Column: Essential oils can be toxic to cats
Integrative Pet Vet
Essential oils are be coming increasingly popular for medicinal uses. They have a long history of use in humans and are now gaining widening acceptance as a therapeutic approach in animals.
There is a long list of proposed therapeutic uses ranging from treating bacterial and viral infections to reducing nausea, controlling inflammatory conditions and managing pain. There are approximately 400 aromatic plants that are processed for commercial use. The essential oils derived from these plants contain a mixture of volatile organic compounds that contribute to the flavor and fragrance of the plant. Additionally, many of these compounds have therapeutic value.
Extraction of essential oils includes steam distillation, solvent extraction and, more recently, CO2 extraction. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages that can affect on the quality of the essential oil, especially if it is intended for therapeutic use. Therapeutic essential oils should be free of contaminants, including solvents and pesticide residues.
Therapy can be performed through inhalation with a diffuser, through the skin with topical application and/or by mouth in animals. While many of the compounds in essential oils have been shown to have effects in cell culture, therapeutic effects in people and animals have not been completely studied. However, it is important to note that clinical experiences, in combination with mechanism of action studies, have provided valuable insights into the potential for therapeutic benefits.
With the growing interest in essential oil therapy for animals, it is important to consider the potential benefits and problems for a species like the cat. Cats are considered strict carnivores and have evolved differently than dogs and humans in regard to how efficiently they metabolize chemicals like phenols and terpenes found in certain foods and certain drugs.
The enzyme glucuronyl transferase, which is critical for efficient elimination of these chemicals, is deficient in cats. Toxicology studies have shown that it can take 48 hours for the liver to process these compounds using other enzymes. This means that cats are slow at removing drugs like aspirin, acetaminophen and certain compounds found in essential oils. As a result, cats are more susceptible to becoming toxic from these compounds than other animals like the dog.
Since essential oils contain a wide range of chemical compounds, it is important to understand the chemistry of each essential oil to determine the potential for toxicity, the therapeutic use, and the optimal dose and method of treatment. While some essential oils appear to be relatively safe for cats, the use of essential oils in cats has become controversial.
Some advocate the use of any essential oil with the idea that it is natural and therefore safe, especially if it is highly diluted. This is an erroneous assumption. Others recommend using only very small doses of very diluted essential oils in cats in an attempt to avoid toxicity. Still others are adamantly opposed to using any essential oils in cats.
The most rational approach centers on understanding the compounds found in each oil and determining which essential oils represent small or limited risk for toxicity in cats. These essential oils can be diluted and in some cases given infrequently enough to allow appropriate elimination from the body.
This approach allows for the careful use of essential oils in cats to achieve therapeutic goals while striving for safety. Examples of essential oils that are considered relatively safe in cats include frankincense, clary sage and helichrysum. However, it is important to use caution when using even the essential oils considered safe, especially in a cat that may have an illness that further inhibits the ability to process the essential oil.
Examples of essential oils that are considered unsafe for cats include citronella, tea tree, clove, pennyroyal, oregano, pine and wintergreen. Keep in mind that this is only a short list of essential oils that are not considered safe. There are many others. General signs of a possible toxicity in cats can include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea.
Once all the factors are considered regarding the ability of cats to detoxify and the chemistry of the essential oils, caution should be used when choosing essential oil therapy for cats. Careful selection of essential oils, small doses, large dilutions and infrequent applications may reduce some of the potential risk. Before initiating the use of essential oils in cats, seek the advice of someone experienced in their use.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT of Glenwood Springs was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist.
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