Are Essential Oils Toxic to my Cat?
Yes, essential oils can be extremely toxic to your cats, dogs, birds, and other pets and animals. Essential oils can be very toxic to you, as well.
Many companies that sell essential oils (I'm looking at you, Young Living and doTERRA) claim that, because the oils are "natural," they are safe to use in very large quantities externally, internally, and with children and pets. Young Living, in fact, has a whole line of products designed for pets.
There are a few issues here. First, we have to face the appeal to nature fallacy. The idea is that if something is natural, it must be better than something that is unnatural or synthetic. I fell for this idea when I started using essential oils. I stopped getting flu shots and decided that all I needed to stay healthy was essential oils and homeopathic pills, because, obviously, those things are natural.
It doesn't take much research to discover that the appeal to nature argument is largely false. You can't argue that advancements in modern medicine are more successful than "natural" alternatives. Vaccines have done a better job of keeping humans alive than folk cures. Adding fluoride to water sources has increased dental health across the globe. Antibiotics work better at healing our bodies than rubbing Thieves oil on our skin does.
I understand that you may have feelings about modern medicine. You may feel like it's the job of "big medicine" to keep everyone sick all the time to make money. You may feel like vaccines cause autism, thanks to the rantings of Jenny McCarthy (and others). You may feel like the body has a natural rhythm that works better with "natural" cures made of herbs and oils. But here's the thing: lots of research exists to confirm or refute these ideas. If you're a conspiracy-type who thinks that the research can't be trusted because "Big Medicine" is behind it, well, discover the truth for yourself. Cure your cancer with frankincense oil. Cure your HIV with reiki. Cure measles with eucalyptus and cinnamon bark. Cure whooping cough with little white homeopathic pills.
Spoiler alert: You won't be able to do it. I realize this may sound like I'm really against "alternative medicines" but that's not the case. After years of research and my own experimentation, I now recognize the benefits and the limitations of these types of therapies. I see them now as complementary medicines and therapies. It's true that reiki won't cure your HIV. But it's also true that reiki could vastly improve your day-to-day sense of wellness while living with and treating HIV. It's true that frankincense oil won't cure your cancer. It may well prove to be true that frankincense oil could improve your mood and help you release stress while dealing with the physical and mental trials of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Essentials oils and reiki and other such therapies are objectively not as effective as modern medicine (sometimes proven to be no more powerful than a placebo, as has been the case with homeopathic medicine). However, this doesn't mean that they aren't still useful. Many practitioners of alternative therapies feel the need to exaggerate claims about the therapies in order to make sales, increase demand, and to appear knowledgeable. This is an irresponsible thing to do and people (and companies like Young Living) should be ashamed of themselves for promoting unsafe and unproven alternatives to common modern medicine.
Another factor here is that the definition of "natural" changes wildly to suit the needs of the particular practitioner or company. Sure, the existence of essential oils is natural in that they are found within plant structures of many (but not all) plants, but is it still natural to process and refine massive amounts of plant material to extract very small amounts of very concentrated fragrant oil? Is rose essential oil as natural than the plant it came from? Rose oil most commonly comes from the plant Rosa × damascena, a species of rose that was actively cultivated by humans to attain a certain scent and appearance. This plant is not found growing in the wild (x), and is only grown on farms. Can this genetically modified organism be seen as natural at all?
So, of what use is the idea of "natural?" Most of the plants we use in herbal medicine have been bred to look, smell, and taste a certain way by our ancestors. This doesn't seem to bother people nearly as much as the idea of eating GMOs (like corn and dairy cows (yep. many cows are GMOs. Even if they're grass-fed)), despite the fact that the idea is to use herbs and oils in and on our bodies. Where is the line? What does "natural" even mean?
I believe that it doesn't mean anything. It's simply a marketing term to create the illusion of Truth and exclusivity. Humans have impacted our planet and environment too much for there to be a meaningful difference between "natural" and "synthetic" in most cases. Like, are you really going to use essential oils as natural medicine, instead of seeing your doctor, in your modern house fitted with electricity and municipal water? Ok.
Finally, we have to address the fact that, regardless of whether or not you think a given thing is natural, natural does NOT mean safe.
As I said, essential oils are a highly processed plant product and, because of the nature of the extraction process, they are extremely concentrated. Here are some figures I got from doTERRA (though these aren't hard to find in other places):
Approximately 3 pounds of lavender flowers are required to produce just 15mL of lavender essential oil.
It requires more than 10,000 pounds of rose petals to distill just one pound of rose oil! In terms of bottles, that is approximately 105 pounds of rose petals per 5mL bottle.
It requires 6,000 pounds of melissa [lemon balm] plant to distill just a single pound of melissa essential oil. That equals around 63 pounds of melissa per 5mL bottle.
Nearly 3,000 lemons are needed to distill just over 2 pounds of lemon essential oil. This equals about 50 lemons per 15mL bottle.
We can all agree that the scent of lemons is bright and sunny—enlivening, even. But if we were to distill 50 lemons into one tiny 15 milliliter bottle, is it safe to assume that what were once benign lemons are now a powerful and dangerous chemical? You know that lemon juice in your eye or on a wound stings like crazy. That juice has some essential oil in it- but not much. There's a lot of water and plant material in there as well. Extracting just the oil has the potential to do much more than sting.
Lemons on their own are a harmless addition to dinner or a cup of tea. But lemon oil is phototoxic (when cold-pressed, which is almost always the case), meaning it may cause your skin to be so sensitive to the sun as to discolor or burn.
Nature is not inherently safe, and neither are the organisms living within it. There are plenty of mushrooms growing in the woods that can kill you. Lots of plants are poisonous. Some plants, like red raspberry leaves, are safe when they're fresh or dried, but can be toxic when they are in the process of drying.
Natural does not equal safe, and it never has. We need to be smart when we interact with our world and we can't assume that if it grew out of the ground it's good for us.
All of this is to say that, yes, essential oils are toxic to cats. Even not knowing this, it boggles the mind to understand someone so committed to their appeal to nature delusion that they'd apply essential oils to their cat's body. At the very least, I think it's common knowledge that dogs and cats have much, much more sensitive senses of smell than we do. In fact, cats have an additional organ used to detect scent located in the roof of their mouth called the vomeronasal organ. Applying a substance that is often too strongly scented for humans to an animal with a much more heightened ability to perceive scent seems obviously cruel.
That may be a touch harsh, since it's common for humans to overwhelm themselves with so much scent that they may be scent-blind to many scents that upset animals. Cats who won't use their litter boxes very well may be put off by the intense aroma used to cover the smell of waste (not all cats behave this way. Also, it's my experience that unscented litter, when scooped daily, never becomes aromatically problematic).
These points are largely moot since cats are unable to metabolize many constituents of many essential oils. Putting these oils on their bodies, diffusing the oils in the air, or, god forbid, feeding these oils to cats can absolutely kill them. Why would that be shocking? They are concentrated and dangerous chemicals.
I am not a veterinarian and I won't claim to know what's best for your pets. I will say this, though: Never ever ever ever ever never use essential oils on your pets (of any kind) and don't EVER allow your pets to eat or drink substances that have essential oils on or in them.
If you choose to diffuse essential oils (I do!), do so sparingly and ALWAYS in a separate room from your cat's favorite places. Allow for ample ventilation and make sure there are rooms for your cat to retreat to that do not have essential oils diffusing in them. For example, I only diffuse oils when I do yoga, and even then, only sometimes. I only do yoga in my office because my cat likes to sleep in the living room. If I diffuse oils while I'm in the bath, I turn on the exhaust fan and leave the door closed.
Be careful of using oils to clean floors and surfaces where your cat walks. I personally don't use essential oils to clean, since I've found that they're pretty bad at it. But if you want to add oil to your mop bucket, keep your cat out of the room, and allow for ample ventilation before the cat can return.
In general, use essential oils sparingly. They are an extremely concentrated oil that requires a massive amount of land and resources to produce, and they should be treated as such. Nobody needs to be dousing themselves or their homes in oil, much less their poor pets.
And, remember: it doesn't always need to be an all-or-nothing fight. You can still work with essential oils (because they're fun and smell great!), but you should also recognize them as what they are: concentrated chemical compounds. Safe for you doesn't mean safe for kitty. Unsafe for kitty doesn't mean unsafe for you. Tread the grey space responsibly.