistics report on the use of Complementary and Alternative Medicines
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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