Essential Oils are absorbed both orally and through the skin and these are then metabolized in the liver. As cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver, they have some difficulty metabolizing and eliminating certain toxins such as essential oils. Cats are also sensitive to phenols or phenolic compounds, which are aromatic organic compounds found in essential oils. As to be expected, the higher the level of concentration of the essential oil, the higher the risk to the cat.
Some of the essential oils that cause toxicity are citrus oil, ylang ylang oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, eucalyptus oil, wintergreen. The symptoms do depend on the type of oil involved and the level of the concentration. These symptoms can include respiratory distress, liver failure, drooling, vomiting, tremors, ataxia, low heart rate and low body temperature.
Historically we used essential oils in candles, room sprays, passive diffusers or skin applications. Passive diffusers evaporate the oil which produce a pleasant smell. Some examples of these include reed diffusers – where the reeds soak up the oil and disperse the fragrance into the air, heat diffusers such as candle burners, where heat is used to evaporate the oil and personal evaporative diffusers such as bracelets that use the air currents in the room to diffuse the aroma. There are also fan type diffusers that use a fan to blow air through a filter or pad permeated with essential oil.
Respiratory irritation is generally the main danger to cats, as the essential oil is dispersed with the passive diffuser. There are instances where the oil of the diffuser gets onto the cat’s skin or is ingested. Some cats will develop a watery nose or eyes, drooling due to a burning sensation in their throats, nausea and difficulty breathing. Difficulty breathing can present as laboured breathing, fast breathing, panting, coughing or wheezing. Cats experiencing these symptoms need to be moved to fresh air immediately and will require emergency veterinary treatment if the symptoms don’t resolve quickly.
Cats with underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma, airborne allergies or cats who have been exposed to secondhand cigarette/pipe smoke their whole lives will be at greater risk for developing severe respiratory irritation.
More modern active diffusers are now in circulation and with these diffusers actual particles of oil are emitted into the air along with the pleasant oil aroma. Examples of these are nebulizing diffusers, with pressurized, high speed air streams and ultrasonic diffusers, where an electric current causes a vibration.
These small droplets dispersed by active diffusers also pose a risk to cats. This risk is dependent on the proximity of the cat to the diffuser dispenser. Droplets can collect on the cats coat and the oil is then absorbed through the skin or ingested during grooming.
Symptoms can include drooling, vomiting, tremors and ataxia, low heart rate, respiratory distress. Potentially liver failure can develop, depending on the type of essential oil and the quantity ingested.
We urge all our cat guardians to be cautious when using essential oils and diffusers in the home. Protect your furry friends from this toxic risk.
Please do not apply concentrated essential oils directly onto your cats. Contact Otaki Vets on 06 364 6941 with any questions or concerns.