Curiosity killed the cat. And essential oils can too if you’re not careful.
We all love our feline friends, but they have an uncanny knack for getting into things they shouldn’t. So it’s our job as responsible pet owners to be in the know about what’s dangerous for them and then keep it far far away from their cute little noses.
Read on for top-of-the-line tips to keep your cat safe (without throwing away all your essential oils).
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Cats Are Sensitive to Certain Essential Oils
Researchers have identified two major categories of essential oils that are more dangerous to cats than other mammals (such as humans, dogs or horses). The reason these essential oils are more dangerous to cats lies in the physiology of their liver. Cats lack an enzyme (glucuronyl tranferase) that in other animals helps to process and break down certain components of these essential oils. Due to the concentrated nature of essential oils, toxic buildup of these components occurs and can ultimately be fatal. 
If you’ve already used essential oils on/around your cat, don’t worry! If your cat hasn’t shown any symptoms of toxic buildup, they will likely be alright. Many oils are safe for cats, and even if you’ve used a toxic one your cat will probably be ok if you discontinue the unsafe use immediately, because it takes time for toxic buildup to occur.
So what are the components that make specific oils so dangerous to cats? They fall into two categories called phenols and monoterpene hydrocarbons.
[Also known as carbolic acid, phenol describes a group of aromatic organic compounds consisting of a phenyl group bound to a hydroxyl group. Although similar in molecular structure to an alcohol, phenols have their hydroxyl group attached to an aromatic hydrocarbon ring, whereas an alcohol’s hydroxyl group is bound to a saturated carbon atom.]
It turns out phenols can be pretty toxic to humans too. They are corrosive to the skin, eyes, and are irritants to the respiratory tract.  But this isn’t too surprising, given the safety warnings that come with high-phenol oils (Cinnamon, Clove, Thyme, Oregano, Savory). These oils are generally recommended for use at the lowest dilution of 1%. If used at a higher dilution, there is a risk of burning your skin or respiratory tract, depending on how you’re using it. Most websites recommend only using higher dilutions for very short periods of time when higher effectiveness is needed (such as getting rid of a particularly bad cold).
While humans can tolerate these oils is small amounts (due to our liver having the ability to filter out the phenols), cats have a much lower tolerance, and exposure of your cat to these oils should be as limited as possible.
[Terpenes are a very large class of organic compounds commonly produced in plants. Monoterpenes are within this class and consist of two isoprene units (which are a more basic organic compound produced by plants). Monoterpene hydrocarbon refers to a monoterpene attached to an aromatic hydrocarbon ring (what else has an aromatic hydrocarbon ring?… phenols!)]
Other than phenols, oils containing monoterpene hydrocarbons can be toxic to cats. So what oils contain monoterpene hydrocarbons? Unfortunately, many. Here’s a list of monoterpene hydrocarbons found in essential oils, and the oils that contain these components.
- Terpineol: cajuput oil, pine oil, and petigrain oil
- Limonene: Very common in citrus oils
- Pinene: pine oil (obviously), and other coniferous plants such as fir.
Using Pure Essential Oils is Key
Often, essential oils producers will dilute their oils with additives to bring down the price of the oil. Many of these additives are toxic to cats (and humans to an extent). So if you find that your cat is reacting to an oil not listed as toxic, it could be that the oil is not pure.
But how do you know you’re buying pure oils? There’s currently no way to know for sure unless you’re bottling the oils yourself. Many of you may know that there isn’t very much regulation when it comes to the quality of essential oils (i.e. something like “theraputic grade” means nothing because no outside body sets standards to meet). However there are things to check about a company that are an instant indication of diluted oils.
- Do they bottle their own oils? Many companies buy pure oils and then dilute them before re-bottling them and selling them at lower prices.
- How much information do they provide about their process? While some companies provide no information (which could mean anything), others specify their methods and even tell you where the plants used to make oils are sourced from.
- How much do they charge? Ok, now this one is a little less specific, but if something is too cheap to believe, you probably shouldn’t believe it. Too-low prices point to extensive dilutions (because no one is going to sell their products for a loss).
Safety Tips for Using Essential Oils Around Cats
Just because an oil is toxic to cats does not mean that you can never use it in your home. However it does mean that certain precautions will need to be taken to ensure your cat is not exposed to the oil. Here’s a list of tips to help keep your cat safe:
- Never diffuse a toxic oil in your home.
When an oil is diffused into the air, whether with an ultrasonic diffuser or a spray air freshener, there is a high potential that your cat will inhale the oil, same as you (that’s kind of the point of diffusing and air fresheners). The components of the oil that are toxic will be able to make their way into your cat’s body very easily through inhalation, so don’t even allow your cat to sniff toxic oils while you are using them. If you must use an essential oil by inhalation, try putting a few drops in a bowl of steaming hot water and then covering your head and bowl with a towel and breathe in the vapor. (Make sure there isn’t so much steam that you will burn your face – use your common sense). Make sure to do this in a room away from your cat.
For more information about diffusing oils, check out this post.
2. Never pet your cat after applying essential oils to your skin.
If there is any residual oil on your hands, it can get on their fur, and when they go to give themselves a bath they will ingest it. So be cautious and wash your hands well after applying oils, as well as making sure to keep the skin that you applied the oils on covered so that your cat does not rub up against you and get the oils on their fur that way.
3. Keep all your oils (toxic or not) stored where your cat cannot reach them.
We all know that cats are very curious and mischievous beings, capable of getting into almost anything. Even if your oils are sealed tightly, there is a likelihood that there will be residual oil on the bottle that your cat could lick off or get on their fur. So keep your oils in a closed cabinet or drawer that you are 100% certain your cat cannot break into. (Also for those of you with small children, remember that your kids could get into the oils and inadvertently expose your cat, so keep your oils out of reach of little hands as well).
4. Don’t use toxic oils to clean anything your cat could lick or rub.
When you use essential oils as cleaners (as with any cleaner) a residue is left on the surface. If your cat rubs against this surface or licks it, they can easily end up ingesting some of the toxic oil. So for example, it is ok to use toxic oils to clean your showehead, but not your kitchen counter (I’ve never met a cat that doesn’t like to lick dirty dishes left on the counter when you aren’t home).
5. Don’t leave out dishes that have touched toxic oils.
For those of you that cook with essential oils, it is important to put away or clean these dishes immediately after use because, as mentioned above, I’ve never met a cat that doesn’t love licking leftover food off the dirty dishes in the sink.
6. Use higher dilutions when possible
Even with all these precautionary measures, exposure of your cat could still happen, so use your toxic oils as diluted as possible for them to still be effective. This way, accidental exposure of your cat to the oil is less likely to be enough to cause a toxic buildup.
For more information on how to dilute your oils, check out this post.
Even if you have been using one of these toxic oils around your cat and your cat has been fine, you should NOT continue use. Toxic buildup happens over long periods of time, and in most cases there are no symptoms until it is too late.
List of Oils Toxic to Cats
Looking for a printable version of this list? Click here!
Note: While I have done a lot of research and compiled a list that most sources seemed to agree on, I cannot guarantee that an essential oil not on this list is automatically safe for cats. When in doubt, limit use around your cat, and never apply it directly to your cat’s fur or skin.
What tips and tricks have you guys implemented to keep your kitty safe? Let me know in the comments below!
- Addie DD, Boucraut-Baralon C, Egberink H, Frymus T, Gruffydd-Jones T, Hartmann K, Horzinek MC, Hosie MJ, Lloret A, Lutz H, Marsilio F, Pennisi MG, Radford AD, Thiry E, Truyen U, Möstl K; European Advisory Board on Cat Diseases. Disinfectant choices in veterinary practices, shelters and households: ABCD guidelines on safe and effective disinfection for feline environments. J Feline Med Surg. 2015 Jul;17(7):594-605.
- Budavari, S, ed. (1996). “The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemical, Drugs, and Biologicals”. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck.