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Essential oils and our pets

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are the concentrated liquids (volatile organic compounds) of plants. Essential oils have become popular for their use in aromatherapy and alternative medicine; they are also used in cleaning products, food and drink flavorings, herbal remedies, perfumes, personal care products, and liquid potpourris used as home air fresheners and fragrances.

Much like common houseplants that are toxic for cats, essential oils pose a threat, even in small amounts and especially when concentrated. According to the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association (CVMA), the following are just some of the essential oils toxic to cats:

  • Bergamot

  • Cinnamon

  • Clove

  • Eucalyptus

  • European pennyroyal

  • Geranium

  • Lavender

  • Lemon, lime and orange

  • Lemongrass

  • Rose

  • Rosemary

  • Sandalwood

  • Tea tree

  • Thyme

  • Wintergreen, peppermint, spearmint and mint

  • Ylang-ylang

How hazardous are essential oils and liquid potpourri to cats?
Essential oils and liquid potpourris contain chemicals that are rapidly absorbed orally or through the skin. Many of these chemicals are metabolized through the liver. Cats are particularly sensitive to essential oils as they have a decreased number of certain liver enzymes necessary to effectively metabolize these oils. Additionally, very young cats and kittens, and cats with liver disease are more sensitive to their effects. Liquid potpourri and some essential oils can also irritate or burn the skin and mouth.
Only a couple of licks or a small amount on the skin could be harmful to a cat, depending on the ingredients in a specific product and how the pet is exposed. Cats can be exposed by tasting liquid potpourri as it simmers or by coming in contact with liquid from leaking or overturned containers. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so if these products get on their skin, they will often be ingested.

What are the signs of essential oil or liquid potpourri poisoning?
Signs may include:

  • fragrance or scent on hair coat, skin, or breath 

  • difficulty breathing

  • difficulty walking or uncoordinated gait

  • drooling

  • lethargy or weakness

  • muscle tremors

  • pawing at the mouth or face

  • redness or burns on the lips, gums, tongue, or skin

  • vomiting (you may note the smell of essential oils in the vomit)

What should I do if I suspect that my cat has been exposed to essential oils or liquid potpourri?
Rapid diagnosis and treatment are imperative. If you believe that your cat has ingested or come in contact with essential oils or liquid potpourri, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680), a 24/7 animal poison control center, immediately. The sooner you seek treatment, the better the prognosis and outcome for your cat.

Please note:

  • Do not induce vomiting or give activated charcoal to your cat. This may worsen your cat’s condition. 

  • Put the product packaging in a sealed container and take it with you to the veterinary clinic. 

  •  If any product is on the skin or fur, quickly wash it off using a mild soap such as Dawn or baby shampoo.

Information taken from:

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