Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats? What  Cat Owners Need To Know

Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats - orange and white cat hiding behind a white flowering vine

Last updated on January 31st, 2024 at 07:11 am

by Dr. WL Wilkins, DVM, PhD.

The popularity of essential oils in households worldwide is undeniable.  Popular for their therapeutic health benefits and pleasant scents, these oils have become a part of the everyday lives of many people. However, are essential oils safe for cats? 

Although your cat may argue differently, cats are not just small furry people. They have  a unique physiology that reacts differently to certain chemicals compared to humans and other animals. As a result, there are many things that, while perfectly safe for humans, are actually very toxic to cats.

This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide on the implications of essential oil use around cats, helping pet owners make informed decisions about using these fragrant oils at home.

Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats? 

Cats are more sensitive to essential oils than humans due to their unique physiology and metabolism, combined with their exceptional sense of smell.

A cat’s sense of smell is much more advanced than that of humans. While humans have around 5 to 6 million olfactory receptors, cats have an astonishing 50 to 80 million of these specialized scent detectors in their noses.

This acute sense of smell allows cats to detect even the faintest odors, which makes them more sensitive to the strong fragrances of essential oils. What may be a pleasant, mild scent to humans can be overwhelmingly intense to a cat.

Furthermore, cats are more susceptible to the negative effects of essential oils due to their unique physiological and metabolic differences. 

One important aspect is their liver’s ability to metabolize some of the compounds found in essential oils. Specifically, a cat’s liver lacks a certain enzyme that is required to metabolize a range of different chemicals, especially phenols and terpenes – volatile aromatic compounds that are often found in essential oils. 

This missing enzyme means cats have a limited ability to break down and eliminate these substances from their bodies, making them more vulnerable to toxicities and adverse reactions including liver damage and even liver failure.

Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats - brown tabby cat looking into the center of a white rose

Are All Essential Oils Bad For Cats?

While there is little doubt that cats are more susceptible to toxicity from essential oils than humans, does this mean that all essential oils are bad for cats?

Some people promote certain oils as being “cat safe”, such as chamomile, lavender, lemongrass, and rose essential oils, albeit in “very dilute amounts”. 

But remember what we just said about cats not being able to readily metabolize phenols and terpenes? Well, guess what – these “safe” essential oils also contain terpenes and phenolic compounds!

In a nutshell, there is no good, solid scientific evidence as to what amount of dilution is needed to make these so-called “safe” essential oils safe for cats. As a veterinarian, my opinion is that when it comes to cats the only truly safe amount is no essential oil at all. 

That said, there are essential oils that are worse for cats than others, meaning  that they are highly toxic and should never be used around felines no matter how dilute they are. 

Essential Oils That Are Most Poisonous To Cats

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and the  Pet Poison Helpline list the following essential oils as highly toxic to cats: 

  • Wintergreen
  • Sweet Birch
  • Citrus or any oil containing d-limonene
  • Pine
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Peppermint
  • Cinnamon
  • Pennyroyal
  • Clove
  • Eucalyptus
  • Tea Tree

Essential oils that are related to plant species that are listed above should also be considered. For example, pine is a conifer tree and essential oils from other conifers such as fir and juniper must be avoided. Likewise, bergamot and grapefruit are popular citrus oils that are high in d-limonene and must also be avoided. 

Another good thing to remember is that “hot” essential oils are more likely to be dangerous to cats than other oils. These include essential oils listed above such as clove and cinnamon, as well as others such as oregano, thyme, and savory. 

Essential Oil Toxicity In Cats Can Differ Depending On Route of Exposure

Toxicity from essential oils in cats can vary depending on how the cats are exposed.  

For example, ingestion of undiluted oils is more likely to cause toxicity than inhalation or topical application. However, vaporizing essential oils or direct skin contact can also pose a danger to cats.

Here’s how essential oil toxicity can differ based on the route of exposure:

Inhalation

When cats are exposed to essential oils through inhalation, the effects are primarily respiratory. 

Cats have an acute sense of smell, and the direct inhalation of essential oils can cause respiratory irritation leading to symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and labored breathing. Prolonged exposure can even cause severe respiratory distress, which may require immediate medical attention. 

While inhalation does not always lead to systemic toxicity, the risk is very high.

Skin Exposure

When essential oils come into contact with a cat’s skin, the first concern is skin irritation. The oils can lead to symptoms such as redness, itching, rashes, and in some cases, chemical burns. 

Secondly, volatile organic compounds like phenols and terpenes are easily absorbed through the skin.  This means that even diluted oils can still enter the cat’s bloodstream and cause systemic toxicity. 

Dermal exposure to highly concentrated essential oils, especially on areas with thin or sensitive skin like the inside of the ears, can be particularly dangerous for cats. Volatile organic compounds in essential oils are also rapidly absorbed across mucous membranes e.g. the inner cheeks, gums and inside of the eyelids.

Finally, what gets on a cat’s paws, skin or fur gets in a cat’s mouth because they will naturally try and clean it off with their tongue. This leads to oral exposure to the essential oil. 

Oral Ingestion

Ingesting essential oils is the most direct and concerning route of exposure because it can result in exposure to the greatest amount of oil in the shortest amount of time. Once inside the cat’s digestive system, the essential oil components are quickly absorbed into the body. 

Ingestion of essential oils can result in a range of gastrointestinal symptoms. The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the specific oil and the amount ingested.

Initial signs of toxicity can be limited to the digestive tract, such as vomiting,  diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Ingested essential oils can also lead to systemic toxicity, affecting organs like the liver and kidneys, and potentially leading to more severe complications such as seizures and even death.

Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats - longhaired grey tabby kitten sitting in the grass next to a basket of colorful flowers

Symptoms Of Essential Oil Toxicity In Cats

Although there are some oils that are known to be very toxic to cats, as described above, even seemingly mild oils can be risky for them.

So, if your cat shows any signs of distress or unusual behavior after being exposed to essential oils, do not to ignore it!  Always seek immediate veterinary care to assess the situation and provide appropriate treatment. 

What if you didn’t see your cat get into your essential oils? How do you know if there is a problem? Knowing the signs of toxicity is important for prompt action and seeking medical attention if needed.

The most common signs of essential oil poisoning in cats include: 

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, or open-mouth breathing
  • Redness, swelling, or irritation on the skin (from direct skin contact)
  • Lethargy, depression or reduced alertness
  • Low heart rate
  • Weakness, difficulty walking
  • Muscle tremors or twitching
  • Shaking
  • Seizures 
  • Collapse or loss of consciousness 

When To Seek Immediate Veterinary Care

Not all cases of essential oil toxicity in cats are life-threatening, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention if you have any concerns. 

If your cat shows any of the following symptoms, seek immediate veterinary care:

  • Ingestion of Oils: If a cat has ingested any essential oil, immediate veterinary attention is necessary. Do not wait for symptoms to appear.
  • Severe Respiratory Distress: Labored breathing or any signs of respiratory distress require immediate intervention.
  • Uncontrolled Vomiting or Diarrhea: Persistent vomiting or diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration and should be addressed urgently.
  • Neurological Symptoms: Tremors, seizures, or any abnormal neurological behavior demands prompt veterinary care.

Safe Practices

As a veterinarian, my preferred approach is to keep all essential oils away from cats, period. There is just too much that can go wrong. 

Still, essential oils can be beneficial to people when used correctly, and with proper precautions, you can safely enjoy their benefits while minimizing risks to your cat. Here are some tips for using essential oils around cats:

Consult Your Veterinarian

Before introducing any essential oils into your home environment, consult with your veterinarian. 

A professional opinion can help you navigate the potential risks and benefits based on your cat’s  health and any pre-existing health conditions. Cats that already have health problems are at greater risk than cats that are healthy.

Never Put Essential Oils Directly On A Cat

Never apply essential oils directly to your pet’s skin, even when diluted. Cats are highly sensitive to the concentrated compounds in essential oils and can quickly experience adverse reactions. 

Don’t even apply it to your pet’s fur thinking it won’t touch the skin. The oil will wick down the hair shaft to the skin eventually. Not only that, but your cat will most definitely try to lick it off, leading to oral exposure. 

This includes “natural” sprays or treatments marketed for tick and flea prevention that contain essential oils. These products often contain eucalyptus and tea tree oils which are highly toxic essential oils when it comes to cats.  “Natural” does not equal “safe”. 

Choose “Safer” Essential Oils 

Not all essential oils are created equal when it comes to their impact on cats. Some oils are considered safer than others and may have fewer adverse effects.

When selecting essential oils for your home, opt for those that are known to be more cat-friendly, such as chamomile, lavender, and lemongrass, and make sure to use even these only when very diluted.

Dilute Essential Oils Thoroughly

Concentrated oils can be overwhelming for a cat’s sensitive respiratory system and may lead to adverse reactions. Follow recommended dilution guidelines, and if you’re unsure, err on the side of caution by using even more diluted concentrations.

Use Safe Diffusing Methods

Choose diffusing methods that minimize direct exposure to your cat. 

Consider placing the diffuser in an area that your cat can access voluntarily, ensuring they can move away if they find the scent overpowering. Or better yet, use it only in rooms where the cat has no access.

Additionally, avoid using diffusers in small, confined spaces where the aroma concentration can become intense. Use only small amounts of essential oils at one time to prevent increasing concentrations over time. 

Don’t forget that even when the door is closed, the diffused essential oils may still enter other areas of the home as air conditioning and heating systems will circulate the air throughout the house. 

Make Ventilation And Clean Air A Priority

Ventilation and fresh air help maintain a pleasant atmosphere for both you and your cat. Ensure that your living space is well-ventilated by opening windows if the weather allows and allowing fresh air to circulate. Natural ventilation helps dissipate odors and prevents the buildup of strong scents that may be overwhelming for your cat.

Air Purifiers with HEPA filters can help maintain a clean and fresh-smelling indoor environment without relying on strong fragrances. These purifiers effectively capture airborne particles, allergens, and odors, promoting a healthier atmosphere for  you and your cat. Select an air purifier that suits the size of your living space for optimal results.

Create Safe Spaces

Designate specific areas in your home where essential oils are used, and ensure your cat has access to alternative spaces where no oils are present. This allows your cat to retreat to a safe environment if they find the scents overwhelming.

Keep Oils Stored Safely

Cats are curious creatures and may be tempted to investigate interesting smells. To avoid any accidental exposure, make sure to store essential oils securely in a place that your cat cannot access. 

This simple precaution helps minimize the risk of ingestion or contact with the oils when you’re not using them.

Be Mindful Of Your Essential Oil Use

Some uses of essential oils are obvious, such as diffusing them or applying them topically. However, some may not be so apparent. 

For example, cleaning products or personal care products that contain essential oils can lead to accidental exposure for your cat. That eucalyptus or tea tree oil product that you use on your own skin is a potential source of poison for your cat, for example. 

Make sure to read labels and ingredient lists carefully and avoid using these products near your cat. Additionally, always wash your hands after handling any product containing essential oils before touching your cat. 

Observe Your Cat’s Behavior

Closely monitor your cat’s behavior when introducing essential oils into your home. If you notice any signs of distress, such as excessive grooming, hiding, or changes in appetite, discontinue the use of essential oils immediately. 

Cats may react differently to various scents, so it’s essential to be attentive to their individual preferences and sensitivities.

Regular Vet Check-ups

Make sure to schedule regular veterinary check-ups to monitor your cat’s health and well-being. If you’ve been using essential oils at home, let your veterinarian know. Routine check-ups help detect any potential health issues related to essential oil exposure early on.

Are Essential Oils Safe For Cats - a white sealpoint cat sniffing lavender flowers

Alternatives To Essential Oils For Aromatherapy When You Have Cats

I’ll say it again – the safest use of essential oils around cats is no essential oils! That said, that doesn’t mean that our cats have to go through life without enjoying the calming and therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy. 

One alternative to consider is Herbal Sachets. These sachets, filled with cat-safe herbs like catnip, chamomile, or valerian root, emit subtle and natural scents that cats find appealing. Placing these sachets in your home allows your feline companions to enjoy a sensory experience without exposing them to concentrated essential oils.

Cat-Safe Plants can also serve as an excellent alternative. Consider incorporating non-toxic plants such as spider plants, cat grass, or catnip into your living space. These plants not only add a touch of greenery but also release mild fragrances that cats can explore safely. Be sure to research and choose plants that are known to be cat-friendly.

Distilled Water Room Sprays offer another alternative for a subtle and safe aromatherapy experience. Dilute cat-friendly scents, such as lavender or chamomile, in distilled water or witch hazel and lightly spray the mixture in the air. This method provides a gentle fragrance that won’t disturb your cat’s sensitive respiratory system.

Mildly Scented Soy Candles can create a soothing ambiance without the need for essential oils. Opt for candles made from soy wax with minimal added fragrance. 

The gentle scent from these candles, combined with the calming effect of the flickering flame, can contribute to a relaxing environment for both you and your cat. Be sure to place the candle somewhere that the cat cannot knock it over!

Conclusion

Essential oils have undeniable allure and well-documented benefits for human well-being but are not so beneficial for our cats.

As pet parents, it is our duty to prioritize the safety and well-being of our feline companions. This includes understanding the potential risks of essential oils and taking necessary precautions when using them. 

Our cats rely on us to create a comforting and safe environment. The choices we make greatly impact their health and happiness, so let’s make those choices with their best interests in mind. 

By following the guidelines and alternatives discussed in this document, we can enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy while keeping our cats safe and sound. 

Remember, when it comes to essential oils and cats, less is more! So if you must use them, use them sparingly and with caution. 

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.

References:

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.