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Essential Oils and Pets – A bit of what we know and don’t know.

January 21, 2018

Last week I saw this in a friends new feed:

Diffusing essential oils and cats

It’s hard to go past a headline like that without feeling alarmed and wanting to know more but finding out more wasn’t to be that easy.

It didn’t take long before an email was received at work questioning the presence of essential oils in pet products and accusing the manufacturers of reckless and dangerous behaviour.  Understandable given this meme but I still needed to know more before I could give a thorough, or at least reasonably so, answer.

So what’s the story behind this meme?

It turns out that on 7th January this year a woman in Michigan, USA unintentionally poisoned her cat by diffusing Eucalyptus essential oil in her home to help her ward off a winter cold.  I found out that much by following the google results, posts and comments that were related to this meme and as the dates, time and location matched up it seems legit.  According to the story Ernie the cat got progressively sicker over four days, what I’m not sure of is whether the Michigan lady diffused Eucalyptus oil during that whole time, thus exposing the cat to a four-day-dose of oil infused air or whether she diffused less than that.  What we also can’t tell from the public facts online is how big and well ventilated her house was, the age of Ernie,  Ernie’s general health prior to this poisoning incident, whether Ernie goes outside or not, whether this family smoke or do any other ‘aromatic’ activities in the home or whether Ernie is the only cat (or even pet) in the house.   These things might seem irrelevant but they are not really, as having answers to these questions would enable us to gauge whether this situation was just one of those terrible combination of unusual circumstances or something that even the occasional diffuser household should be worried about.   The meme looks to have opted to err on the side of extreme caution and warn people of the worst possible outcome regardless of all other facts.

The above meme was shared by three cat rescue places that I could find as well as at least one alternative healing centre.  From there it was shared widely by subscribers of those pages, reaching my eyes in Australia on 12th January, five days after the event.

And is there any scientific evidence to support the toxicity of Essential Oils?

I am neither an animal health expert nor an essential oil toxicological specialist so I won’t try to delve into the specifics of cat metabolism but suffice to say that cats can have problems with essential oil and other poisons and there is plenty of literature on that.  Dogs seem to have a completely different digestive system to cats – turns out that just because cats and dogs share the feature of being great human companions it doesn’t mean that these two animals share much in terms of biochemistry.  Again, this is fairly rudimentary ‘fact’ that can be validated with a decent google search.  But beyond that it gets complicated.

While I am not an expert in this field I do have experts within my close network and animal health with relation to essential oils is something that has been discussed between us in a professional realm.  The fact of the matter here is that decent, thorough test data is NOT available for a wide range of essential oils on a wide range of animals in a wide range of conditions. Much of the information we have is anecdotal (rather like the tale above) with more in-depth studies mainly carried out on the most commonly used oils, Eucalyptus would be one and Tea Tree another.  It doesn’t take much searching before you come across other anecdotal stories of cats being poisoned with these Myrtaceae family of oils but generally speaking the cats involved have been treated with doses that would, to most people seem excessive!

Here are some scientific papers on this topic:

Ethylene Glycol and  Benzalkonium Chloride,

So what is the verdict?

I’m going to leave a link to Robert Tisserands answer on this too as not only is he an Essential Oil Specialist, he is also much more of a cat person than I am. 

The verdict based on the evidence that exists so far is that in most cases the toxic outcomes for people’s pets is mainly due to overwhelming the pet and exceeding a reasonable dose or application method rather than the pet being absolutely 100% unable to handle the item in question.  i.e, as with all toxins, there are doses and application methods that can be safe, and those which are not.

So this means is the meme is somewhat over-the-top.

Essential oils are frequently used in pet products these days instead of synthetic fragrances as that better meets customers expectations of natural and/or organic skin care.   As chemists like myself have said time and time again, ‘it is the dose that makes the poison’ and ‘natural doesn’t always mean safe’  and yet, again we find ourselves here in a panic.

It turns out that some of the most toxic essential oils for pets (The Eucalyptus types) are also the best for natural flea and mite control.  It also turns out that most reputable brands understand that the benefits of flea control come with a risk of toxicity and as such an appropriate dose is selected.  Most Vet professionals that I could find who commented online on this topic agreed that in many cases essential oils are a useful addition to a pet treatment product but only if used within guidelines.

It also turns out that some humans have gone a little essential oil crazy over the last few years with them being used in all sorts of applications from natural cleaning to infusing for beauty and even in food (although that can be even more dodgy).  In fact, essential oil use has become so normalised that it is possible a false sense of security that they are always ultra-safe has come up.  The reality is that any volatile oil that can kill microbes, cut through the grease around your home and deodorise your environment is clearly potent enough to do harm if over-used.  The grease cutting ability often means great dermal penetration,  antimicrobial can mean topically irritant and deodorising can mean respiratory irritant.

Should we avoid specific oils on cats though?

I have limited experience of cats as pets myself (had 2 as a teenager but I always preferred the dogs) but from what I have read and discussed with people better qualified than me, they are more sensitive toxicologically than dogs in general. They also tend to have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio and can lick more of themselves than the average dog so I’d say that yes, some caution is warranted and that would include being mindful of what you burn or vaporise around the home that your cat lives in, especially if the ventilation is poor or the cat is a 100% indoors companion.

With respect to individual oils such as Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Citrus, Mint or Lavender as per the meme I would actually see sense in talking to your pet care specialist about your specific situation before ruling it in or out.  The meme mentions a lot of different oils with a variety of chemistry and gives no reference material to back-up their advice.  While you could argue that it is not necessary to expose a cat to ANY essential oil during its lifetime, there might be occasions where you wish to pursue a natural alternative either for yourself, your home or your pet and it seems unnecessary to completely deprive yourself and your pet of the benefits of essential oils when there are most likely opportunities to use them safely.

Moving Forward.

It is often only when something terrible happens that we realise what we do and don’t know and this, to me, feels like one of those times.  Given the rise in popularity and use of essential oils in and around the home (and not just in direct pet care) it would be great to see more research in this area.  That said,  research on animals is not often something that many pet lovers will wish to get behind.  However, we can all increase our understanding of how pets react to and respond to our change in habits by being switched-on citizen scientists and rather than experimenting on our animals, just observing, noting and reporting what we see and don’t see in a scientific and observant way.  It might be that your local Vet practice can play a part in helping us to get a better overview of how pets interact with essential oils and how they ‘cope’ so that we might be able to develop better guidelines in future.

For me the bottom line is always evidence, evidence, evidence.  I want to know why, how, when and where.  For now I’d still be inclined to enjoy my essential oil blends around the house but I’d make sure I diffuse infrequently, keep the home ventilated and use oils diluted when pets are around.   I can’t see there being any major problems in using essential oil infused pet wash-off products (shampoos and washes etc) as long as they aren’t over-used and the same for leave-on’s which tend to be formulated with lower doses of Essential Oils anyway.  So in general, I’d just switch on a little common  sense, remember that Essential Oils ARE poisons and should always be used with caution and if in doubt I’d talk to my vet just in case.

And a final word.

As is so often the case with essential oils these days some brands wish to be seen as the only ‘safe’ brand to be used on pets.  Let me just remind you that the safety profile of an essential oil is due to its naturally occurring chemistry and NOT its brand.  While older oils or oils that have been distilled poorly can be a bit ‘off’ the bulk of the oil profile is going to be the same from brand to brand if like we are comparing the same botanical species of oil.  So please don’t fall for that ‘only use THIS brand’ stuff, it is probably not worth it.

So, yes, take care when using essential oils around your feline friends but there’s probably no need to turn your back on them completely.


PS: The best book covering Essential Oil Toxicity is a book by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young – Essential Oil Safety.






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