Liquid Potpourri: Good for the House. Bad for the Felines!
What makes these oils so toxic? There are actually two culprits. Both are dangerous on their own, but together they pack a heck of a wallop and can even lead to death in some cases. The worst of the toxicities involve ingestion of these substances directly from the simmer pots, from spills or even from brushing up these items or the containers the oils are stored in getting the residue on their skin. What do cats do regularly? That's right. They spend many an hour licking and grooming their coat including their feet. If these oils are present, they will ingest them and within hours can exhibit some of the worst symptoms associated with potpourri toxicity. Let's take each of the two main components separately.
These are volatile oils that are extracted from plants and are found in many different products from fragrances to cleaners. A common misunderstanding is that since essential oils are a "natural" substance, they are "safe" or nontoxic. While it's true that some grades of essential oils have been used to treat medical conditions, not all are created equal and you should NEVER use them without direction from a holistic VETERINARIAN who has experience using them.
Cats are extremely sensitive to the toxicity of these oils because they are readily absorbed through the mucous membranes like the gums and conjunctiva and the the skin. That's why it's IMPERATIVE that when you discover that your pet has come in contact with these oils, you immediately wash them in hand/dish soap to try to remove as much of the oil as possible. It's not an easy task and while you are trying to remove it, the oil continues to do damage leading to burns, itching and even ulceration. Ingestion of these oils can lead to irritation of the mouth, tongue, esophagus and gastrointestinal tract. You may see vomiting, hypersalivation, and severe burns in the mouth within hours of contact. If your cat is exposed to these in the potpourri oils or the essential oils themselves, contact your veterinarian IMMEDIATELY.
These are what cause the worst symptoms. They are quaternary ammonium compounds most commonly used in fabric softeners and sanitizers. Skin exposure to these detergents will cause reddened areas, edema, intense pain and ulceration. If the eyes are exposed, it can lead to severe corneal injuries like ulceration and scarring.
Ingeston of these detergents can lead to tissue necrosis (death of the tissue), inflammation of the mouth, tongue, pharynx and esophagus. Physical symptoms include vomiting, pulmonary edema, low blood pressure (hypotension), CNS depression, hypersalivation and dyspnea (difficulty breathing). Severe cases will have the mucosal ulceration or even perforation, lethargy, persistant vomiting, anorexia and hyperthermia.
So with the two of these combined together in one oily substance, the toxicity and the danger to our pets is even greater. If you have these oils in your home, keep them locked up and out of reach of all furry creatures. If there is exposure involving ingestion, treatment can include several days in the hospital. NEVER induce vomiting in these cases as the caustic nature of the oils can do double the damage if brought back up the same way they went down. Activated charcoal doesn't help either.
I personally had a feline patient who came to me three days after ingesting some of the liquid potpourri concentrate. His entire mouth was ulcerated: tongue, hard palate, soft plate, and the back of his throat. Besides the oral lesions, he had multiple burns between his toes and his pads. At this point there were also areas that were infected and sloughing away. He was too far gone for me to do much of anything but we tried anyway. Unfortunately, after two days it was evident he wasn't getting better, but worse and his owner had him euthanized.
The take home message here is to simply keep your furbabies safe by preventing any exposure to these substances. If you or another family member are using medical grade essential oils, please keep them out of reach of your pets as you would any other medication. DO NOT use them on your pet or in their foods. If you want to know more about how essential oils may be used safely in pets, please consult with a veterinarian who is board certified in practicing holistic veterinary medicine. Remember, cats are not little dogs and our animals are not little humans when it comes to what they can and cannot have by way of medications. This includes herbals and other supplements.
One more thing...in order for a veterinarian to accurately diagnose your pet and recommend any treatment using medications of any kind including supplements, they must do a PHYSICAL EXAM on your pet and discuss all options with you. That is the LAW throughout the United States. There are no exceptions.