Recently, a new viral image has hit the web with a list of essential oils that will your kill your cat and, to punctuate the point, at the bottom of the image is a cartoon of a dead cat. In case you weren’t aware of the stakes. Naturally, this has caused a great deal of angst, especially since essential oils are the new coconut oil and are being used to treat (‘treat’?) everything from major depression to cancer.
On the one hand, I am a little dubious about the number of essential oil distributors who claim these volatile organic compounds are always safe, all the time, to all creatures and for all things. Put ’em in your tea! Drop them up your nose! Fill your childrens’ classrooms with the soothing aromas of eucalyptus!
On the other hand, I am also curious whether a little diffused lavender in the living room will lead to death and destruction, given the long and storied history of Glade plug-ins and Bath and Body Works candles in so many homes.
Naturally, I find the conviction of both sides fascinating, especially given the fact that there is really no data to prove that essential oils help anything OR kill anything*. So should we see what truth is out there?
Yay! 2018! New Health Debate Death Match!
First, you can’t really give the entire world of essential oils a blanket thumbs up or thumbs down because you’re missing a key item for context:
How is the oil being used?
Normally I am one to fall on the conservative side of things, especially when it comes to something that may or may not cause harm, but I also want to make sure we are clear on some important distinctions. It’s important to note that the discussion we are having today is specific to diffusing essential oils in the air.
Rubbing essential oils on your dog or cat is not wise; especially given a cat’s proclivity to groom everything off that you put on them. Feeding essential oils to your dog or cat is also not wise. We do indeed have data to suggest a number of adverse effects ranging from mild to severe due to essential oil ingestion. As you probably know, certain oils such as tea tree oil are well known to cause significant adverse reactions when ingested. These effects are worsened by the fact that many essential oils are meant to be diluted, so the contents in the bottle are highly concentrated.
*Take Away 1: Don’t Rub Essential Oils On Or Feed Them To Your Pet.
On the surface, it’s easy to say that you shouldn’t use essential oil in a diffuser around your pet either. But when I asked both an ER veterinarian who specializes in toxicology and another one who specializes in feline medicine (and between the two of them they’ve seen it all) about diffusing essential oils, I got a very ambivalent response. Two factors make diffusing oils less problematic than the previous examples: 1, the oils aren’t being ingested, and 2, they are diluted.
An animal’s response to certain smells is very subjective. Take humans, for example. We all know that one person who douses themselves in Old Spice and that other person who has a migraine every time the first guy walks by. In my house, my daughter lives for Bath and Body Works lotions, otherwise known as “the scents that can be detected from the Space Station.” She will use the happy granny apple soap layered with the happy granny apple lotion while lighting off a happy granny apple candle and not find a single thing amiss, while 5 rooms away my husband is choking and grabbing at his throat. The cat, who can materialize in and out of rooms at will, seems to have no problems being around the happy granny apple smell, or not, depending on her mood.
There are certain pets who are going to have a hard time tolerating aerosolized oils, and those are the same pets who have a hard time tolerating scented litter, carpet deodorizer, and plug in air fresheners:
- pets with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory diseases;
- Birds, pocket pets, animals that require an avian/exotic vet for treatment.
I would absolutely urge caution if you have a pet like that in your house. On the other hand, we do have some well accepted uses for aerosolized compounds in veterinary medicine- Feliway is a good example- so you can’t dismiss them across the board as always problematic. For more hairy details on the instances where diffused oils might be a problem, check out this piece on Snopes.
For the average pet and the average owner using these oils sparingly, the data hasn’t shown a pattern of diffused oils being a big health risk. This anecdotal information is probably as good as you’re going to get, by the way, because in order to have a real study you’d have to actually do some gnarly things to a bunch of animals and really, does the world of essential oils demand such drastic measures?
Take Away 2: Diffused Oils May or May Not Be a Problem But Are Usually Not a Death Sentence and Certain Vets You Know May Occasionally Use a Diffuser When Their Scent-Sensitive Husbands Are Out Of the House
In the absence of such hard and fast rules, you can rely upon your powers of observation and see if your pet responds to smells like my husband (coughing and running away) or my daughter (complete and total ambivalence) and act accordingly. In our house, we use such things sparingly.
Use common sense: There’s a difference between a little dab of jasmine mist and industrial strength, therapeutic levels of Vicks Vapor-Rub spewing pungent menthol and eucalyptus fumes into the air. Any time you make a change to the environment and your pet reacts with breathing changes, drooling, or hiding, you should evaluate your choices.
If in doubt, ask your vet, or simply don’t use them- but no need to take your sweet aunt Hildie to task and traumatize her with dead cat cartoons because she put a little lavender oil she bought from the nice lady at work into a diffuser in her front parlor. Of course, if it’s mustard gas and not lavender oil she’s aerosolizing, feel free to respond a little more forcefully.