The past decade has seen roughly one third of Americans turn to various forms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. As interest in natural medicine for humans continues to grow, so too has interest in natural medicine for pets. While many of these treatments are safe and effective for pets, veterinary practitioners have begun to see an alarming number of cats who have fallen ill following treatment with essential oils.
The responses to concerns expressed by these practitioners often range from surprise to suspicion. These remedies are natural! They’re been used for centuries! Perhaps the veterinary profession feels threatened by the healing capacity of a plant-based product available at the local health food store! Such reactions are understandable, but as one of my colleagues is fond of saying, rattlesnake venom is 100% natural and organic. In other words, not everything found in nature is beneficial and benign. Factor in a cat’s small size and unique physiology, and it’s easier to see how these treatments might do more harm than good.
Like many other substances, essential oils are processed in the liver, using a particular enzyme called glucuronyltransferase. Simply put, cats naturally lack this liver enzyme. For this reason, it is not currently recommended that cat owners apply any essential oils directly to their cats, or use essential oil diffusers in their homes. While many cat owners report having used diffusers without incident, bear in mind that the effects of toxicity can be cumulative, as opposed to sudden and dramatic. Cats may choose not to leave a room where a diffuser is being used, and their interest in sticking around can easily lead to a false assumption that they instinctively know what is best. While hydrosols added to a cat’s drinking water can provide a safer method of treatment, this should only be done under the guidance of the cat’s current veterinarian. And ideally, the prescribing practitioner should be one who specializes in Complementary and Alternative Medicine for pets.
While all essential oils can present problems for cats, products high in 1,8-cineole, camphor, pinene, limonene, methyl salicylate, ketones, and phenols are especially dangerous. These include, but are not limited to, bergamot, camphor, clementine, clove, eucalyptus, fir, most species of frankincense, grapefruit, juniper, lavender (spike), lavandin, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange (including bitter, blood and sweet varieties), oregano, peppermint, pine, rosemary, sage, spearmint, spruce, tangerine, tea tree, thyme and yarrow.
Clinical signs of essential oil toxicity in cats include respiratory distress, vomiting, tremors, unsteadiness, drooling, or low body temperature. The cat may appear to be coughing up a hairball, or attempting to vomit, but may only stay crouched in this position. Cats showing any of these signs require immediate veterinary intervention.
In the meantime, it’s a good idea to assess and reconsider the use of essential oils in our homes. If your cat has been exposed, but is not showing signs of illness, you may want to consider a veterinary check up which includes wellness blood work. This routine test will assess the function of your kitty’s internal organs, including his liver. If caught early, damage can often be stopped, and even reversed. As is often the case, just an ounce of prevention and early intervention can be worth a pound of cure.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic. http://www.sabalchaseanimalclinic.com/home.html
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