Whether or not essential oils are safe for cats has been a question I get asked a lot by my readers. And it's a completely valid question too, truly are essential oils safe for cats? And are there any safety precautions to keep in mind while using them around our feline friends?
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Here, at Floppycats, we aim to always provide you with information that you need and that'll be beneficial for your cats. And so, what better way to get the most authentic information than to bring in a veterinarian to answer them for us?
With us today for this article is Dr. Sarah Brandon. She is a practicing Veterinarian and CEO of Canna Companion, where she oversees the research, development, and manufacturing of hemp pet supplements.
Dr. Brandon also maintains a small feline-only mobile practice in Washington state, focusing on a balanced, holistic approach for her patients which includes nutrition & herbal, and essential oil supplementation.
It is her belief that the best healthcare plans incorporate the specific needs of the household, rather than only the patient.
During the past two decades, researching herbal therapies in clinical practice became her passion, and the experience and data gained were used to launch a line of supplements designed to support a balanced cannabis receptor system
Outside of her professional life, Dr. Brandon enjoys backpacking with her two rescued Belgian Malinois, playing fetch and laser tag with her three youngest cats, or curling up with a good book and one of four senior cats. Other hobbies include birdwatching, listening to Blues & Jazz, and making herbal teas from plants grown in her organic garden.
So rest assured that you're in good hands today with veterinarian-approved information to keep your cats happy and safe. In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about essential oils for cats, and whether essential oils are safe for cats from our guest Dr. Sarah Brandon.
What are Essential Oils?
First things first, what are essential oils anyway?
Essential oils (EO) are concentrated liquids containing plant-based compounds (terpenes) which are used by plants to communicate, as insect attractants, pesticidal agents, repellents, and immune modulators; some botanists and chemists now consider essential oils true plant hormones.
They are what give plants their odors. EOs are also called volatile oils and are extracted (usually) via steam distillation. Due to the structure of some terpenes, chemical solvents are used to remove the compounds from their parent cells within flowers and leaves.
Reputable companies responsibly source the plants and make sure the end product is free from harmful chemicals.
Essential oils are available in a variety of forms, including pure essential oils, air fresheners, room sprays, flavorings, herbal remedies, bath and personal products, home cleaning products, candles, as well as active diffusers, and passive diffusers.
How Do Essential Oils Put My Cat at Risk?
Essential oils have the ability to be toxic to cats, whether taken internally, applied to the skin, or simply inhaled, according to established research.
Exposure may result in severe liver damage, respiratory failure, seizures, and even death. Cats lack certain enzymes necessary for the proper processing of various compounds found in essential oils, particularly phenols.
Unfortunately, the liver is the organ most susceptible to failure because of these phenolic compounds, and these are naturally occurring in plants. This leads to high concentrations in essential oils, making them a potential problem for your pet.
Candles, liquid potpourri products, room sprays, aromatherapy, and essential oil diffusers are all sources of airborne essential oils. Diffused oil droplets can land on your cat or kitten's fur, which they can then ingest when grooming.
In general, if you can smell the aroma of the oil, it means there is oil in the air, which can cause respiratory distress.
What are the Symptoms of Essential Oil Poisoning in Cats?
If you're using essential oils around your cat, it's important to know and understand the signs and symptoms of your pet suffering from essential oil toxicity.
Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Respiratory irritation and distress, including difficulty breathing or pants, coughing or wheezing, or a burning sensation in the nose or throat.
- Signs of physical irritation such as watery nose or eyes, and redness of the lips, gums, or skin.
- Gastrointestinal signs such as diarrhea, vomiting, or drooling.
- Symptoms of liver damage such as frequent urination and thirst, yellowing of the eyes, or bruising. Severe poisoning can also lead to liver failure.
- Other signs and symptoms include muscle tremors or wobbliness, low heart rate, low body temperature, lethargy, and difficulty walking.
Which Essential Oils are Toxic to Cats?
Knowing which pure essential oils you can use around your cat and which ones you can't is something every pet parent should know.
Here are the essential oils that are poisonous to cats:
- Black pepper oil
- Cinnamon oil (bark or leaf)
- Clove oil
- Eucalyptus oil
- Oil of Sweet Birch
- Oregano oil
- Pennyroyal oil
- Peppermint oil
- Pine oils
- Rosemary oil
- Spearmint oil
- Sweet birch oil
- Tea Tree oil
- Ylang Ylang oil
Which Essential Oils for Safe for Cats?
The most common pet-safe essential oils for cats are:
- Frankincense oil
- Lavender oil
Apart from these, as a veterinarian, I recommend checking out the GRAS status which is a good place to start but many of these are on that list.
My go-to start with equal parts of the following blends, adding more oils as needed:
- Copaiba, frankincense, grapefruit
- Lavender, lemon, geranium
- Bergamot, black spruce, German chamomile
- Lime, red mandarin, ylang ylang
- Sandalwood, sage, vetiver
- Catnip, fir, ginger, marjoram, peppermint
So, Are Essential Oils Safe for Cats?
Yes, as a general rule, though one needs to make sure the oils used are high quality, applications are in very low doses, and you're using an essential oil suitable for cats.
When using an oil, it needs to be diluted and used in the right way. Due to the dose-dependent nature of the toxicity of essential oils, the more concentrated the product, the more dangerous it can be.
Your veterinarian can provide guidance on the proper carrier oils to use for your pet as well as dosage and dilution recommendations for various oils.
Carrier oils include oils such as coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, almond oil, and grapeseed oil.
Most pet-friendly oils require at least 1 drop of pure essential oil to 50 drops of pure carrier oil for proper dilution.
Remember that even safe essential oils have the ability to irritate the airways when inhaled. You should always check with your vet before using any essential oil product on your pet, including shampoos, sprays, and calming treats.
How to Properly Dilute Essential Oils for Cats?
There are many application methods in order to meet ‘very low doses' that are necessary to keep things safe:
- Diffusion: provides the lowest dose possible; water-based is preferred; start with 1-4 drops undiluted oil/blend and leave the diffuser in a room the cat likes, but can leave if/when desired.
- Petting/massage: this provides aromatherapy, and oral ingestion via normal grooming, and enhances the human-cat bond; place 1-2 drops of diluted oil/blend on your palms immediately prior to the session.
- Other topical applications: 1-2 drops of a diluted or undiluted oil/blend can be placed inside carriers, on bedding or cat furniture, on collars/harnesses, and spot-applied to the cat.
What Can Essential Oils Help With?
Sounds like hocus pocus. (laughing) It’s not hocus pocus and while it’s hard to believe something measured in 0.0001% (10 ppm) could be helpful or harmful, it is true nonetheless.
We know topical applications of EO rich in the terpene linalool provide excellent antimicrobial properties, and sometimes it only takes 1 drop from a toothpick!
Studies have also shown drug resistant bacteria consistently respond to essential oils. We also know cats respond very well to some essentials oil … catnip is famous for this due to its nepetalactone (terpene) content.
These are the easy examples, and essential oils can be beneficial for most conditions: cardiovascular concerns, pulmonary (synthetic terpenes have been used for decades in bronchodilator inhalers), musculoskeletal, neurological, psychological, etc.
Can Essential Oils Kill Cats?
Yes, though usually secondary to low quality and/or high dosage administration.
Tea tree oil has a bad rap on this front due to some horrible instances where cats were doused in full-strength oil. 1 drop of high-quality tea tree oil in a diffused room (alone or other oils) can be used safely in most cats.
That said, it’s best when starting out to use low doses and keep a list of what you and your cat like and don't like, including positive (intentionally getting up to lay nearer a diffuser) and negative reactions (knocking the diffuser over before hightailing it out of the room), amount used, etc.
How Do I Get Started with Essential Oils?
First, see if there is a local veterinarian who is practiced with essential oils use in cats. A good place to start that search is via Veterinary Medical Aromatherapy Association.
Second, educate yourself a bit more: First Aid with Veterinary Medical Aromatherapy & ADR II are excellent home resources. Then pick a few oils which make sense for your household’s needs and give diffusion or petting/massage a try.
You can start simply with a product like KittyBoost (not for diffusion) or diffuse a well-tolerated anti-inflammatory blend made from 1 drop each copaiba, frankincense & grapefruit.
If holiday anxiety is an issue, consider a blend of German chamomile, lavender, and bergamot. For GI upset consider peppermint, ginger, and marjoram.
And just to make your cat happy, try a few drops of catnip oil. None of these are likely to trigger adverse reactions and provide a pleasant aroma to the home.
Reader Questions about Essential Oils for Cats:
This interview with Dr. Sarah Brandon should cover most of everything you need to know when you're trying to determine if an essential oil is safe for your cat.
But I know we all have our specific questions, and that's how we learn so much more. Here are some top questions we received from our readers that Dr. Sarah Brandon was very kind to answer:
Question from our reader Suzanne Getson:
"I would be interested to know if your vet has any suggestions, cautions, or advice regarding the use of essential oils in the home - either diffused or for cleaning. I have researched this so much and the information is still so conflicting."
Dr. Brandon: I only clean with essential oils and have used essential oils in our household for years. For cleaning, I typically have several single-oil water bottles ready to go and use 10-20 drops/240 ml bottle of lavender, peppermint, and citrus (lemon, grapefruit, orange).
Diffused blends vary daily and cats who seem drawn to whatever is ‘brewing’ will make their way to that room for a time, then go to another area of the home when finished. Blended products like Thieves are also options.
Bottom line: cleaning requires chemicals of some kind, whether natural terpenes or synthetic compounds and diluted, high-quality essential oils are often far safer than synthetics when we get into comparative studies based on mg compound per kg body weight, exposure route, etc.
Cautions: unless directed by a practiced veterinarian who is comfortable with feline EO use and overseeing your cat’s care, never give an essential oil by mouth.
Never -- no matter who says what -- douse, bathe, rub over their whole body, or otherwise heavily dose your cat. 1 drop does wonders; 1 bottle may kill.
Question from our reader Nancy Crawford-Ward:
"I had no idea some were harmful until my cat spent a weekend in an oxygen chamber. At the time, the vet chalked it up to asthma."
Dr. Brandon: There is no question here, but could you please comment? I am so sorry to hear this news and hope your cat is okay.
Some terpenes can trigger bronchoconstriction and mucus production, mimicking feline asthma. Similarly, when low-quality products are used, impurities can cause a slew of problems from lower airway disease to the immune system to seizures and death.
This can occur when using those compounds designed to help open the airways and dry out mucus production.
Tea tree and conifer oils are both rich in alpha and beta-pinene (terpenes), and I’ve seen cats with known asthma or pneumonia, respond well … and not so well to their diffusion.
When starting patients on essential oils for the first time, whether they have lower airway issues or not, I always start low (1 drop/diffused room), and monitor response.
I also prefer to have a few options for the cat to sniff … closed bottles still put off quite the aroma to cats and they can be very focal in their likes/dislikes. They may choose different oils/applications.
Question from our reader Kathy Driver Knox:
"Are there any EO that are effective in stopping non-medically related PEEING on beds & couches???!!! (Litterbox is cleaned)"
Dr. Brandon: Yes, though it’s likely going to require a multi-step process and consistent, daily administration for a min of 2 weeks.
You’ll also need to address the underlying issue … inappropriate urination in cat language is like humans shouting at one another. Something is making your cat unhappy and tailoring oils for that reason can make the difference.
For example, let’s say your cat started urinating on furniture when you brought home a new puppy. We’ll presume your cat has plenty of puppy-restricted places he likes and uses regularly, and that the offending furniture is in the puppy’s territory.
Here’s what I have done in my own household with this scenario: Strategically placed undiluted drops of repellent oil on the soiled furniture legs or rags tucked into cushions.
Oils used for pest control, like cedar oil, are great options here, as are strong-scented ones like peppermint. Diffuse calming blends in the puppy’s territory. The goal here is to reduce your cat’s anxiety at having to share a new space.
Place 1 drop on pet hair resistant bedding or diffuse in a separate room, an oil/blend your cat likes. The goal here is to make the cat’s territory more enjoyable. As your cat gets used to the puppy, and elimination issues become infrequent.
Question from our reader Nicole Lynn:
"Vets are not certified when it comes to EO. Ask your questions of a certified aromatherapist. Many oils can be toxic to pets and cause airway problems. They can’t filter them like some humans can. There is not much use for EO."
[Editor Note: I asked Dr. Brandon to please comment on this comment left on Facebook]
Dr. Brandon: Most reported cases in which oils have harmed patients (regardless of species) are a result of using improper dosages, application techniques, or poor quality oils.
Yes, individual responses occur and patients can have negative reactions to the best quality oil used at minute doses; this is true of nearly any compound and warrants monitoring, not avoidance of compounds that are more likely to be helpful than harmful.
When in doubt, contact a certified veterinary aromatherapist.
Question from our reader Sarah Jane Reid:
"That’s a great question, I’m afraid to buy anything as the information is so conflicting. Is there a list of brands that are considered safe for cats/pets?"
Dr. Brandon: I typically use AnimalEO blends and singles (my primary company for new-to-EO pet parents) and singles from doTerra, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Young Living.
Question from our reader Alexandra Andrews:
"I love my YL essential oils but I’m afraid to defuse them because of all the controversy about cats not being able to process them. I’m told they build up in the cat and it causes illnesses. Is this true? I have also heard citrus oils are bad for them."
Dr. Brandon: Citrus oils are not bad for cats, quite the opposite when used in low doses and only high-quality oils. Most are rich in antimicrobial & anti-inflammatory terpenes and are well tolerated in diffusions.
Use the tips above -- let your cat select the oil/blend of the day, use low doses diffused or petting, or just use on your person -- and it is unlikely to harm will come to your cat.
Question from our reader Clair Squires:
"I'm kinda worried now because I have diffused lemongrass, tea tree, eucalyptus, orange, and lavender without knowing it could harm my cats! I use these oils regularly, except eucalyptus as we have a human who cannot tolerate it."
Dr. Brandon: If you’re using good brands and your cat likes it - or at least is indifferent - then continue using them. I only use 2 drops per water filling and ensure the diffusers are high enough to not waft a whole load of scent or vapor on or near them. This is an excellent dose.
Question from our reader:
"In saying this how many of us have reed diffusers, home air fresheners, plug-in room fragrances which could also (particularly at cat height) affect their breathing/general health?"
Dr. Brandon: An excellent point and very true! It’s not uncommon in my experience and in speaking with other experienced veterinary EO users, cats who react negatively to various synthetic sprayed & plugged-in air fresheners, respond positively to diffused essential oils.
If there’s a true geek out there … choose one commercial air freshener or cleaner using synthetic compounds, another using natural lemon or orange essential oil, and then just those oils; compare the main chemical/product and their various toxicological studies.
Question from our reader Sharon McLain:
"I’ve read that the only EO safe around cats is lavender and Frankincense. I would love to diffuse others if they are safe!!! "
Dr. Brandon: There are many others and I would consider adding these to your current lavender & frankincense: copaiba, grapefruit, Melissa, black spruce, geranium & chamomile (German or Roman). Catnip is a special treat and can also be added to your mix.
Question from our reader Linda Laming:
"If I wanted answers about essential oils and cats or animals I would seek out a clinical aromatherapist or BETTER yet someone like Caroline Ingraham who's been helping animals heal themselves for years. Vets typically don't have much experience with essential oils.”
[Editor Note: I asked Dr. Brandon to please comment on this comment left on Facebook]
Dr. Brandon: Another excellent resource! Ms. Ingraham is well-respected and has written several books. I agree veterinarians rarely have experience with EOs and tend to avoid them, commenting about their negatives without doing more research.
It is my hope with more of my colleagues leaning toward integrative therapies, the profession will at least acknowledge there are some benefits to essential oil use … and have resources for pet parents interested in EO for their pets.
Check Out Our Other Interviews with Dr. Brandon: