To cat lovers, few things are scarier than the idea that a beloved pet can be ill, and even die, because of something you’ve willingly brought into your home. Websites such as TeaTreeWonders.com promise it will cure you of everything from acne and dandruff -- to athlete’s foot and congestion. Whether or not it works on ailments, serves as a deodorizer or adds effectiveness to cleaning products, it has a much more sinister side: Tea tree oil is toxic to cats.
Tea tree oil itself, has a risk of toxicity -- in humans, as well -- whether the application is oral or topical. The oil’s active ingredients are cyclic terpenes, close in structure and action to the paint thinner, turpentine. Animals are especially at risk -- even when it is applied externally -- due to consumption of the oil orally while grooming. However, evidence indicates cats are more likely to suffer ill-effects than dogs.
There is little published information about whether tea tree oil fumes are directly toxic to cats. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the fumes themselves are toxic to other small animals, such as birds. Regardless, exposing cats to the fumes of a known toxin is certainly dangerous.
Despite many reports and warnings to the contrary, several anecdotal self-reports, indicate people have used tea tree oil on household pets to control fleas without ill effects. Even if symptoms are not immediately noticeable, the toxins from such oils can build-up in a cat’s body, because they cannot effectively metabolize and excrete the substances. This can cause severe illness or death after several applications.
Cats and dogs suffering tea tree oil toxicity may seem weak, ataxic (uncoordinated), have muscular tremors and become hypothermic. A cat that has ingested the toxin may walk as though drunk, lack appetite and refuse to walk more than necessary. Cats may even show signs of liver damage.
If you suspect your cat has come in contact with tea tree oil, contact your veterinarian immediately. Outside of business hours, seek a local 24-hour emergency veterinarian for assistance. Call prior to taking your cat in, as not all vets are experienced in treating tea tree oil poisoning.
There is no antidote for tea tree oil poisoning. The toxins are quickly absorbed through the skin and GI tract, and should be treated with supportive care by a veterinarian. Activated charcoal may be used to treat ingestion of the oil, but must be given by a animal healthcare professional.
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Jade Lynch-Greenberg is a writer, blogging enthusiast and educator. She teaches multi-modal writing in the university setting and has written for the web since 2002, and created comics since 2006. She write scripts, articles, scholarly documents and technical explanations, and holds a Master of Arts in English from Purdue University.