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Cats are Special

By Pat Princi-Jones aromatherapy expert and author of A Scented Life

Mysterious and independent, felines need extra care when it comes to essential oil use.

If you are new to aromatherapy, it’s important to make sure you are doing the safest thing by your cat. Essential oils are so potent, and their chemistry so strong, that they can do more harm than good if used incorrectly on pets, and cats in particular. They are very special and need extra care.

Some cat owners prefer not to use essential oils in the home to avoid any issues, but there are cautious and responsible approaches to using aromatherapy around your cat. The most important thing you need to understand is the strength of each oil and its chemistry. In Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, Kristen Leigh Bell notes that cats are unable to detoxify coumarin compounds(found mostly in citrus oils such as Lemon, Lime and Grapefruit) and are uniquely sensitive to phenolic compounds (found in oils such as Thyme, Cinnamon and Tea Tree).

It all comes down to the liver

So why are cats so sensitive to these compounds? Because not only are they very sensitive to odour, but their metabolic processes are different from those of other animals. They lack the enzymes needed to break down certain substances, then effectively excrete them. Instead they store them in their little bodies, which can put them at risk and lead to toxic build-up over time – and even death. In Essential Oil Safety (2nd Edition) Robert Tisserand confirms that “cats are severely deficient in glucuronyl transferase, and so are not well equipped to metabolise essential oils constituents. Cats, therefore, may be particularly susceptible to essential oil toxicity.”

What is most concerning is that this toxic build-up doesn’t manifest immediately, but can take months or even years to make itself known? Kristen Leigh Bell notes that a cat’s inability to fully excrete toxins results in “permanently elevated enzyme levels and varying degrees of impaired liver function,” which manifests as symptoms such as watery eyes, skin allergies or respiratory irritations.

Note This build-up of toxins is not limited to essential oil use! It is the result of numerous chemicals cats come into contact with throughout their lives, including: allopathic medication, grooming and flea repellent shampoos, citrus and pine cleaners, fly spray, weed killers, paint strippers, washing powders, grooming products and herbs.

Familiarise yourself with these general rules for using oils around cats:

  • Do not apply oils neat onto your cat’s body
  • Do not administer oils orally to cats
  • Do not dispense neat oils into the litter box or a cat’s bedding
  • Avoid getting oils in ears, face, nose and eyes
  • Avoid leaving oils in dishes at ground level to ensure your cat does not ingest them
  • Do not use oils on or near kittens under 10 weeks old
  • If your cat is sick, do
  •  not use essential oils. Seek veterinary advice.

Safe Diffusion Around Your Cat

Although toxicity is most severe as a result of oral and skin application, aspiration can also contribute to toxic build-up in cats and lead to respiratory irritations when used incorrectly and in high doses. But by observing a few rules, we can rest assured that our moggies are as safe as possible while we enjoy our favourite blends.

First and foremost – and as always – make sure you choose the finest quality oils and avoid cheap aroma chemicals. Curious little noses will be keenly aware of the quality of each drop you use.

Begin by diffusing a few drops in an open-plan area where the family and cats like to congregate. Keep cats away from rooms with poor ventilation, and when diffusing always provide cats access to leave the area if need be.

Monitor them closely for signs of irritation, especially when you introduce a new blend, and give your cat time to acclimatise to new oils.

Exercise extra care and always refer to the “oils to avoid” list below when using oils for the first time.

Use only a few drops and diffuse for three hours at most. Do not repeat the same blend day in and day out for extended periods of time.

Note Most recorded cases of toxicity occur when the same oil is diffused for prolonged periods in a confined space or the dosage is increased without expert knowledge or advice. Robert Tisserand warns that it is the high concentration and prolonged use of any substance that causes adverse reactions!

Oils Cat Lovers Should Avoid

Cats are unable to metabolise these essential oil compounds and thus should be avoided.

Compounds that are not cat friendlyEssential oils containing such compound
Phenol-rich oilsCinnamon, Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Sage, Oregano, Thyme, Basil, Citronella, Wintergreen, Clove, Savoury and Tea Tree
Ketone-rich oilsPennyroyal, Sage, Hyssop, Yarrow
Monoterpene hydrocarbons such as pinenePine, Spruce, Fir, Cypress, Juniper Berry, Rosemary, Lemon Myrtle and Nutmeg all contain high levels of alpha-pinene.
Monoterpene hydrocarbons such as limoneneOrange, Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, Tangerine, Lime and Mandarin all contain high levels of limonene.
PeppermintCan cause liver damage if ingested
Ylang YlangIs known to be soporific

Topical Application

Essential oils are not recommended for topical use on cats. They have very delicate, thin skin, so never apply neat oils to their bodies. The other reason not to apply essential oils directly to your cat’s fur is because they often groom themselves by licking, which means they are more likely to inadvertently ingest the oil.

Most toxic incidents happen when cat owners don’t understand the properties or risks involved with their essential oils. Kristen Bell cites examples of well-meaning cat owners who rubbed a drop of peppermint oil on a sick cat’s belly or bathed them in citronella oil to treat fleas only to end up at the vet’s clinic. I recommend you discuss any use of essential oils with your vet prior to use.

Holistic applications

You may wish to consider the following tips from aromatherapy vets and clinicians (at your own discretion).

First, make sure to take into account the state of health and age of your cat, as well as its disposition. At the end of the day, only you can make the call.

Don’t assume that the same oils or products you use on your dog with work on your cat just as well. That often isn’t the case. For more information on aromatherapy and your dog, see my previous blog post, Essential Oils and Your Furry Friends.

If you care to delve deeper into using essential oils on cats, I highly recommend Kristen Bell’s approach and book. It’s a very comprehensive look at using essential oils on pets, with a focus on hydrosols and floral waters.

All that said, here are some applications you might find useful:

Calming Spray: Prepare a spray to calm and settle your cat. Add 1-2 drops each of Lavender and Roman Chamomile to 1 tablespoon of white vinegar before adding it to a 500 ml water bottle with spray cap. Shake well before each use. Spray onto underside of your cat’s bedding, then allow to air. Never spray directly towards a cat or the basket while they are on it.

Note: Make sure to purchase a top-quality Lavender essential oil, Lavandula angustifolia, not an inferior camphor-rich Lavandin. Camphor is a phenol.

Palm Method:  Spray a small amount of Calming Spray into your palms and stroke your cat for an overall calming effect.

Lavender Herb Pillow: Valerie Ann Worwood, international author and aromatherapist, makes herb pillows with dried Lavender flowers to put under bedding (dried catnip works just as well if you have it growing in the garden) to deter fleas and nurture her cats.

Chamomile Floral Water:  Steep a Chamomile tea bag as you would to make a cup of tea and store it in a glass bottle with spray cap. Spray some on a cotton square to treat your cat’s wounds after a night out on the prowl.

Aloe Disinfectant: Add 1 drop of Lavender to a tablespoon of aloe vera gel and apply it to sores with a cotton tip.

Remember that using sound judgement is important for a healthy, happy cat. There isn’t a great deal of published trials on the toxicity of essential oil use and cats. Most of the evidence is based on case reports from frantic owners, so we must rely on common sense, veterinary advice, and an understanding of the key properties of these oils and how they interact with our bodies.

All the best,

Pat Princi-Jones

November 2020

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