What to Know About the Risks of Essential Oils for Cats

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 21, 2022
6 min read

Essential oils have a lot of uses for humans. They smell great, help us relax, and generally promote wellness. For cats, however, essential oils can be dangerous. This is especially true for oils that are undiluted. 

Some experts say that the effect of essential oils varies depending on your cat’s breed, age, size, and health condition. To be on the safe side, it is best to avoid using essential oils around your cat or in areas where your cat frequents.

While the essential oils used in toiletries, cosmetics, and diffusers are usually diluted, the carrier oil that is used to dilute the essential oil is not entirely safe for your cat. 

These are oils that are extracted from plants, then concentrated and purified. They come from specific plants and have a rich essence or fragrance. 

To use them, you can either make them in a pure form or buy them in beauty and cleaning products. These oils and the products that contain them should all be handled with care, though, whether you have pets or not.

Despite vets warning against using essential oils for cats, some pet owners claim that there are benefits involved. For example:

Repelling cat fleas. Some pet owners use essential oils such as rosemary and cedarwood to help keep fleas away from their cats. 

Improving mood. While essential oils are definitely calming and relaxing to the humans who use them, there are pet owners who say that their cats benefit in the same way. It is possible that some essential oils can have a positive effect on your cat’s mood by reducing anxiety and depression. 

Anti-inflammatory effects. If your cat has an inflammatory condition like arthritis, they could benefit from essential oils as they possess anti-inflammatory properties. The same goes for simple inflammatory conditions like bruising. While you may be tempted to put some essential oil in your cat’s bathwater, know that things can go wrong at any time.

Digestion. Some cat owners have used essential oils to relieve their cats from digestive issues like diarrhea and vomiting. You, however, should never put essential oil in your cat’s food. The risk outweighs any perceived benefit.

Instead of risking your cat’s health and life, it’s best not to allow your cat to touch essential oils unless you have spoken to your vet about doing so and received their blessing.

The reason why these oils are risky is that they contain compounds such as terpenes, ketones, and phenols. Your cat’s liver cannot metabolize these chemicals, as it doesn’t have the enzymes necessary for processing and excreting them. As a result, there is always a possibility of their accumulation in the liver building to toxic levels. 

A lot of essential oils have these compounds and are, therefore, considered dangerous to cats. They include:

  • Potpourri 
  • Clove
  • Bitter almond
  • Cinnamon
  • Lavender
  • Eucalyptus oil 
  • Citrus
  • Sweet birch oil 
  • Thyme
  • Ylang-ylang
  • Juniper
  • Bergamot
  • Mint 
  • Wormwood
  • Tarragon
  • Sassafras
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Sandalwood
  • Myrrh
  • Geranium
  • Tea tree
  • Pine
  • Eucalyptus

Your cat could come into contact with these oils through:

Direct skin contact. Avoid applying essential oils to your cat’s fur or skin. The oil can easily get absorbed through the skin.

Ingestion/swallowing. It is possible that your cat could lick the oil off their fur as they groom and swallow it. A diffuser could tip over, spilling the oil and endangering a cat that later licks it off.

Inhalation. Although this rarely occurs, your cat can inhale essential oils from a reed diffuser or plugin. Although the oils used may be diluted, a cat with a condition like asthma could be at risk.

A diffuser converts essential oil into a mist and spreads the mist into the surrounding environment. It is recommended to use a slow diffuser, as it disperses oil at a slower rate, reducing the likelihood of poisoning your cat. 

An example of such a device is a reed diffuser. It functions by dipping a simple reed into the container with essential oil. The oil travels up the reed to be released in small amounts continually. 

Since very little oil is released and none of it falls on any surface, using a reed diffuser is not as risky as a heat diffuser. The latter is considered riskier, as it heats the oil and changes its composition into more toxic compounds. 

Other models like nebulizers, ultrasonic, and evaporative diffusers are also common. Whichever you choose to use, remember to take safety precautions, as cats are playful and can easily knock over and tamper with a diffuser’s contents. 

When dealing with poisoning, immediate attention is crucial to survival and recovery. Some of the signs to look out for include the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Too much drooling
  • Shaking and muscle tremors
  • Walking as if drunk
  • Lethargy, depression, or dullness
  • Difficulty breathing or breathing with an open mouth
  • Collapsing or seizures.

Sometimes, your cat may not show these signs. In such a case, you may want to sniff to confirm the smell of the oil on your cat’s fur or breath.

If you use essential oils at home and your cat shows symptoms of poisoning, call your vet right away. 

The faster you seek treatment, the better your cat’s chances of recovery. It helps to have as much information with you as possible. 

On your visit to the vet, you’ll need to provide vital information to help with treatment, including the packaging and a sample of the product if possible:

The oil that caused the poisoning. To get the right treatment for your cat, it is important to know the specific oil that’s involved. If you have the product, bring it or its packaging to the vet.

The amount of oil ingested by the cat. If your cat actively ingested the oil, it will need specialized care. 

Your cat’s weight. Smaller cats are at more risk than heavier ones, so this bit of information can be life-saving.

Age of the cat. Older cats and kittens are likely to be more affected and should be given more attention.

Once you are at the vet’s office, the vet may run a blood test or perform a physical exam to tell how bad your cat’s poisoning is. Their main focus will be to see whether the cat’s liver or kidneys are damaged. Your cat should be out of danger after the vet provides care.

Just because essential oils are extracted from plants doesn’t mean they’re healthy or safe for your cat (many plants are poisonous to cats). It also doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t use these oils for your own benefit. 

To be safe, ask your vet about the products you shouldn’t use around the house. In addition to that, you should also:

Store essential oils in places where your cat won’t reach. Remember how good of a climber your cat is. It is not enough to store essential oils on high shelves. Lock them away in a place that only you can access.  

Wash your hands after handling essential oils. It’s almost impossible not to touch your cat, so make sure you wash your hands after coming into contact with any essential oil. This will help you avoid getting it on your cat’s fur or skin.

Avoid cleaning using products that have essential oils. Since your cat can’t help rubbing against items around the house, avoid using products that have essential oils when you are cleaning. Also, thoroughly clean surfaces where essential oils have spilled. 

Avoid using undiluted essential oils. If you must use essential oils around your house, ensure they are diluted first to minimize the risk to your cat.

Keep your cat away from diffusers. Reed diffusers, plugin diffusers, and nebulizers that use essential oils should be kept in rooms where your cat won’t go. If you must let your cat in, ensure the room is well ventilated.

Check your pet products for essential oils. Sometimes, a product you bought will have an essential oil meant for specific purposes, such as repelling parasites. Avoid buying such a product to keep your cat safe. Buy your pet products from accredited vets or pharmacists. 

The best way to ensure the maximum safety of your pet when using essential oils is to consult your vet before starting. Since all cats are different, your cat’s vet will know what is best for them.