Be Wary of Aromatherapy Claims for Cats
By Sue Martin
Please be wary of any animal practitioner or supplier of essential oils claiming that their products or techniques are completely safe to use with cats: the statement is both inaccurate and unsafe. No matter what their claims say, nothing will change the unique physiology of a cat.
Generally, essential oils consist of hydrocarbons or monofunctional compounds from mono-and sesqui-terpenes, together phenylpropanoids and other volatile aliphatic and aromatic substances.
Many terpenoids are rapidly absorbed orally and dermally by the cat's system and are metabolized in the liver. Due to their volatile nature, inhalation of essential oil components is also possible, and these enter the bloodstream via the lungs, also to be metabolized in the liver. The terpenoids and their metabolites are often conjugated with glucuronic acid (glucuronidation) and glycine depending on the type of terpenoid and animal species involved. The conjugated metabolites are usually more water-soluble and are easily excreted through the kidney and feces.
Cats are known to be deficient in their ability to eliminate compounds through hepatic glucuronidation (they lack enzyme glucuronyl tranferases). Glucuronidation is an important detoxification mechanism present in most animals except cats. Lack of this important detoxification mechanism in cats may result in slower elimination and thus build up of the toxic metabolites in the body causing toxicity problems.
Most people are aware of warnings that focus on the topical and oral administration of essential oils, but they are generally unaware that inhalation of essential oils can also be unsafe for your cat. Oils can affect a cat by absorption and inhalation just like for humans, and precautions should be used when repeatedly diffusing essential oils, since the development of liver damage can be a slow process without any visible symptoms.
When diffusing oils, try not to use excessive amounts of essential oil, and choose oils which have lower volatility's as far as possible. In addition, ensure good air circulation especially during the diffusion process, so that local concentrations of essential oil vapour are not built up in non-airchanged areas inhabited by the cat. Make sure cat can get to 'undiffused' air at any time if possible, and only diffuse in an individual room if cat does not have access i.e. make it a multi-room location. Toxicology studies show that the feline liver usually needs 48 hours to process and excrete 'terpenes', thus allow 48 hours between end of last diffusion and starting another to avoid repeated exposure by inhalation.
As most of you probably know, humans become quickly used to the intensity of a beautiful aroma ("adaptation") and have the habit of 'freshening it up' and adding more essential oils, definitely not so good for the cat. To test this, leave the area for another area not affected by the diffusion for about 15 minutes, re-enter the room and you will again smell the aroma. Remember cats have many more olfactory receptors than we do and are probably trying to figure out why you use so much oil.
Following is only a very small sampling of the many unsafe applications and untrue claims for cats:
1. "Essential Oils are distilled from plants & through their processing & mixing with vegetable oils, they oxygenate your pets' blood system & soothe their emotions & nerves."
This statement is untrue, essential oils do not oxygenate an animal's or a human's blood, yet a certain multi-level marketing company espouses this myth as proven scientific data, whereas it is actually pure sales hype.
2. "This Essential Oils product has been developed for application in the ears of cats and kittens with ear mite infestation. Recommend daily application to both ears in infected pets to kill mites and control infection in ear canal".
Frankincense and Helichrysum in diluted vegetable oil base, apply several drops to each ear daily for 2 to 4 weeks.
PRECAUTIONS: Discontinue use if redness, swelling, heat or pain result from application of this product.
They offer precautions, as reactions will most likely occur. They do not tell you that placing the essential oils and vegetable oil in the ear will actually do more damage than good to the internal ear organs. That the oil blend can build up causing deafness and the cat's system is absorbing enough essential oil compounds to cause permanent liver damage or death.
There is no valid research that shows Frankincense and Helichrysum essential oils kill ear mites in cats, but there is proof essential oils are toxic to cats.
3. A book on animal aromatherapy recommends using peppermint essential oil on a cat or kitten for respiratory problems and runny nose.
The owner of a kitten wrote to me about how her kitten even after applying 2 drops of peppermint on its chest, as the book instructed, would not get better. First, I felt a stab of sympathy for the kitten because her owner had read and applied an unsafe application, and secondly, frustration that authors write such unsafe information.
I told her she should have taken the kitten to a veterinarian as some respiratory problems can be life threatening or contagious to other cats. I then suggested she place two drops of peppermint on her cheek, as that is a tender spot but not as tender as the skin of 6-week-old kitten, to feel for herself to a lesser degree what her kitten is feeling. She wrote me back, "Sue, I thought you were wrong, I placed the two drops and felt nothing, but after about 30 seconds it started to burn and redden my skin, even after trying to wash it off, the burning is terrible. I feel so bad that I did this to my kitten, no wonder he is so upset and meowing so much. I will never put essential oils on my cat again and I am throwing away the book."
N.B. There are reports of respiratory failure in children when menthol (a major component of peppermint oil) has been applied to the nostrils.
4. Another big mistake is to apply the healing benefits of essential oils seen in the human situation to the feline situation.
5. Many make the mistake of applying an essential oil dosage suitable for a human baby to a cat, thinking that, due to its small size, if it is safe enough for a baby, it must be safe for cats. Babies do not have a cat's liver!
6. There is a debate about the use of hydrosols and cats. Hydrosols also named hydrolats or floral waters are promoted as 100% safe for use with cats, when there is no proof that this is so. Testing is not required* of hydrosols as it is with essential oils, so 99% of the suppliers don't even know what compounds are in their product. No valid information exists to confirm that the use of hydrosols topically and internally with cats is safe, therefore using hydrosols on your cat may have unknown risks. Remember essential oils were once considered safe until cats started getting sick and/or dying due to their special liver physiology!
*There is one exception to testing required; Turkish Rose Hydrosol producers are required by Turkish Law to test and maintain the established high quality standards of their products.
Library of Congress Copyright TXu1-041-842 May 15, 2002 by Sue Martin