Posted on January 03 2019
Cats and Fragrances
As a general rule, cats are more sensitive to fragrances than most other animals. A cat metabolizes some chemical substances differently and is more susceptible to the effects of some fragrance materials. Generally speaking cats are sensitive to things like essential oils, citrus based products, and phenolics.
Under normal circumstances, when a fragranced product is used as intended cats do not have any problems. Candles, reed diffusers, room sprays and even fragranced cleaning products normally have no adverse effects on cats. The levels of exposure are very low and do not result in any harm.
Problems occur when there is direct contact with the product on the skin or if it is ingested. A cat’s skin is more sensitive to several types of fragrance chemicals, especially essential oils, citrus based fragrances and a few others. They are also more sensitive to some of the surfactants or carriers that are used to dissolve the fragrance.
Cats that get into liquid fragrances in things like essential oils, reed diffusers or electric plug in units can often have fairly serious reactions. If these products get on the skin, they typically cause severe irritation. Left untreated, this can result is a severe reactions including destruction of the outer layers of the skin. In these cases, the cat’s fur should be washed thoroughly as soon as exposure occurs and a trip to the veterinarian may be required. In many cases, the owner is not aware that the cat has gotten fragrance on their fur and it is only when the animal starts to show behavioral changes or when signs of tissue damage appear, that this is exposure is discovered.
Unfortunately with cats, if fragrance oil gets on the skin, the cat is likely to lick the fur and also ingest the material. Cats have also been known to drink fragrance oils directly. This presents additional problems. Often the cat exhibits signs of lethargy and in severe cases, neurological effects. This can be a veterinary emergency. In cases where the cat ingests fragranced products, a trip to the veterinarian is necessary. In such cases there is often irritation or damage to the oral cavity as well as systemic effects. Again, this exposure may not be discovered for some time and it is not until symptoms appear that the exposure becomes known.
In cases of dermal exposure, veterinary treatment may involve the cleaning and removal of the residual fragrance from the skin and the use of medicines to address the skin irritation or damage. Cats generally make a full recovery after the skin lesions have healed. In cases of ingestion, more serious effects may occur. The veterinarian may pump the stomach or administer activated charcoal. There is no specific antidote for exposure to fragrances. Treatment generally is supportive (intravenous fluids, steroids, antibiotics, etc.). Typically in these cases, the cat is quite sick for a few days and then starts to show good improvement. In almost all cases after a few days the cat makes a full recovery.
So consumers should not be concerned about the routine use of fragranced products around cats. It is only when the cat gets the liquid fragrance material on the skin or ingests it that problems are likely to occur.
Rob Harrington, Ph.D.
Director of Regulatory Affairs