If you’re a cat person, there’s nothing better than the company of your feline friends. But cats are notoriously finicky creatures, and they’re sensitive and moody, just like us.
If you’re trying to keep an anxious kitty calm—or treat more serious health conditions—there’s lots of information online that can help, but it’s often contradictory. Take the case of essential oils: Some claim those plant extracts can help to keep kitties happy and healthy, while others insist they’re hazardous to cats’ well-being.
“It’s very controversial, even within the rescue world,” explains Carrie Lu, a volunteer and foster at Vegas Cat Rescue. “A lot of people say essential oils are not good for animals. You have to be extremely careful.”
Lu first began experimenting with essential oils when nine of her foster kittens contracted ringworm. “I was extremely frustrated—I had ringworm in my house for nine months, and nothing would work. I went to the vet’s office and received a lot of prescriptions, but those didn’t work, and it didn’t go away. So I started to look for other alternatives.”
Lu clarifies that not all essential oils are safe for use on cats. In fact, many are harmful, if not toxic and potentially deadly, especially when applied directly to a cat’s fur.
According to petpoisonhelpline.org, droplets dispersed by essential oil diffusers, though small, “pose a risk to cats.” Essential oil microdroplets can collect on a cat’s coat, then be absorbed directly through the skin or ingested during grooming.
The Pet Poison Helpline website reads: “Drooling, vomiting, tremors, ataxia [wobbliness], respiratory distress, low heart rate, low body temperature, and liver failure can potentially develop, depending on the type of essential oil that was used and the dose that the cat was exposed to.
“Like oil and water, essential oils and cats really do not mix. Owners should be cautious using essential oils and diffusers in their homes in order to protect their cat(s) from a toxic risk. Most importantly, concentrated essential oils should never be directly applied to cats.”
For that reason, the founder of AnimalEO, a company that makes essential oils for cats, began researching these potent chemicals in search of a safer way for both animals and humans to enjoy their benefits.
“Essential oils continue to be a controversial subject in the world of veterinary medicine,” reads the veterinary website of AnimalEO founder Dr. Melissa Shelton. “After meeting many successful essential oil users, [the] holistic veterinarian became dedicated to uncovering the truth behind the toxicity reports in animals.”
And from the Animal EO website,
animaleo.info: “Most of what you read on the internet, and even in the veterinary community, is a huge warning about using essential oils around animals. Danger [is] the theme, especially where cats and birds were concerned.
“I could not understand why there could be so much bad press out there on essential oil use and animals,” the website continues. “However, there were still some people who clearly had some pretty amazing results.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends erring on the side of caution. “In their concentrated form, essential oils can absolutely be a danger for pets,” the group explains. But “using an oil diffuser for a short time period in a secured area, one that your dog or cat cannot access, is not likely to be an issue.”
Because the research on essential oils and pets isn’t clear, Shelton decided to take the matter into her own hands. “I drew blood and urine samples prior to introducing essential oils into our home, and continued to monitor them afterward.”
On her site, Shelton reports that she recorded her cat’s behaviors, respiratory rates and responses when they had a health concern. Now, she creates essential oil blends made specifically for pets at concentrations that should be safe for animals.
“Being able to provide a product that will actually carry the proper use recommendations for cats, dogs, horses, cows, exotics or any animal is of huge importance,” Shelton says on her site, adding that her products are specifically designed for animals rather than humans.
Lu, like many other cat parents, continues to use essential oils in moderation on her pets, but it’s important to know the risk factors involved, and what signs to look out for if your pet experiences a toxic reaction like essential oil poisoning.
After Lu’s foster kittens’ ringworm resolved, her oldest cat also got very sick. “She was losing weight. I could feel the bones in her spine, and I could tell she was deteriorating,” Lu says.
After vets repeatedly told her there wasn’t much they could do, she took her pet to her own holistic doctor. And, she says, the results were surprising.
“She gained her weight back, and she’s more active today than she was three years ago,” Lu says.
Lu’s doctor gave her cat a treatment involving liquid oxygen—a tincture composed of multiple holistic remedies, including essential oils. Her cat’s recovery was so impressive that Lu partnered with her doctor to start selling the remedy through the Vegas Cat Rescue website. “Now, everywhere I go, I tell people about liquid oxygen,” she says.
Even if you opt to avoid essential oils, there are other ways to provide comfort to cats through diffusion. Calming aids, like Feliway, plug into electrical outlets and approximate the pheromones released by the mother when kittens begin to nurse. “By mimicking this bonding pheromone, Feliway creates a state of calmness and comfort to alleviate tension and conflict between cats,” the product description reads. While undetectable by humans, the plug-ins can reportedly be beneficial to highly anxious cats.
While the topic of essential oils for animals might be contested for a long time, there are a multitude of safe and effective treatments for cats. If you’re considering trying a product but don’t know if it’s feline-friendly, consult your veterinarian for the most up-to-date guidance and information.