Originally published May 20, 2016
There has been a lot of talk and research lately about whether air fresheners are safe for cats. When a cat is sick or abnormally smelly, a pet owner might look for the cause in everything from food and water issues to pesticides, plants, cleaning products, or air fresheners. These last few possibilities are an often-overlooked source of harmful toxicity, but they can be dangerous to pet’s health in both the short and long term.
Here are some facts to consider about air fresheners and cats, as well as some alternatives to try in your home:
Toxic Air Fresheners
While air fresheners might seem like a good way to make your house smell nice, particularly around a cat’s litter box, air freshener toxic chemicals can cause serious health problems for your cat.
The chemicals irritate the mucus membranes and breathing passages of your kitty, and they can cause even more serious long-term problems if they contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are carbon-based compounds that remain in the air of your home even after a spray evaporates.
Some of the long-term effects of exposure to VOCs include liver or kidney damage, cancer, and nervous system problems. Short-term effects include vomiting, breathing issues, dizziness, and eye/mouth/nose irritation.
Some of the other household sources of VOCs are lemon, pine, or citrus scented cleaners and certain types of wood furniture. Other risky everyday substances include toilet cleaners, laundry detergents, carpet cleaners, drain cleaners, and antifreeze.
Potpourri oils can also be a dangerous from of air freshener – a cat might rub against a leaky bottle or spill the bottle on themselves, which can result in both skin irritation and internal problems if the cat licks the oil while grooming itself. If your cat has been having health problems and you think that an air freshener or a household chemical is the culprit, contact your vet immediately.
All of the commercially produced air fresheners can be bothersome to cats, but particularly the plugin variety.
Signs of a Toxic Reaction to Air Fresheners in Cats
Toxic air fresheners can cause different reactions in your cat, depending on the interaction between the cat and the toxic compound. For instance, if you’ve sprayed a room freshener that is toxic for your cat in the same room where your cat is, you might see low-grade symptoms.
However, if you have a leaking air freshener and your cat licks the area where it spilled, then you may witness a much more violent reaction. Here’s what you can expect.
The low-grade symptoms may include coughing, sneezing, tearing up, nasal discharge production. These occur when the cat has minimal contact with the toxic substance. The cat immediately becomes distressed, which is visible in its behavior. If you notice this, you should try smelling your cat.
If it has come into contact with a toxic compound from an air freshener, then the smell should still be present and it might help you figure out what is happening to your cat.
Even if the symptoms are mild, you should take your cat to see a veterinarian because there may some tests that the doctor needs to run to see if the toxic substance has affected the cat’s liver or kidneys. An eye exam is also required, as well as a demagogical examination of the area that has come in contact with the toxic compound.
The more severe symptoms you might notice in the cat are vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or lack of appetite. These symptoms may be difficult to link to a toxic exposure especially because they might appear hours or even days after the cat has come into contact with the toxic chemicals. If you do notice any of these symptoms in your cat, keep in mind that exposure to toxic compounds from air fresheners could be a possible cause.
Try smelling your cat’s paws and face, as these are the likeliest contact areas. Depending on how much of the toxic air freshener the cat has gotten into contact with and how long ago this happened, the smell might be weaker or stronger.
For symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea to come up, the cat has most likely ingested the toxic substance.
If you notice that your cat displays these symptoms, check any air fresheners you might have in your home. Check for leaks or spillage to see if this is the potential cause of the symptoms. Then, you should take your cat to the vet for a check-up.
This is the best possible course of action because these general symptoms could get much more severe quite rapidly in the case of toxic exposure and prolonging the visit to the vet might mean that you arrive too late for anything to be done for your cat.
Other Symptoms You Might Notice If Your Cat Ingests Air Freshener
As mentioned above, the most dangerous situation is when the cat ingests air freshener. Whether it’s a solid air freshener or a liquid one packed with essential oils, if your cat eats it, then you are dealing with a medical emergency.
The symptoms vary according to the specific substances that the cat has eaten. Moreover, you should keep in mind that air fresheners include much more than the primary substance that gives off the scent. They also include many other toxic ingredients that will worsen the effects.
One of the major effects of toxic air freshener exposure can be seen in the gastrointestinal system. The cat will display excessive salivation, lethargy, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. In severe cases, there may be blood in the vomit or stool. If you notice this, then you have to get your cat into emergency care because it needs immediate medical attention.
If the cat ingests an air freshener that is rich in essential oils, neurological symptoms may also appear. Aside from the gastrointestinal symptoms mentioned above, the large intake of essential oils can cause agitation, weakness, unsteadiness, and tremors. The cat will not be able to walk properly or at all.
If you do notice neurological symptoms, try to get your cat to the doctor as quickly as possible because you are dealing with a medical emergency. If possible, take the air freshener with you to the vet clinic to show the doctor what the cat is likely to have ingested. This could save a lot of precious time in figuring out the best course of treatment.
Long Term Effects of Using Air Fresheners
Even using a mildly toxic air freshener in the house might be harmful to your cat. Immediate effects may not be visible, which gives cat owners no reason to stop using the toxic substances. However, after years of use, cats may develop asthma because of prolonged exposure.
You will notice that the cat has difficulty breathing and that it is somewhat weaker and more lethargic than it used to be. You may also notice wheezing, coughing, or respiratory distress. Unfortunately, asthma is a chronic disease and even with treatment, the cat will remain with a sensitive respiratory system.
Non-Toxic Air Fresheners
There are plenty of natural, non-toxic alternatives to air freshener for keeping your home smelling clean:
- Baking soda – This can be great for eliminating odors anywhere in the house, particularly in carpeting, which is a place where you definitely want to avoid chemicals since you cat spends their time right on top of it.
- Cat-friendly plants – Plants can filter the air in your home, but double check to see that they will not harm your cat if he or she decides to take a bite out of them.
- Herbs and Seasonings – To do more than just neutralize odors, put a pot on the stove or set up a crock pot with seasonal herbs or other natural scents, including cinnamon sticks, cloves, or lemon or orange peels. They will make your house smell great and not irritate your pets.
- Natural Oils – Try using an oil burner to burn natural oils such as lavender or vanilla. If you want to put oils around your home, first make sure that whatever you are using will not be toxic for your cat’s skin or digestive system in the event of a spill, or that the oil is secure and safely out of their reach.
- Salt Lamps – These can be another way of naturally cleaning the air by giving off a slight negative ion charge. However, while this is a great alternative to toxic scents, be sure to keep it out of your cat’s reach, as licking or eating the salt lamp could be dangerously dehydrating. I have two of these salt lamps in my house and my cats never bother them, but recently there was a huge scare about them on Facebook.
- Essential Oils – Believe it or not, essential oils can be OK for cats. Read our extensive interview about essential oils and cats with veterinarian Sarah Brandon.
Dangerous Placement of Air Fresheners
Part of the problem with cats and air fresheners is that they are often in very close proximity to the source, which means they are inhaling or ingesting more of the chemicals than pet owners might realize. Avoid putting air fresheners anywhere near your cat’s food and water, and also anywhere in or around their litter box. Plug in air fresheners are toxic to pets in particular because they are right at nose level and can really affect a cat’s breathing.
Storage and Usage of Air Fresheners
Even if you are using safe products like some essential oils, these can still be extremely harmful to your cat if it ingests them. This is why storage is very important when it comes to potentially harmful substances.
You should keep such products in a box or a drawer that closes so that your cat doesn’t have access to it. It is ideal to use something with a lock because cats love to explore and are very handy with opening doors, especially those you do not want them to open.
This should be part of cat-proofing your house. Store your air fresheners, detergents, house cleaning products, body sprays, etc. in a place that is not accessible for the cat to avoid accidents.
As for safe usage of air fresheners, keep in mind that they should not be unattended. Air fresheners that stay in the room when you are not there present a risk for your cat.
They might leak or otherwise malfunction and your cat can come into contact with dangerous chemicals. It is best to use them when you are there to supervise everything.
For instance, if you are using essential oils, use the correct quantity, and then store the oils away where your cat cannot reach them.
Even if there are essential oils that are OK for your cat, they are still highly concentrated substances that become dangerous if the cat ingests them.
Eliminating the Need for Air Fresheners
Avoiding the need for air fresheners can be as simple as making sure your cat is healthy and their home environment is kept clean. Intestinal problems or a poor diet could be the cause of particularly smelly cat feces or urine, whereas a healthy cat should have a more neutral odor. In addition, keeping a litter box regularly cleaned will prevent unpleasant odors from forming and encourage your kitty to use the box more often – because no cat wants to keep returning to an increasingly dirty and smelly box.
Be aware of what chemicals you are exposing both you and your pets to as you clean and freshen your house. A lot of what is out there can be surprisingly toxic, but there is a wealth of natural alternatives out there that are easy to find with a little research.
Has your cat ever had a reaction to an air freshener or household chemical? Where do you put air fresheners in your house? What natural alternatives do you use? Share here!