Common names: Common lavender, True lavender, English lavender
Scientific names: Lavendula
Toxic parts: All parts, especially the flowers and essential oils
Toxic properties: Linalool and Linalyl acetate
Lavender is a popular garden perennial with 47 species, and also a popular essential oil. Essential oils are highly concentrated oils distilled from plants for use in oil burners, to scent candles and beauty products and as natural remedies. Lavender essential oils can treat:
- Sooth skin irritation and insect bites
- Wound healing (lavender has antibacterial properties)
- Sleep aid
Cats lack the liver enzyme glucuronyltransferase to process many substances which are completely safe for people. This means that it takes longer to eliminate toxins from the body, and can harm the liver.
How does lavender poisoning occur?
Lavender toxicity can occur in the following ways:
- Ingestion of any part of the lavender plant.
- Inhalation of essential oils used in an oil burner or reed diffuser or oils applied to the cat.
- Inhalation, dermal absorption and ingestion of essential oils applied to skin. While the skin serves to protect the cat’s body from the outside world, anything put on the skin is absorbed into the body and can be ingested when the cat grooms. There is some data which shows that lavender is effective in killing fleas, however the risks of toxicosis outweigh the benefit.
Aside from toxicity, lavender essential oils can also irritate the cat’s skin and delicate mucus membranes of the mouth, leading to contact dermatitis and mouth ulcers.
Lavender contains over 150 compounds, which include camphor (< 1%), linalool (51%) and linalyl acetate (35%) which are toxic to cats.
Lavender exposure can cause problems such as gastrointestinal upset, respiratory difficulty and contact dermatitis.
Symptoms of lavender toxicity depend on the amount and type of exposure. For cats who have ingested lavender, symptoms can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Central nervous system depression (lethargy, drowsiness)
- Ataxia (wobbly gait)
- Mouth ulcers
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you including the type of lavender ingested (fresh, essential oils, oil burner or reed diffuser), the amount of lavender/lavender oil your cat was exposed to, the age and weight of your cat and any underlying medical conditions. If you know what type of lavender the cat has ingested (such as essential oils, potpourri or a product which contains lavender), bring along a sample or the packaging.
Tests may be necessary to evaluate the overall health of your cat, these include:
Baseline tests: Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis. These can provide helpful information on liver and kidney function as well as the level of dehydration if the cat has been vomiting or has diarrhea.
If lavender oil has been applied to the skin or fur, bathe the cat with warm water and dishwashing detergent (the type you use in the sink, not the dishwasher).
If the cat has ingested lavender, do not induce vomiting unless you are instructed to do so.
Treatment will depend on the severity of symptoms. Asymptomatic cats may only requite monitoring.
- Gastric decontamination: If the cat has recently ingested lavender or a product which contains lavender it may be possible to induce vomiting followed by administering activated charcoal to prevent further absorption.
- Fluid therapy: To correct dehydration and increase urinary excretion of the toxin.
- Liver protestants: Such as S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and silymarin.
- Anti-nausea medication: To control vomiting.
I know as cat lovers, we all want the very best for our cats but a rising problem reported by veterinarians is toxicosis and/or skin damage due to the use of natural products on cats. There is no doubt that the over-use of man-made chemicals has a detrimental effect on our cats (and people), but we must carefully weigh this up against the risk of natural alternatives. Natural doesn’t automatically mean it is safe. When looking into alternative treatments, the best place to start is with your veterinarian. Only last week I spoke to a veterinarian who said she routinely sees cats who have been treated at home with lavender. She also listed tea tree and pennyroyal as other common toxins she routinely sees in her practice.
- Don’t use lavender essential oil on the skin or fur of the cat.
- If using lavender essential oil in an oil burner (and I don’t recommend it), dilute it in water, only use in a well ventilated room and allow ensure there is a scent free room for your cat to move to. Cats have twice as many olfactory receptors as humans, so what may smell nice to us can be overpowering to a cat.
- This is a really good article on the dangers of aromatherapy oils and cats.