Are Diffusers Bad for Cats? How to Keep Cats Safe Around Essential Oils

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With their sensitive skin and noses, it pays to practice caution around cats when using essential oils. 

Essential oils are made from the highly concentrated scents of plants, herbs, and flowers, which are steamed or pressed to extract the "essence" from the plant. Fans of essential oils say they have health benefits including stress relief and energy/mood-boosting abilities, and are also sometimes used as digestion aids or topical agents for pain relief.

But for cat owners, it's best to use caution regarding their use since consuming or being exposed to essential oils can be toxic to cats. This is especially true for those who use a diffuser to, well, diffuse the oil into their living space. Here is what you need to know about using essential oils around cats, the potential risks, and which oils are particularly dangerous for cats.

Is It Possible to Safely Diffuse Essential Oils Around Cats?

We asked Tina Wismer, DVM, a senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, for her expert advice to help pet parents learn how to safely use essential oils around their cat. The number one rule? Be cautious.

"The best way to avoid exposing your pets to dangerous substances is always to err on the side of caution by 'pet-proofing' your space," Wismer says.

To help pet parents create a safe space for cats and essential oils to coexist, Wismer and the team at ASPCA Animal Poison Control offer these guidelines for minimizing the risk to cats and other pets:

  • Don't apply essential oils to cats, dogs or other animals. It can be difficult to know for sure how diluted or concentrated an essential oil is, so Wismer doesn't recommend applying it to cats. "Due to the variability in concentration and quality, it's best to completely avoid directly applying them to your pet," she says.
  • Avoid essential oil diffusers if your cats or other pets have underlying health problems, especially respiratory issues. Never use diffusers around birds, who are particularly prone to breathing problems.
  • Keep essential oil containers, diffusers, and warmers out of cats' reach.
  • Give cats and other animals access to a safe space away from fragrant essential oils. While cats' sense of smell isn't as sensitive as dogs, it's more sensitive than yours.
  • Keep diffusers out of rooms where cats or other animals groom themselves. Diffusers and warmers put essential oils into the air, which can then land on a cat's fur.

What Are the Risks of Using Essential Oils Around Cats?

The main danger posed to cats by essential oils is respiratory irritation, which can cause a burning sensation in the cat's nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. If your cat is experiencing these signs of respiratory distress, the Pet Poison Helpline advises that you move the cat to fresh air as soon as possible. If their symptoms do not immediately improve, a visit to the vet should be in order.

If your cat has underlying health conditions, like asthma or allergies, they may also be at higher risk for poisoning, Wismer warns. It's best to avoid using diffusers or sprays that make the droplets airborne, since these cats may have difficulty breathing well with essential oils in the air. But you may also want to avoid using essential oils as a topical agent on your cat as well, since at-risk pets may struggle to metabolize the oil once it's absorbed on the skin or through broken skin. This is because cats lack important enzymes to break down the phenols in some oils.

In cases handled by ASPCA Animal Poison Control, cats who had skin exposure to essential oils showed signs of unsteady walking, muscle weakness, depression, changes in behavior, and even hypothermia and loss of consciousness. Cats who drank essential oils experienced vomitingdiarrhea, and decreased breathing and heart rate. Pneumonia is also a possibility for cats who breathe in the essential oils diffused in the air.

Which Essential Oils Are Dangerous to Cats?

Certain essential oils are more dangerous to cats than others. Pennyroyal and melaleuca (tea tree) oils have been implicated in some severe cases of seizures and liver damage. Some oils, like tea tree oil, are more toxic than others.

Other essential oils that are considered particularly dangerous to cats when either ingested or exposed on the skin include cinnamon, citrus, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, wintergreen, and ylang ylang.

If you suspect your cat has ingested these or any other essential oils or has gotten essential oils on her skin, call your veterinarian and bring any packaging from the product with you to the veterinary hospital. And like any new ingredient you introduce to your cat's environment, it's better to be safe than sorry: give your vet a call if you have questions about what kinds of essential oils are safe to use around your cat.

Are There Essential Oil Health Benefits for Pets?

Some companies advertise the benefits of using essential oils as natural solutions for cats and dogs to deal with a variety of afflictions. While claims range from repelling fleas and mosquitos from the home with oils like citronella and lavender, to helping to calm animals with essence of chamomile, the jury is still out on the actual effectiveness of these products—and many of these "helpful" essential oils also show up on the list of essential oils to avoid if you're a cat owner.

Additionally, while natural solutions like essential oils may help keep the occasional flea away, most vets agree that the best preventative measure to keep your pets safe from parasites like fleas is a monthly preventative treatment formulated specifically for protection against fleas.

Their size, sensitive skin, and fastidious grooming habits mean that essential oils pose a bigger problem for cats than dogs. So just because your vet gave the OK to use a specific essential oil around your canine companion doesn't mean the same rule applies for your kitties. As with any new substance, it's best to ask your veterinarian before using anything on or near your cat.

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