Scents That Could Be Harmful to Your Pets

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: April 10, 2016

Updated: June 7, 2022

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essential oils may be harmful for petsUse Caution With Scents Around Pets

Homes and offices—and you—can benefit from a little "scent therapy." After all, the sense of smell is the oldest, most primitive of all the senses and certain scents and smells can trigger strong memories or alter mood and behavior. This is the case with people, as well as with our pets. That said, just because a scent (or method of dispensing it) is safe for you, or even a small child, doesn't mean that it'll necessarily be safe for, on, or even around your cats or dogs.

As a general rule, cats are often more sensitive to the potentially toxic and other dangerous effects of essential oils and other scents than dogs are, but it very much depends on the scent, the delivery method, and the pet. If you plan to use any of the items listed below, please be aware of the potential problems of doing so and take the necessary precautions so that they don't wind up sickening or injuring your pets.

Essential Oils and Pets

Some people want to use essential oils on or around cats. However, this can be quite dangerous. The concentration (i.e., amount of dilution) and type of oil are extremely important, but so too is the quality of the oil, the ventilation in the room, and a host of other factors. If ingested — such as after getting on your cat's fur and then licked off during grooming — certain essential oils can cause digestive upset, neurologic problems, and other, more serious concerns in cats. And this is not to mention the irritation these oils can cause if they come into contact with a cat's sensitive skin or the way some oils could lead to irritation of a cat's sensitive nose or lungs.

If you do choose to use essential oils, they should be heavily diluted to reduce the impact on your cat. For more detailed information on the safe use of essential oils on or around pets, you may want to refer to Dr. Melissa Shelton's website and Animal Desk Reference book. You can also follow Dr. Janet Roark, "The Essential Oil Vet." And, as always, check with your veterinarian, too.

Check out our safe essential oil recipes to use around pets in a diffuser.


keep potpourri away from pets

The scent of dry potpourri, though not immediately harmful to cats, can be quite irritating to their sensitive noses. But if your cat nibbles on some of the potpourri, it could cause digestive upset or even a digestive obstruction, which could require surgery to remove from the stomach or intestines.

Liquid potpourri is far more dangerous to cats. The liquid varieties of potpourri typically contain two things that could pose a health and safety risk for your pets: the essential oils that make them smell good (see Essential Oils section above), and the cationic detergents that allow the oils and water to come together.

Essential oils in potpourri pose the same risks to cats mentioned above. The cationic detergents in liquid potpourri can cause a wide array of potentially serious problems for your cat, including:

  • Skin or eye burns
  • Stomach or intestinal ulcers
  • Breathing or neurologic problems
  • And more

If you use liquid potpourri, be sure to clean up all spills quickly and keep your pets (especially your cats) far away from them. Even a quick lick off a paw or fur can cause serious problems. Read more info and tips on liquid potpourri and pets.

Scented Candles

candles are dangerous for pets for lots of reasons

Many people will burn scented candles to help set the mood, especially around the holidays. Unfortunately, like all candles, even the scented varieties can pose a burn risk for your inquisitive pets and a fire risk for your home and family (in other words, your cat can tip the candle and start or fire or even light themselves on fire).

The scents themselves can also cause stress or airway irritation for your cats and dogs, depending on how strongly scented the candles are and with which scents. As for which scents your pets are more likely to be OK with ... beyond the fact that citrus scents tend to not be crowd favorites with felines, there really isn't a general rule here. Just like with people, cats and dogs can all have their scent preferences and aversions. So it's a bit of trial-and-error, I'm afraid.

Candles don't need to be banished from your home or holiday decorating, but it's certainly a good idea to never leave a lit candle and your cat (or other pets) alone together in the same room. Even better, you can use flameless candles, which will also eliminate the candle smoke that can irritate a cat or dog's respiratory system, leading to worsening of any existing asthma, bronchitis, tracheal (windpipe) problems, or other conditions of their respiratory system.

If you can't do without a regular "flame candle," opt for the "cleaner-burning" candles that are made from soy, beeswax, or vegetable wax. Avoid those made from (or with) paraffin, as that can release more potential impurities and irritants that can bother both your and your pet's respiratory system. And, speaking of impurities and respiratory irritants, make sure you're only burning these candles in rooms and areas with good ventilation.

Air Fresheners (Including Pine Sprays)

air fresheners and plug-ins can be bad for pets with respiratory issuesThough they may help your home smell good, room sprays and deodorizers can also trigger an asthma or coughing attack in certain pets. Asthma in cats (“feline allergic bronchitis”) can cause coughing spasms due to the respiratory irritating effect of these sprays when breathed in. Dogs with sensitive airways — like those with a collapsing trachea, “kennel cough,” allergic bronchitis, and others — can experience the same problems.

Note that potpourri and scented candles can also cause asthma and coughing fits in cats, as highlighted above.


incense can be really bad for cats and dogs with asthma or other breathing problemsThough it's a popular way to add a pleasant scent and feeling of zen to many homes, incense combines many of the worst qualities when it comes to harm to cats.

Cats can be extremely sensitive to smoke, which is a major factor in worsening, and perhaps even causing, cat asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Making matters worse, the aromatic plant materials and essential oils used to create the scent in incense can also lead to all the other problems mentioned above.


Alternative Scents That are Safe for Cats and Dogs

If you live with cats, there's a good chance that there are unpleasant smells in your home you'd like to mask. Before you go looking for something to light or spray to cover up the smell, take a few simple "housekeeping" steps to eradicate and prevent those nasty smells in the first place. If that's too subtle, I'm of course talking about the sometimes incomprehensible poop and pee smells festering in your cat's litter boxes. So I highly recommend checking out these "7 Ways to Reduce Litter Box Smell (and Messes)."

Once you've reduced the nasty kitty smells, there are several cat-safer methods to add other pleasant aromas to your home.


Despite rumors about the danger of Febreze to pets, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center reviewed Febreze's fabric freshener product and found that they are safe for use around pets. However, they do recommend following label instructions for use, never spraying directly on pets, and note that there could be some mild skin irritation if your pets come into contact with Febreze while it's still wet, as well as minor stomach upset if it's ingested. Note that this only refers to the Febreze fabric fresheners, not the aerosol air fresheners, which present the same problems to cats as many other brands of air fresheners.


Air Purifier

Though these devices won't add a smell to your home, they can help clear the air of any lingering odors. More good news for cats, the better ones also help to remove fine particles from the air that could irritate your cat's lungs (on that note, it's also a good idea to regularly change your furnace and AC filters). You can find either a large purifier or add a few desktop purifiers throughout your home.

pure zone HEPA air purifierPure Zone HEPA air purifier

air purifierKoios air purifier

Simmering Aromatics

If you'd like to create your own aromas, one common trick is to put on a pot of simmering water and add ingredients such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, vanilla, or mint tea. However, avoid using citrus, such as orange peels and lemon peels, which can be a highly unpleasant smell for many cats and can irritate or even stress them out.

Here are a couple of good recipes for fall (or any time of the year, if you ask me!) to help your home smell a bit more festive:


About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

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