Cats and essential oils – perfectly safe now? Exploring the controversy

peeking cropped 222x300 Cats and essential oils   perfectly safe now? Exploring the controversyI received a new post on Monday morning by a holistic vet I respect and often quote, Dr Karen Becker. The title was Forget everything bad you’ve been told about essential oils for pets.”

My first thought was:

“This could be great news! I hope she will assure me once and for all that I don’t have worry about using essential oils – which I love – around my cats.”

My second thought was:

“Wait, this better be very convincing. I don’t want to use or recommend something that could hurt cats.”

My third thought, after reading, was:

“Uh oh, I’m not totally convinced.”

Let me explain.

The scientific origin of essential oils concerns with cats

Dr. Becker’s article doesn’t go into the fact that cats are known to be lacking in an important liver detoxification enzyme called glucuronosyltransferase.

This little enzyme, as Wikipedia explains, is key to the detoxification of the top 200 drugs, as well as most foreign environmental chemicals. Wikipedia’s article on glucuronosyltransferase goes on to say that these enzymes are…

“…famously…not present in the genus Felis,[3] and this accounts for a number of unusual toxicities in the cat family.”

We now know, for instance, that this is why Tylenol and aspirin can be fatal to cats – their livers cannot clear these substances safely even though most others mammals (like you and I) can.

Here are a couple recent research studies published on cats and their “unusual toxicities.”

 A few things I discovered:

  1. I will never be a chemist – this stuff is very rough reading.
  2. These studies are so recent that most vets would not have learned of them in school.
  3. These studies mention cats have trouble detoxifying “phytoalexins” and “phenolic”-like substances found in nature. Herein lies controversy over which substances in plants and flowers – and how much – could tax or harm a cat’s liver. These substances in essential oils are hundreds of times more concentrated than in fresh flowers and plants.
  4. There was a nice lady named Sue Martin who published a whole website on this topic, called The Lavender Cat, which has been “temporarily offline” for many months. You can, however, read this article of hers and view her original interviews with doctors, etc, (via the Way Back Machine) here.

Here’s the thing that worries many of us cat-a-holics:

Though there are only a few reports of cats becoming severely sick or dying because of essential oil exposure, the liver is essential to a healthy immune system. So a taxed liver, over time, means our cats become vulnerable to diseases like cancer.

In fact, there is a known association between toxin exposure and lymphoma. Lymphoma is more common in cats than humans now. I suspect the cat’s detoxification limitations (not essential oils in particular, but all toxins) may be the reason.

Did I ever use essential oils around a cat?

I sure did – essential oils were in my bath, in diffusers, in my hand lotion. But that story did not end well.

Bastet got high-grade lymphoma and died after barely turning 12. As you may know, I believe there were a number of other factors that probably contributed to the cancer, but this is a possible factor I can pretty easily not repeat.

In spite of the carefree title, I hope others don’t walk away from Dr. Becker’s article assuming there is no need for caution.

The overarching message of the article at first scan seems to be “don’t worry about using essential oils with cats at all – as long as you use high quality oils, no problem!”

But there are bits of caution in this article that are easily overlooked:

  1. Fresh plants are 500 – 2000 times weaker than essential oil concentrations. The post includes the idea that The cat likes the smell of lavender, therefore the oils must be safe for him. But I would come to the slightly different conclusion of The cat likes the smell of lavender, so lavender flowers (not necessarily oils) are probably safe for him. Sure, the essential oil smells just like a safe natural flower, but it’s not a safe natural flower in this case  it’s a concentration that is 500 – 2000 times stronger than a flower. Does that cat know this?
  2. What about the long-term weakening of liver and immune system? The post says “Melissa has been using essential oils in her practice for about three years now…” The article says that Dr. Melissa reviewed her cat’s blood work repeatedly at first to make sure there were no ill effects. That is most the convincing part of the whole article. But, is 1 -3 years long enough to see long-term weakening of liver and immune system? I’m not sure.
  3. Damage “does happen.” The article clearly says, “Shelton has spoken directly to people with cats that have been damaged by essential oils, so it does happen – just not as often as many people think.” It’s very easy to miss this line in the article.

As for me, if “it does happen,” that’s reason for some alarm.

I truly hope, as the article implies, that these oils can be used safely somehow.

I’m open to the possibility that it’s simply a question of quality and scale. The article implies there should be usage guidelines, but clear safety instructions are not included.

But, I honestly think we’re getting into an area of cat and plant biochemistry where we don’t have all the details yet, so I personally will continue to err on the side of caution.

Sure, a vet knows a lot more about cat health than a concerned cat lover like me, but vets (like some MD’s) have been wrong before – and what do we do when they contradict each other?

We make our best guess and we choose the way forward we can live with. That’s all we can do.

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22 Responses to Cats and essential oils – perfectly safe now? Exploring the controversy

  1. Holly Albin April 11, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Does anyone know of a safe non-toxic “perfume” alternative to EO’s and to most commercial colognes which are full of toxic fragrances? I would like something for personal use and for the home that I can feel is safe around my 5 cats. I use all non-scented personal care products and cleaning (vinegar, peroxide and isopropyl alcohol) but have been using small drops of EO’s, mostly rosemary, lavender and patchouli diluted with isopropyl alcohol when I want a little perfume for going out. Now, even this worries me. Also, what about the peppermint oil used in my Dr. Bronner’s bar soap I use in my shower and on my face and hands? Is that a worry as well?

  2. Sue Martin February 6, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

    Hello,
    Very informative site about not using essential oils on cats or over diffusing their living quarters.

    Your are correct; a cat’s liver has not changed and claims that it’s okay with ‘the right oil’ is pure hyperbole.

    In my experience, the MLM’s multilevel hypesters are the worst for dishing out bovine excrement to sell a product and gain ‘more downliners’ and anyone else ‘thinking’ they can change a cat’s physiology with hype for sales.

    Keep up the good work, and thank you for the compliment.
    Sue Martin The Lavender Cat

    I sent you a private message from your contact page.

  3. Gigi July 2, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    Hi,
    I have a 2 year rescue cat.
    In the last 6 months I’ve been spraying citronella oil diluted in water to ward off mosquitoes & recently started adding the citronella to my lotions as it lasts a little longer for keeping the mosquitoes at bay. I’ve sprayed peppermint oil on the sofa to keep my cat off it—he avoided it like the plague until the scent finally faded away. In the last month I’ve started using tea tree oil, diluted in a carrier oil, to treat my in-grown hairs. I want to start using citrus oils in a baking soda deodourising disk around the house.
    I live in the tropics with lots fresh air, and my cat is house cat with unfettered roaming.
    I would like to know if I need to stop using all these essential oils? And, are there any essential oils that I can use around my cat?
    Please note I have no intention of ever using essential oils on nor feeding them to my cat—just in the home.

  4. Cait April 24, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    I know this is an old post but if you could enlighten me on the subject of this question. I have been making face creams (3.5 oz) with 4 drops bergmont EO, frankensence EO and Lavender EO. I have cats, dogs, and horses. I put a tiny amount on my face and neck at night and after an hour go to bed. My 17 year old cat sleeps with me and after doing this for three days I found your article. I also tried to email the Lavender Cat but their email is not up. I am worried because I do not know how long after I apply the cream is it safe for my old gal to curl up and sleep with me. I love her so much and would never willingly harm her. Do you have ANY idea where I can find this answer? Would you not use the face cream all together? I do not use any EO’s outside of the one face cream and we have no diffuser but still it makes me nervous. Thanks! Cait

    • Liz-cat May 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

      Hey Cait, it’s a good question – about your face cream with EOs & your cat’s wellbeing – but honestly I don’t think anyone can answer it with 100% certainty because we don’t have enough data yet. Here’s my guess: at the very least I would not let my cat’s fur touch my skin as long as the lotion is still fragrant.

    • Nanci August 18, 2013 at 6:45 am #

      The Bergamot is listed in the unsafe group of oils for cats. Might want to eliminate that one

    • Sue Martin February 6, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

      Hello Cait,
      I’m Sue Martin, the Lavender Cat. Yes, my email is inactive on my site.

      Liz’s site caught my eye and impressed me with her presentations of essential oils and cats and the whole cat.

      As I am a guest, I wish to defer to Liz regarding the answer after Liz and I chat.
      Thank you,
      Sue

  5. Jen January 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    I was also excited about the article by Dr Becker and Dr Shelton, but it was a downhill journey. When you navigate to links posted by these doctors for crucial safety information, you have to spend $40 for the pet guide to essential oils (or $30 PDF file) and/or $75 for the Essential Oils Desk Reference ($90 here in Canada).

    They have this very convincing article that greatly encourages pet owners to delve in to to essential oils, but in order to do so safely you must send them money, just for research/reading. This is not the attitude of people who really care about the safety of our animals. It certainly breeds negligence in well-meaning pet owners.

    Then of course the only tangible safety information offered without paying a price is that you must use therapeutic/medical grade essential oils. Then it links to the “only” recommended brand, and surprise, Dr Shelton is a distributor and thus earns a percentage of sales of Young Living essential oils. That is not to say that she doesn’t truly believe in this specific brand, but it all points to prioritizing money-grabbing over caring. If she had linked to the YL brand without having direct affiliation it would be more credible and a decent act. Among all her advice she not only recommends using Young Living brand, but states that she will literally refuse to help pets if their owners don’t use this brand. *slow clap*

    Again, this is not a slam at the products of Young Living, but the exclusivity shown by Dr Shelton. It’s like a physician saying he will only help you if you use brand-name medication with the exact same ingredients and quality control as a generic, when that physician makes a cut of the earnings of that name brand. It’s a dirty thing to do.

    The honest and selfless approach would be to recommend multiple brands of the highest quality and information given to the consumer as to how to properly research said quality and liver-effects(!) on their own. I think it’s very wrong to put suggestive ideas of essential oils in cats without simultaneously cautioning more than just quality of oil. There is so much to know before a person should contemplate usage on cats. Relying on partial information can kill.

    This article ( http://www.experience-essential-oils.com/essential-oils-for-cats.html ) doesn’t skimp on acknowledgment of the missing enzyme in cats and goes over what compounds of essential oils should absolutely be avoided (Ketones, Phenols, Monoterpenes) and the essential oils containing such are listed, as well as what approximate percentage of the offending compounds they contain. The wording of the article is a bit in need of an editor, but it it has much useful information. Interestingly, the author of the article has their own shop with therapeutic grade oils but also suggests reading Dr Shelton’s work (and thus optionally purchasing from YL). That’s some objectivity for you. This website also contains a VERY detailed article on what constitutes therapeutic grade, how it’s made and tested, etc, etc.

    I’m not ruling essential oils out for potential extremely mild and diluted use on occasion in my cats, but it’s not a decision to make lightly and the option of completely avoiding the risk may be the best one.

    • Kim October 3, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

      I agree with most of your thoughts here. It does seem like the fellow is peddling YL essential oils, but from his point of view, that is the only company he knows “for sure” that has “pure” oils. A lot of the other ones have junk added in them. They aren’t regulated the same way other things are. That is a good and bad thing. But saying that EOs are good for cats, in such a general manner is not good practice. First and foremost, each critter is an individual, and like humans, some things may be ok for one and not for another. BUT there are also some oils out there that are absolutely not ok near cats. I hate that the reference guide is so expensive. I know there are other ways to find the information online, but I am not certain of the costs.

  6. emi June 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Sorry…I posted the wrong website address above! Essential oils are safe for animals. You can view my facebook page Everyday Goddess for tips on how to use essential oils to your benefit.

    • Liz-cat February 3, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

      Sorry, I don’t believe they are safe for CATS, again, it’s known that cats have a different liver enzyme issue than other mammals.

  7. emi June 11, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    I use essential oils daily. I spray ants with a mixture of clove and peppermint. I have three cats. They are all still very healthy and alive. When I diffused lemongrass in the home, all the cats wanted to be by the diffuser, AND…mama kitty who has been sick since I found her had begun interacting after introducing oils to her. *she had previously spent almost a year in the closet or other dark space. Now she runs and plays more and has a better appetite. Nothing is 100% no “one size fits all in life!” I don’t believe the oils are all toxic if you use your intuition. I use doTERRA CPTG OILS…everyday. young living is crap and I wont give it to my pets.

    • Eliza Day October 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      EMI, I wanted to email you via Facebook but there are a lot of Everyday Goddess pages on FB. Can you email me? elizaday66@gmail.com.

      I do not put essential oils on my cat but I burn them in a diffuser and, of course, I put diluted Eo on my skin occasionally..usually on my wrists or on a chakra point. I only use francincense, patchouli, sandalwood and, occasionally, mugwort. I haven’t noticed any changes in my cat but, of course, I’m worried after reading certain things online.

      Would just smelling the diffused oil cause problems?

  8. Pam May 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Thank you, Liz. My eyebrows raised high when I saw that topic from Dr. Becker! I wasn’t convinced at all! Thanks for expanding on this topic.

    [ And YES, I want to hear more about your new cat enclosure ;-) Please do tell us much more about it! ]

    • Liz-cat May 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

      Sure thing Pam, and thanks for the encouragement. Cat enclosure – yay! I look forward to telling more about it!

  9. Liz-cat May 16, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Thank you Ingrid and Janet! Yes, that’s how I feel – we’ve got other natural & and alternative healing options that are less risky.

  10. Layla Morgan Wilde (Cat Wisdom 101.com) May 16, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    As someone with twenty years experience using and teaching aromatherapy, I believe the controversy will continue as long as alarmist articles pop up on Internet. Like they say, a little knowledge is dangerous thing. Vets are not aromatherapists nor chemists. Erring on the side of caution is an option but then again all meds have side effects. If you compared chemical abstracts for regularly prescribed meds (considered safe) you’d be surprised what you’d find. Sadly, most essential oils on the market are not therapeutic grade which is why I recommend getting oils prescribed from a certified aromatherapist. Here’s an easier to understand toxicology mongraph http://www.zenitech.com/documents/Toxicity_of_essential_oils_p1.pdf and a couple of articles on http://educateyoursenses.blogspot.com/2011/06/cats-and-essential-oil-safety.html or this http://www.optimumchoices.com/animals_essential_oils.htm

    • Sue Martin February 6, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

      Yes, the Lavender Cat research has helped many write their own articles or books, an example; Kristen requested information from me to use in her book, which she did and was to give credit to the Lavender Cat and my sources. I still have the emails of our conversation.

      The articles you posted are good in that they utilize the research and articles that I also shared with the public.

      A cat’s physiology has not changed regarding processing of essential oil compounds and there is proof of toxicity by essential oils, nothing has changed and I still stand by my findings; no eo’s on cats.

      My source for toxicology in cats was Dr. Khan, toxicologist DVM, Toxicology Urbana, Anthony Burfield, eo trade chemist and many papers, some of which are also mentioned in a familiar format.

      Glad to see you are attempting to see both human sides, a cat on the other hand can suffer with the human’s wrong choice.

      The therapeutic grade oil is hype and certified aromatherapists are not to prescribe.

      Yes, Robert Tisserand is well known and respected, I’ve read his works along with many others in the field.

      Please take this with the kind conversational mode in which it is sent. Good to see so many ideas in one place.

      Kindly,
      Sue Martin, The Lavender Cat

  11. Janet May 16, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    I am very grateful for your article about essential oils and cats. So may people rave about essential oils and how wonderful they are for animals, especially the so called high quality oils. Years ago I had a horrible ant problem in our house and posted the question to an animal communication group asking how to deal with the situation. One response was to place peppermint essential oil on the ant trail. I jumped up and did just that. I went back to my computer to find a response warning that peppermint essential oil was toxic to kitties. In horror I jumped up and washed the baseboards that I had just placed the oil on. Was I too late? The whole house reeked of the smell. Every since then I have been overly concerned about the affects of essential oils on kitties as well as other animals. Then last night I read an article and watched a video on You Tube by a very respected person in the animal field, about a new essential oil diffuser that she uses with her animals. The drops of oil are diluted in distilled water. I was concerned when she said to point the diffuser in the direction of where the animal sleeps. That didn’t seem right to me. Now I read your article this morning. Thank you. I got the message loud and clear. I will not be using essential oils around kitties. Thank you for including the scientific information. As Ingrid mentioned in the above comment, there are so many other holistic modalities available, why take a chance.

  12. Ingrid King May 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    Thank you for addressing this controversial topic in such a clear and concise manner, and separating out hype from science, and assumptions from facts. Perhaps it is, as you say, a question of quality and scale, but I’m with you: I’ll continue to err on the side of caution. With so many other holistic modalities available that are completely safe for cats, why take chances?

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