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Danger for Cats: Pine and Other Essential Oils

Recently I had occasion to visit a pet store with an animal loving friend who is always in search of environmentally friendly products which her three cats will accept. She happened upon a bio-degradable pine scented kitty litter which, for all intents and purposes, seemed ideal for her family. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that pine in certain forms is toxic to cats.

pineneedlesIt has always perplexed me that so many litters these days contain the pine scent for odor control, and yet a part of me wants to believe that no manufacturer would purposefully use toxic substances in their litter products. I shared all this with Alyson and her reaction was one of a responsible pet guardian: “If there is even a small question about toxicity, I’m not buying it!”  That put me to researching…

Interestingly, when I did a basic Internet search using keywords “pine” and “feline” the first several results were a myriad of pine-scented cat litter products. There are so many! When I got to the real information, however, I found a number of resources which confirm that in fact pine oil and many derivatives of pine and the scent of pine are toxic to cats. Several veterinary blogs and Q&A forums answer the question of pine scented litter, and the common answer is “we DO NOT recommend using any form of pine or pine scent near your cats at all. The reason for this is pine oil can cause upper respiratory infections. We can recommend an alternative litter product …”

Then there was this exchange regarding a particular type of bio-degradable pine pellet litter:

David says:

August 17, 2009 at 7:55 am

As a researcher I can tell you that pine pellets are indeed toxic to cats. Phenols in particular are poisonous to the cats’ neurological system. You cannot eliminate phenols from those pellets. The first sign of toxicity is facial tics and abnormal whisker and ear movements.

Abby says:

August 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm

David, I was concerned about your comment and so I called [the manufacturer of a particular product], and the woman I spoke to reassured me that they have eliminated phenols from the pellets.

David says:

August 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Abby:
If you can smell the pine then the phenols are still present.

Several other resources further discuss pine oil and pine scent in an equally cautionary way. The primary culprit in pine and other essential oils (part two will discuss other essential oils) is, as the exchange above states, phenols. There is no debate that in their original form phenols are toxic to cats. Hydrosols, the diluted form of essential oils, are what is left after the oils are distilled to a seemingly non-toxic state. I say “seemingly” because there is controversy. Many of the research sites discuss hydrosols as a safe alternative, however some animal advocates insist that hydrosols have not been tested, and therefore unknown risks may exist.

cleaning productsIf you are currently using a pine-scented litter, I encourage you to check the label carefully. If “oils” or phenols are listed, there is a good chance the product is unsafe for your kitty. While you are reading labels, review your household products as well. Furniture polish, common floor and counter cleaners, paint removers and solvents with pine scent may contain undiluted/undistilled oils which may be toxic for your cats.

Pine oil is just one of several essential oils which can be dangerous to cats and small house pets. Part two will further explore common essential oils and their relationship to our pets.

10 comments to Danger for Cats: Pine and Other Essential Oils

  • Susan

    Essential oils are very toxic to cats and dogs who lick and groom their coats. It has to do with the phenols in the essential oils and what the carrier ingredients may be.

    I recently found this article that helped explain the reasoning behind this.
    http://www.experience-essential-oils.com/essential-oils-for-cats.html

  • I sprayed my cat with diluted lemon eucalyptus essential oil to try to keep Asian tiger Mosquitos from biting his ears when outdoors and he immediately started frothing at the mouth. Lesson learn about essential oils. My cat had a bath immediately to remove the oil!

  • Nancy B

    Hi,

    Is there some place (or some way) that I can check individual ingredients in cat litter?

    I found this site while looking to switch from the litter I’m currently using.

    I have four contenders, and would like to be able to check them before I try them out.

    I feel terrible, bc I used pine litter for over a decade without knowing it was a problem.

    Thanks!
    Nancy

    • Nancy –
      New litter products come on the market all the time – it’s hard to keep up to date! Your holistic pet supply store should be able to give you recommendations about safe cat litter products. Good luck!

  • linda

    Iin searching at my local natural pet store for a flea product I bought Evolv a product with 10%cedar oil, 0.1% lemongrass essential oil, and 89.9% hydrated silica. Being skeptical I visited their website which states that the product is safe for cats, as the phenols have been removed via a special process. Not being the trusting sort I decided not to chance it but before I did, I sprayed my cat trees and other cat furniture with it. phew. Just wondering if any information is available on this product from Wondercide or cedar oil for cats in general. Any information on natural flea treatments for cats would help also. thanks

  • I recently used pine pellets for my three Fire Finches. They all died from trouble breathing..there was a lot of suffering before they expired. It wasn’t until I spoke w/ the breeder of the finches and told him that I was using Natural Pine Pellets…advertised as Safe For All Animals…that he told me they are toxic for small birds. Very sad, these companies should not be able to sell products that kill animals.

  • Yev

    Ana quoted from the website that repeatedly states that Lavender is one of the safe oils. None of the “dangerous” oils on this page contain Lavender. My cat almost died of poisoning when I diffused Lavender oil in the room. Luckily I figured out in time what was causing the poisoning. I am amazed that there are no warnings. We are told not to use oils directly on skin and to avoid contact with eyes, but nobody mentions that if diffused at home it may kill your cat. I’m doing a lot of reading currently about the subject, but it seems that the best idea is to avoid oil use all together and to only use unscented natural soap for cleaning everything in the house.

    Thank you to all people researching and posting about the topic!

  • I was recently told by a vet that I could use a Vick’s menthol eletrical plug -in aerator in the room my cat stays in to help with his sinus congestion. Then I read the ingredients: eucalyptus oil, cedarleaf oil, myristica oil and nutmeg oil. It’s only an aerator and not ingested, will this be ok to help him?

    • I applaud your diligence in reading the ingredients, Lisa. As mentioned in the original post, it is the phenols which are produced by certain types of distilling processes that are particularly dangerous to cats. There is a train of thought that pure essential oils are safe for cats, but caution should be used if the oils have been distilled. The other train of thought is to stay away from using essential oils around your cats at all, as it generally is not obvious if the product is distilled or 100% pure. And yes, any exposure (not just ingested) to distilled essential oil products can be dangerous to cats. Thanks for your question, Lisa.

      • Ana

        Though I agree with much of what Kelly Krueger says, there is a clarification that needs to be made: The problem is not the distillation of essential ois; in fact, Essential oils (EO) are produced through distillation mostly. The problem is wrong kind of distillation (i.e. at high temperatures or high pressure) that can produce low quality EO; or much worse (and something that is more prevalent): synthetic EO or adulterated EO. And most essential oils, EVEN when they say they are 100% pure, are NOT pure nor good quality. The best EO are those that are therapeutic grade, natural and truly 100% pure; these are the ones that are safer.

        As for cats, if phenols are dangerous for them, avoid the following EO: oregano, helichrysum, cinnamon (cassia), thyme, clove, tulsi (holy basil), mountain. savory, tarragon, anise seed, fennel, nutmeg, melaleuca (Tea Tree oil), birch. Some of these are are cited in “Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals” by Kristen Leigh Bell, who also says to avoid essential oils high in Monoterpene Hydrocarbons, such as citrus ones (Lemon, Lime, Orange, Bergamot, Tangerine, Mandarin, Grapefruit) and evergreens such as Pine, Spruce, Fir .

        In http://www.optimumchoices.com/animals_essential_oils.htm
        it says:

        Cat’s livers do not have the necessary enzymes to break down and excrete certain chemical compounds in essential oils. The chemical compounds, therefore, accumulate in a cat’s body and are sometimes toxic to the point of death. Cats are very sensitive to beta-carotene, morphine, certain sulfanomides, salicylic acid (Aspirin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), allyl propyl disulfide (onions) and compounds with the bezene ring (benzyl alcohol preservative). Wintergreen and birch oils contain methyl salicylate the same chemical compound in aspirin. It is best to avoid any oil containing phenols: oregano, thyme, cinnamon (cassia), clove, savory, birch, and melaleuca (Tea Tree oil) or ketones: sage. A third group to avoid are the monoterpene hydrocarbons pinene and limonene most commonly found in the citrus and pine oils: lemon, orange, tangerine, mandarin, grapefruit, lime, bergamot, pine, spruce, and any fir oil. Many household cleaners and even pet products have these latter substances in them to make them smell nice to the owners. Symptoms of a toxic buildup include being despondent, clumsy, uncoordinated, partially paralyzed, vomiting, drooling or in a daze. The diagnosis for toxic poisoning is a blood test that shows elevated liver enzymes. It is best to seek a veterinarian’s care if toxic poisoning is suspected.

        Hydrosols (by-products of essential oil distillation) are safer to use on cats. This is because the monoterpene alcohols have an affinity for water and are safe for cats. Phenols and ketones do not appear in hydrosols. There are no known case histories of hydrosols or monoterpene alcohols causing toxicity in cats. Hydrosols of chamomile and a combination of rose, lavender, geranium and neroli are known to have a claming effect on cats. Wounds can be cleaned with diluted lavender, rose, geranium, and chamomile oil or their hydrosols. Itching can be alleviated using witch hazel, rose, lavender or German chamomile.

        Does this mean we need to stop using essential oils if we have cats? Since there is no scientific evidence that essential oils and hydrosols are totally safe for cats, the safest rule is not to use them on or around cats until they are proven safe. Just because they are natural, doesn’t mean essential oils are totally safe for cats. If one must use essential oils, here are some suggested rules I follow. Each animal guardian must make their own decision.

        1. If I choose to use any of the oils in the charts above on cats, I would always use a highly diluted formula (at least 10:1 with carrier oil or less). If I use any of the oils in the charts above on myself or around the house, I keep the cats away for at least one hour. I never diffuse any of the oils in the charts below or blends containing these oils around cats.

        2. I never keep cats in an enclosed area when diffusing oils in the air. I always keep a window open or put the cat in a different part of the house. A safer method is to put the diluted essential oil mixture on cotton balls and leave them in the same room as the animal or on their bed.

        3. If I want to use essential oils on cats, I always use a highly diluted formula with essential oils. When in doubt I use hydrosols instead of essential oils on animals. Hydrosols are water-based, gentler and much easier to tolerate.

        4. When using cleaning products with the above essential oils, especially citrus or pine, I keep the animals away and off the floor until it dries. I make sure you rinse and dry the surface as thoroughly as possible.

        5. Rather than assume a certain protocol or suggested oil is good for an animal I always test the essential oil first before using it. I introduce the essential oil to the animal by letting them sniff it and watch for signs of acceptance as mentioned above. I also use kinesiology with a human surrogate tester for the animal. One can also use a dowsing pendulum or one of the many electronic radionic devices for testing an oil.

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