I have a small, elegant burner for essential oils that my son gave me for Mother’s Day years ago.
I was very into aromatherapy back then and believed it was a much safer alternative to commercial and chemical room sprays.
But natural, as I learned, isn’t always safe, and felines and essential oils don’t always mix.
Know Your Cat
There’s a lot of concern and confusion on this subject. The problem with essential oils, says clinical herbalist Sara Thornton, is that animals process them differently than people do.
Furthermore, you can’t say “what works for dogs works for cats” — because it doesn’t. Felines have a higher sensitivity to the oils than canines do, Thornton says. “Cats especially do not have the enzymes necessary to process these oils. So they have tremors, seizures, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, drooling and death — sometimes all at the same time.”
Some cat breeds “are notoriously sensitive to essential oils,” explains Thornton, who owns Ravenswood Natural Health in Simsbury, Connecticut. And breed aside, not all cats are necessarily going to have the same reaction. For instance, she knows a woman who makes room sprays, and her “14-pound monster cat” is fine with the oils; the cat next door, however, “gets really lethargic and has severe respiratory issues” when exposed to them.
“You need to be able to know your cat,” Thornton maintains. “It’s not even about size or weight. It’s literally about how sensitive your animal is.”
Healing With Oils
Essential oils are also used medically on cats and dogs. Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, a longtime veterinarian and Petful columnist, has her concerns about this. They should, she emphasizes, “be treated with respect and only used in the diluted form and be advised by a person trained in their use with animals.” In other words, don’t try to wing it on your own.
Dr. Elliott worries about people “equat[ing] essential oils with being ‘harmless’ because they are natural. In fact, this is far from the truth. Cats can absorb the active part of the many oils through their skin as well as by mouth. Some essential oils contain substances from the phenolic acid family, which are extremely toxic to cats.” Since they “lack many of the metabolic pathways that break down the natural chemicals within oils,” the result is frequently “toxicity and poisoning.”
But do the oils work on cats? Dr. Elliott acknowledges that “some essential oils do seem to have a short-lived beneficial effect” but that “this often wears off within hours, making regular reapplications essential … and who wants to spritz their cats with liquid every few hours?” Note: Your cat might have a few reservations about being spritzed that often as well.
Dr. Elliott also wonders about their effectiveness in treating parasites: “Using an essential oil as a flea repellent at best could do no harm but at worst could poison the cat, and they’ll still have a flea infestation.”
The Good, the Bad and the Problematic
Oils that are found to be toxic to cats include:
- Tea tree
- Bergamot/bee balm
Safer oils include:
- Chamomile: It relaxes your cat, and, as my vet once pointed out, you can drink it if your cat’s stress is stressing you out as well. A win-win situation.
- Cedarwood: It keeps the flea circus from opening for business on a cat near you. (See Dr. Elliott’s comments.)
- Rosemary: This, too, is considered good for flea control. Hartz Mountain also used to put out a salve for cracked paw pads that contained rosemary. None of my cats ever had an adverse reaction to it.
Lavender oil gets both good and bad reviews. It is a known relaxant: My vet told me to dab a little on the back of Hawkeye’s head (where he couldn’t lick it off) when he was going after a couple of new cats. There were no ill effects, and it did seem to relax him.
Cats can nibble on fresh lavender safely. According to writer Jeff Katz, the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) views these “‘nibbles as fine, but it’s best that your cat not eat too much lavender, or any other herb for that matter.”
“Lavender oil,” Katz continues, “which is found in some cat litter and cat toys, is also safe when added to products designed for your cat.” He, like Dr. Elliott, recommends checking with your vet “if you are thinking of using concentrated lavender oil for aromatherapy or some other purpose.”
This cat is head over heels for this lavender sachet:
Use Common Sense With Essential Oils
As usual, there are no simple answers. I do, however, find myself intrigued by Robert Tisserand’s take on the subject. Tisserand has been working in the aromatherapy field for 40 years and is an internationally recognized expert; he has also had a number of cats over the years.
“In general, making long lists of specific oils that are allegedly ‘safe’ or ‘toxic’ to cats doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Tisserand writes. He advises caution but adds that “it’s more about overall exposure. You can diffuse essential oils around cats safely, so long as there’s good ventilation, you only diffuse small amounts for limited periods of time and your cat has the freedom to leave the room if it wants.”
He has only occasionally used essential oils on his cats. “Sensibly used,” he writes, “most essential oils are safe to use in pet grooming products or for low-level, intermittent diffusion.”
So am I keeping my aromatherapy burner? Definitely. Am I going to be extra vigilant about the oils I use and how I use them? Absolutely. There’s too much at stake not to do so.