Aromatherapy? No, we're not talking about lighting candles and simmering potpourri for your kitty! Classically, aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils. Essential oils are extracted from the flowers, leaves, stems, roots, seeds and bark of many different plants, and while their most obvious property is that they are aromatic, it is these "oils" which act as the plant's immune system- fighting off bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds, and other insects.
But there's a big problem here– and that is that cats cannot tolerate or metabolize essential oils. Their use can lead to symptoms of toxicity or even death. Why can cats not tolerate the oils? There are several reasons. The major one is that they cannot metabolize them the way that dogs or humans can. (they also cannot metabolize certain herbs or allopathic meds, either)
This means that they are not efficiently excreted by the body and can build up to toxic levels. Symptoms of toxicity include vomiting, dizziness, clumsiness, lack of appetite and lack of energy. The next one is that cats have very thin, delicate skin. This means that essential oils can be absorbed more rapidly into their skin and enter the bloodstream. Cats also dislike strong odors and generally keep away from strong scents- even highly diluted essential oils.
I have run into several instances where cat owners almost killed their cats even by using just one drop of essential oil on their paws or belly, or diffusing them in the area where the litter box was located. Neither the owners or the vets knew what had happened- they just thought it to be a "mystery poisoning" which could not be detected.
Luckily, their cats spent several days at the vet receiving fluids, and did not suffer any permanent health problems as a result. I am sure that many instances such as this happen every day, as there are many cat products out there which do contain essential oils. Shampoos, coat sprays, ear cleaners, rechargeable flea collars and herbal dips.
Many companies refer to essential oils as "oil" (as in "Clove oil") or "herbal oils". Please read labels carefully and pass on the word about the potential dangers of essential oils for cats- too many people are unaware of the dangers.
What is safe, then? A by-product of essential oil production is "hydrosols" (also called "hydrolats") Hydrosols are what is left after the essential oils are distilled from plant matter. Basically, the plant matter is put in a still, on top of a mesh screen, and there is water below which is heated to steam. The oil phase of the plant matter is taken from the plant with steam, condensed and moved to another container (this is the essential oil). You are then left with the steam itself- which has passed through the plant matter and is now rich with the water soluble parts of the plant's chemistry. This steam condenses, and you are left with the hydrosol.
If you want to use aromatherapy for your cat, hydrosols are your only safe option. Hydrosols are wonderful because cats CAN tolerate them with no problems, no toxicity. They can be spritzed on the cat for deodorizing or flea and tick control, used as ear cleaners or calming agents. They are not concentrated as EO's are and do not require the careful thought and dilution which essential oil use does.
Hydrosols are delicately scented, and are excellent for the skin. They have strong anti-inflammatory properties due to high levels of carboxylic acids. They are also soothing and act as gentle antiseptics. They are so gentle that even a human baby can be bathed in a bath of hydrosol. They are excellent for use for puppies, cats and kittens and rabbits and ferrets. They are also believed to carry the vibrational energy of the plant, working in subtle ways on the emotions, as the Bach Flower Essences do.
You can easily mix and match various hydrosols for various uses in caring for your cat. Hydrosols have similar effects as the herbs themselves do. For instance, Roman chamomile hydrosol is very soothing and excellent for skin healing. Lavender hydrosol is good for burns, or for calming a cat. Rose hydrosol is great for sensitive skin, rashes, irritations. You can blend hydrosols together and form delightful smelling blends which you can use rest assured that they are perfectly safe for your cat. I guess I am saying that there is no way you can make a mistake with hydrosols!
Hydrosols are inexpensive in comparison to essential oils- so you can "play" with them and come up with your own recipes. For instance, an ear cleaner might contain lavender and roman chamomile hydrosol, while a calming spritz might contain rose, lavender and neroli (orange blossom) hydrosols. Any hydrosol can be used as a deodorizing spritz spray for your cat or in your home.
The most useful hydrosol of all is Witch Hazel Water. It is an anti-inflammatory whose power parallels that of topical steroid preparations. Why use steroids when you can use witch hazel? Just make sure you get it in a formula with no ALCOHOL added. You may have to search, but it does exist.
Other hydrosols are Rose, Neroli, Rosemary, Roman Chamomile, Linden, Myrtle, Lavender, Geranium and Bay Laurel. Hydrosols are best kept refrigerated, unless you add a touch of vodka to the bottle to help preserve it. Vodka is all natural, does not sting as isopropyl alcohol does, and is a wonderful preservative, toner and astringent- not to mention antiseptic. Hydrosols should be kept in tightly closed bottles, away from heat and direct sunlight.
Make sure you are getting a "hydrosol" or "hydrolat" or "steam distillate waters". Some companies add synthetics to water and sell it as "Rose Water" or "Orange Blossom Water". Sometimes they add Essential Oils to the water as well and sell it as a floral water. But this is not good- you don't want the Essential oils- you want the steam distillate waters- the hydrosol.
An excellent source for high quality hydrosols is Original Swiss Aromatics, in San Rafael California (415-479-9121). When you buy hydrosols, try to get them from a source which you trust, which deals in therapeutic grade essential oils for aromatherapy purposes. They will most surely carry high quality, authentic hydrosols.
Kristen Leigh Bell
President, Aromaleigh Inc. www.aromaleigh.com
Member, National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy
Sandy's Note - I have purchased high quality hydrosols from the following companies (NCI on all):
Sites outside the U.S.: