Christmas Scents Can Be Toxic To Cats

Many of the scents of Christmas can be toxic to cats© Caroline Henri

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas. While the scents of baking cookies and a freshly cut tree may be almost as enjoyable to your cats as they are to you, some of the scents of Christmas can be toxic to cats.​

Candle, Candle Burning Bright
Those scented candles we humans love so much may be the most likely to cause problems for our cats.

First, think about the scent itself. While a peppermint-, gingerbread- or pine-scented room smells wonderful to us, it can be overwhelming to an animal who’s much smaller than we are and has a much more acute sense of smell. And a burning candle can disguise the familiar scents that make a cat’s house feel like home.

But discomfort isn’t the only problem cats can have with scented candles. Many candles contain essential oils, which can be toxic to cats. Since their skin is much thinner than ours is, these concentrated substances are absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly. And since cats can’t efficiently metabolize the compounds in most essential oils, they can cause toxic build-up in the cats’ bodies. 

The holiday scents that are most toxic to cats include:

  • Peppermint
  • Clove
  • Citrus
  • Lavender
  • Cinnamon
  • Wintergreen
  • Pine
  • Spruce

Tea tree oil is also toxic to cats.

The ASPCA Poison Control Center discourages using essential oils in the rooms you share with your cats. Inhaling the oils can cause aspiration pneumonia and asthma attacks, the Poison Control website says. Ingesting essential oils can lead to gastrointestinal upset, central nervous system depression and liver damage.

Liquid Potpourri also contains essential oils. But just as dangerous are the cationic detergents that allow the oils and water to come together. Cationic detergents can cause skin and eye burns, intestinal ulcers, difficulty breathing and neurological problems.

Air Fresheners
Many air fresheners also contain essential oils to make them smell good. But what makes them even more dangerous is the volatile organic compounds that have a high vapor pressure at room temperature due to a low boiling point. This causes them to evaporate from a solid to liquid form in the air. The same volatility that makes your room smell like holiday peppermint or pine also occurs in paint, fossil fuels, formaldehyde, refrigerants, aerosol propulsion, cigarette smoke and other products you probably wouldn’t want to breathe. They can cause asthma and cancer, and can affect the respiratory and nervous systems, as well as the blood, brain, heart, liver, kidneys and skin of both humans and animals.

Cleaning Products 
The safest way to get your house ready for the holidays is to use vinegar and water. Like other household cleaning products, vinegar has antimicrobial properties, but it’s a lot less expensive. And most important, it’s nontoxic to humans and animals. Just don’t use it on your marble or granite counters. It could etch the stone.

Many household cleaning products contain ingredients that are harmful to cats, so read the labels carefully. Be on the lookout for 

  • Phenols (the product probably has “sol” in its name. Think Pinesol)
  • Phthalates
  • Formaldehyde
  • Bleach
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Perchloroethylene (this is often found in rug and carpet shampoos)

Even if your cat doesn’t ingest or inhale these substances, the residue can land on their coats and noses and in their eyes and throats. It can settle on their food and in their water, too.

​This can cause all kinds of symptoms from sneezing and coughing to seizures and death. The residue can also cause kidney and liver failure and cancer, veterinarian Patrick Mahaney writes on The Daily Vet blog.

Read more about cats and Christmas:
Cats and Christmas Trees Can Coexist
Giving Cats As Christmas Gifts

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