Essential Oil and Liquid Potpourri Poisoning in Cats

By Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT; Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT; Charlotte Flint, DVM

Essential oils are the concentrated liquids (volatile organic compounds) of plants. Essential oils have become popular for their use in aromatherapy and alternative medicine; they are also used in cleaning products, food and drink flavorings, herbal remedies, perfumes, personal care products, and liquid potpourris used as home air fresheners and fragrances.

Many liquid potpourri products and essential oils, including oil of cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree (melaleuca), wintergreen, and ylang ylang, are poisonous to cats. Both ingestion and skin exposure can be toxic.

How hazardous are essential oils and liquid potpourri to cats?

Essential oils and liquid potpourris contain chemicals that are rapidly absorbed orally or through the skin. Many of these chemicals are metabolized through the liver. Cats are particularly sensitive to essential oils as they have a decreased number of certain liver enzymes necessary to effectively metabolize these oils. Additionally, very young cats and kittens, and cats with liver disease are more sensitive to their effects. Liquid potpourri and some essential oils can also irritate or burn the skin and mouth.

"Only a couple of licks or a small amount on the skin could be harmful to a cat."

Only a couple of licks or a small amount on the skin could be harmful to a cat, depending on the ingredients in a specific product and how the pet is exposed. Cats can be exposed by tasting liquid potpourri as it simmers or by coming in contact with liquid from leaking or overturned containers. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so if these products get on their skin, they will often be ingested.

What are the signs of essential oil or liquid potpourri poisoning?

Signs may include:

  •  fragrance or scent on hair coat, skin, or breath 
  •  difficulty breathing
  •  difficulty walking or uncoordinated gait
  •  drooling
  •  lethargy or weakness
  •  muscle tremors
  •  pawing at the mouth or face
  •  redness or burns on the lips, gums, tongue, or skin
  •  vomiting (you may note the smell of essential oils in the vomit)

What should I do if I suspect that my cat has been exposed to essential oils or liquid potpourri?

Rapid diagnosis and treatment are imperative. If you believe that your cat has ingested or come in contact with essential oils or liquid potpourri, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680), a 24/7 animal poison control center, immediately. The sooner you seek treatment, the better the prognosis and outcome for your cat.

Please note:

  •  Do not induce vomiting or give activated charcoal to your cat. This may worsen your cat’s condition.
  •  Put the product packaging in a sealed container and take it with you to the veterinary clinic.
  •  If any product is on the skin or fur, quickly wash it off using a liquid dishwashing detergent.

How are essential oil or liquid potpourri poisonings treated, and what is the prognosis?

Fast and aggressive treatment by your veterinarian will minimize the effects of essential oil ingestion. If clinical signs have developed, treatment will be based on those symptoms.

"Fast and aggressive treatment is essential to prevent any toxic effects."

Your veterinarian will perform blood work to determine if the liver and kidneys have been affected. Intravenous (IV) fluids may be used for hydration and a soft diet or feeding tube may be necessary if there are chemical burns in the mouth or esophagus. Other treatments may include anti-vomiting medication, stomach protectants, pain medication, antibiotics, and medication to protect the liver.

Some types of oils are more toxic than others, so recovery may depend on the specific oils ingested. There is no antidote for the poisoning; however, with early intervention and supportive treatment, most cats can survive.

How can I prevent my cat from being exposed to essential oils and liquid potpourri?

Keep essential oils and liquid potpourri products out of reach of cats at all times. Curious animals may want to investigate the sweet-smelling liquids, so never leave opened essential oils or simmering potpourri unattended. In addition, consult a veterinarian before using any essential oils or other herbal products on your cat. Concentrated essential oils should never be applied to a cat.

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, MN is available 24/7 for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s per incident fee includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at

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