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Is Burning Citronella Candles Harmful to Cats?

| Updated September 26, 2017

To keep mosquitoes and other pests away, many people burn citronella candles outdoors. However, while citronella candles are considered safe for people, they can be hazardous to your cat. Just follow some common sense safety procedures, and you and your cats can have a safe, pest-free summer.

What is Citronella

Citronella is a naturally-growing grass that has a lemony scent. The oil, obtained from the dried and cultivated grass, is used to make insect repellents. It is thought that mosquitoes dislike the smell of the oil. In addition, the smoke from citronella candles helps mask the human scent and "hide" them from the pests.

Citronella Products

Citronella comes in the form of candles, insect coils, essential oil, flea shampoos, and repellent sprays. There are preparations for human use, as well as those for use on pets, as a flea control measure. Citronella is also used in anti-bark training collars for dogs, and is sometimes sprayed around gardens to keep small animals away. All of these preparations have different concentrations of citronella, some of which are more hazardous than others to cats. According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, cats are more sensitive to citronella than dogs and should be kept away from citronella candles, insect coils, oils and any citronella preparation that is not expressly made for cats and approved by your veterinarian.

Dangers to Cats

Citronella is considered a natural flea control product. However, veterinarian Jill A. Richardson notes that even when a product is labeled "natural" it can still be dangerous if misused. The fumes of citronella candles can cause breathing difficulties and nervous system damage to a cat. If ingested, citronella candles, insect coils and oils can result in digestive distress. Oils can be absorbed through the skin and cause liver or nervous system damage.

Safe Use

Keep citronella products, especially candles and coils, out of the reach of your cats, and always read and follow the instructions on the labels. Shampoos and flea collars that are safe for adult cats can be toxic to kittens. Never apply pure citronella oil directly to the skin of a cat. If you are burning a citronella candle or coil outdoors, keep your cat well away from direct smoke and do not allow him to ingest the product.

Emergency Procedures

If you believe that your cat has ingested citronella or is suffering breathing difficulties caused by the smoke of a candle, call your veterinarian immediately or bring your cat into an animal emergency clinic. For non-emergency questions about the safety of products, check the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center website.