Essential Oils Can Kill Your Cat. Their Liver Can’t Eliminate the Phenols

Please don’t accidentally kill your cat because of bad advice on the internet.

Linda Caroll
Feb 9 · 9 min read

There’s a lot of hate and vitriol on the internet. Some places, you expect it. Political spaces. Twitter. Reddit. It’s almost part of the terrain, there.

It’s not just places. It’s topics, too. Write about feminism under a woman’s name and you’ll see savagery real quickly. You get to expect it, in some topics and spaces.

You know where I didn’t expect blistering rage?

In a horticulture group.

Plant lovers, for gosh sakes! Where our daily conversations are about pest management, cuttings, brag shots and general industry chatter like which greenhouse is propagating the new variegated monstera.

Sometimes, plant people can be hilarious. Like the time a woman got a bonus lizard in a tropical she’d just bought. Her kids found it before she did and now they have a pet lizard she has to feed.

There’s be a lot less vitriol in the world if people understood the difference between verifiable facts and opinions.

One day, a woman asked how to increase the humidity because it’s so dry in her house. For the zillionth time, someone suggested a little portable diffuser. Lots of little decorative ones on Amazon, she said.

You can even add essential oils to make the room smell nice, someone added.

But, not if you have cats, someone else replied.

That was it. That fast. The gloves were off.

I considered posting some of the comments so you can see how quickly a bunch of grown adults can descend into raving lunacy, but that’s not my style. Plus, I like the community. lol. Suffice to say this…

Don’t tell someone they’re killing their kitty. Even if they are.

It makes me sad to think there are beloved cats out there that will have a shorter life than they should, because of bad advice on the internet. In the middle of the chaos, one woman quietly posted that she learned the hard way. She didn’t know until it was too late. Her kitty died.

She was totally ignored. And of course she was.
Anger shrieks louder than experience.

One woman said it’s all nonsense. She uses essential oils “all the time” and if they were bad for cats, they’d be bad for babies and dogs too, and blah, blah, a bunch of misinformed opinion. Plus, she has a cat and it’s just fine.

Ever just want to slap someone?
Yeah. Me, too.

First? We’re not talking about dogs or babies. Just cats.

Maybe her kitty is fine right now. Until kitty’s liver can’t take anymore.
Then I promise… her kitty will not be just fine.
That’s not doom speak. It’s fact.

Hello, rainbow bridge

Almost every pet owner I know is familiar with the rainbow bridge. It’s a beautiful place, just this side of heaven, where beloved pets go to wait for us to find them again. All the old and ill pets are restored to health again, and there’s plenty of food and sunshine.

It’s a beautiful thing to think about when you’ve lost a beloved pet.

But we’re not supposed to send them there on purpose.
At least, not if we can help it. You know?

A cat’s liver can not metabolize or eliminate the phenols in essential oils.

Once upon a time, there were very limited ways people used essential oils in the first place. Maybe in your bath soap or a perfume in a sealed bottle that you rubbed or sprayed on your wrist once a day.

Maybe in a cup of tea made with essential oils. Even then, you have to know what you’re dabbling with. For example, if you’re on warfarin, you should not drink Chamomile tea. There are even essential oils that are known to cause spontaneous miscarriage.

It is heartbreaking to have dire results because we consumed something we didn’t know could hurt us. Pets are no different and they don’t get to choose.

Today, essential oils are much more common, largely thanks to network marketing programs on the internet. Now we’re putting essential oil in diffusers, dropping them in our tea or juice, rubbing them on our bodies straight from the bottle and diffusing them into the air we breathe.

The problem is that if a cat is also breathing them, you need to be aware that a cat’s liver cannot eliminate the phenols in essential oils. It will take a toll, that is a given. The only question is whether it’s sooner — or later.

All those lovely oils that smell like a dream to us are a nightmare for cats. In a New York Post article, veterinarian Carly Fox, who works at the Upper East Side Animal Medical Center in New York, says they’re seeing a lot more cases lately, and it’s becoming more frequent.

One cat owner shared her experience in a viral Reddit thread about her kitten, Marie, who collapsed after breathing essential oil vapor from a diffuser in her home.

The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, left her home for three hours and came back to find her kitten “almost dead.” She was “limp and barely breathing,” she wrote in the thread.

Sometimes, it starts so gradually, you don’t even notice. She’s off her food a little. Not eating like she used to. Or maybe she starts vomiting a little more often. Darn hairballs, you grumble and pick up some hairball remedy.

Other times, it’s not gradual. It’s rapid and ugly. One day kitty is fine and the next day he’s laying on the floor panting. He can’t breathe. Or staggering like he’s drunk, tripping on his own feet and clearly in terrible distress.

You rush kitty to the vet. Liver failure, he says.
I’m so sorry. It’s too late.

You’re crying, the kids are crying. Why, you ask? Why? The vet shakes his head sadly. Kitty must have “got into” something. Honestly, the vet doesn’t really have a better answer for you.

Because he can’t see the essential oil diffuser in your living room.

A cat’s liver can not metabolize or eliminate the phenolic compounds in essential oils. So those compounds build up in their liver until they succumb to liver failure. I did not invent that. It comes from the Pet Poison Helpline

Cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver and as such have difficulty metabolizing and eliminating certain toxins like essential oils. Cats are also very sensitive to phenols and phenolic compounds, which can be found in some essential oils. [Pet Poison Helpline]

Asking if essential oils are “safe” is like asking if plants are safe.

Well, which plant? Did you touch it, or eat it? How much? How often? Same with essential oils. They all contain phenolic compounds that a cat’s liver cannot metabolize or eliminate. Some have less, some have more. Are you trained enough to know which is which?

Dogs are mostly fine. Mostly. Not completely. A few essential oils are a problem to dogs, too.

Children are fine. Babies are fine. We humans can process the phenolic compounds no matter our age. You know why? Because we’re not cats. We have human livers, not cat livers.

Some oils have a higher concentration of phenolic compounds than others. Here’s a few of the essentials oils that are known to have high levels of the phenolic compounds that will cause problems for your cat.

- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia; Citrus Aurantium)
- Cinnamon
- Clary Sage
- Clove (Syzgium aromaticum)
- Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.)
- Geranium oil (Pelargonium sp.)
- Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
- Lemon oil (Citrus Lemonia) citronella
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
- Lime oils (Citrus aurantifolia)
- Orange oils (Citrus sinensis)
- Pine, spruce, juniper oils
- Rose
- Rosemary
- Sandalwood
- Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
- Wintergreen, peppermint, spearmint, mint (Mentha sp.)

That’s not an exhaustive list. It’s just a few of the most commonly used oils. Popular choices. Scents that people love to have in their home. Lavender in the bedroom to help you sleep. Citrus in the living room to smell fresh.

That’s not to say other oils (not on the list) are “safe” for your cat. They are not. All essential oils have phenolic compounds that a cat’s liver cannot metabolize or eliminate. All of them. It’s just how much.

The end result is that essential oils eventually exhaust affect a cat’s liver. Sooner or later. It’s not if. It’s just when.

“Natural” is not always better…

A lot of people mistakenly think that “natural” is always better. Even more dangerous, they think “natural” means safe.

Not so. Opium and arsenic are both natural substances.

Dr. James P. Collman is a Professor of Chemistry and professor emeritus at Stanford University. In his book NATURALLY DANGEROUS: Surprising Facts About Food, Health and the Environment, he reminds us that safety and quantity are related.

Since the days of Paracelsus, a German physician-scientist of the 16th century, doctors and chemists have known that the effect of a substance on the human body, be it good or ill, depends on the concentration in which it is taken.
— Dr. James Collman

Now let’s talk about quantity and those “natural” essential oils.

It takes 250 pounds of lavender to make a 16 oz. jar of lavender essential oil. There’s a big difference between tucking a few lavender blossoms under your pillow or putting a sprig in a vase and dropping several drops into your diffuser every day. It takes 60 roses to make one drop of rose essential oil.

In the case of cats and essential oils, quantity only determines how long your cat can hang in there before the liver is affected. That is not an if. A cat’s liver lacks the enzyme to metabolize or eliminate the phenols in essential oils.

Also? Be aware that some Vets have no clue…

Being a professional doesn’t make anyone perfect. We’ve all heard of doctors who write a prescription for a painkiller without running any tests. We’ve all heard of people that had to go to 5 different doctors to get a diagnosis.

Veterinarians are no different. I would love to think every veterinarian is aware of the danger of essential oils to cats. But that is not the case.

In digging for information, I found a vet in Iowa, whose website talks about essential oils and cats. The vet starts out great. Explains that cats lack the P450 cytochrome metabolic pathway, which means a cat’s liver cannot break down or metabolize certain drugs, medications, which includes essential oils.

And then — fail.

The article goes on to say that “quality” matters, and the vet suggests that if you’re going to use essential oils around a cat, you should use Doterra or Young Living brand.

I wanted to weep with anger. No, no, no. The brand doesn’t matter. The phenolic compounds do.

Ironically, even the Young Living essential oil site cautions against using their products around cats. More responsibly than that vet…

Use special caution with cats and essential oils. Avoid applying oils topically, diffusing the scent around cats, and having your cat ingest them. — Young Living Essential Oils

The problem is that network marketing has swept the essential oil market and there’s a whole lot of people who “sell from home” and give uneducated advice, and their friends and “customers” believe them.

To kitty’s detriment, and possibly death.

Signs of liver disease in cats

Few conditions are more heartbreaking than liver failure, in which a cat can experience rapid deterioration and be near death within 7 days after the onset of symptoms. Mortality rate is 25%–100%

Signs that a cat may be suffering liver failure vary, and can include:
— loss of appetite
— increased vomiting
— stomach ulceration
— diarrhea
— fever
— blood clotting problems
— jaundice
— abdominal swelling
— excessive urination and thirst
— change in liver size
— sudden weight loss
— gastrointestinal bleeding

If you have a cat and you want to put fragrance in a diffuser, please look for synthetic fragrance oils. They are not natural. They are not made from 250 pounds of anything. They are imposters made in a lab to smell like essential oils, without the phenolic compounds.

But also? Do the research. Many synthetic fragrance oils are made with phthalates that aggravate asthma in people and pets. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A bouquet of flowers or a beeswax candle will fill your room with a lovely scent without hurting anyone.

Please don’t accidentally kill your cat because of bad advice on the internet.

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