Potpourri: Hazard to Cats

by Jill A. Richardson, DVM
Veterinary Poison Information Specialist ASPCA/National Animal Poison Control Center

Simmering potpourri is becoming more popular as a household fragrance. Even though it’s a common object, few pet owners know the potential hazards of the product. If the oil is used in your home, there is always the chance that your cat could be accidentally exposed.

Most potpourri liquids contain natural or essential oils, which if ingested can cause vomiting, stomach upset, diarrhea, weakness, and possibly liver damage. Some products also contain cationic detergents, in which case the signs tend to be much worse.

Cationic detergents can be caustic. This means that if ingested, it can actually burn the mouth and tongue. With eye or skin contact, there can be severe pain.

In most cases received by the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, cats are often exposed to potpourri oils by rubbing against leaky bottles or pots containing the oil, or from spilling the oil containing pots over themselves.

If there is skin contact with the oils, the skin will become very red in color and be extremely painful to the animal. Instinctively, cats will tend to try to groom off the product, ingesting the potpourri. In both ingestion and skin contact, the cat may have extensive damage from the cationic detergents in the potpourri oil. Signs seen with potpourri contact include depression, drooling, food refusal, and tongue ulcerations. Treatment can be extensive and may involve several days of hospitalization and supportive therapy.

If your cat is exposed to potpourri, here are some useful hints:

  1. Be extremely cautious when working with any cat in pain. Try to avoid harm to both yourself and your pet. If your cat appears to be in severe pain, you should safely coax your cat into a pet carrier and take directly to your veterinarian.

  2. If there is skin exposure, the cat should be bathed immediately with a mild dishwashing detergent or baby shampoo. Afterwards, the cat should be dried thoroughly with a bath towel to prevent chilling

  3. Always assume that if the cat has the liquid on its fur, it most likely ingested some also, so you should offer your cat a few laps of milk/water.

  4. Carefully examine the cat’s mouth. It may be safer to glance at the tongue while your cat is lapping milk. If there is discoloration to the tongue, a veterinarian’s assistance should be sought. Ulceration could take a few hours to occur, so you should check the tongue every hour for about 4-6 hours.

  5. Monitor your cat closely; if it becomes sluggish or weak, salivates excessively, or refuses to eat, the cat should be taken to a veterinary hospital immediately.

  6. Once you have prevented further exposure to the potpourri oil, you should contact your veterinarian or an animal poison center and be ready to give the ingredients of the potpourri to determine if there are cationic detergents in the liquid, in addition to the essential oils.

  7. If the cat is showing signs such as an increase in salivation, depression, lung congestion, or oral pain, you should see your veterinarian immediately for treatment.

Fortunately, with proper treatment and good supportive care, most cats will recover within a few days. Supportive care may include veterinary prescribed use of gastrointestinal protectants, antibiotics, and pain killers. Adequate nutrition during this time is extremely important. Cats may refuse to eat commercial hard cat food, so soft or canned food should be available to the cat.

Please Note: CFA provides the feline health information on this site as a service to the public. Diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions should always be in consultation with one’s own veterinarian. The Cat Fanciers’ Association, Inc. disclaims all warranties and liability related to the veterinary advice and information provided on this site.