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Litter boxes can be stinky.
I know, that’s not exactly news. After all, they are a box full of poop, and while regular scooping and cleaning is the best defense against litter box stink some cat owners are always looking for other options to manage litter box smell.
So what about essential oils? We know that they smell good but can you safely add essential oils to the litter box?
No, you shouldn’t add essential oils to a litter box in order to improve the smell. Essential oils are extremely toxic to cats and it only takes a few drops on your cat’s skin or a few licks to cause a serious and potentially life-threatening reaction.
While that’s the quick answer, there’s still more to cover so let’s dive a little deeper into why this isn’t a good idea and a few tips on what you can do instead to clean up the litter box.
Essential Oils Are Everywhere
Before we get into issues with essential oils and cats, it’s important to realize just how pervasive essential oils are in our environment.
Of course, there are the concentrated essential oils that we use to improve the smell of our space but you can also find essential oils in a variety of foods, beverages, and even household cleaners. They’re in both synthetic compounds and natural substances like orange juice (which is also bad for cats).
There are dozens of essential oils and they all claim to have their own special benefits ranging from headache relief and aromatherapy to improving digestion or skin health.
But the point is, essential oils are everywhere. So as we learn about why cats shouldn’t be exposed to them, consider all the other ways cats could come in contact with them beyond the litter box.
Why Are Essential Oils Toxic To Cats?
Essential oils are the concentrated forms of plants and while that may sound like a good thing they actually emit volatile organic compounds or VOCs. VOCs are the same reasons that oil paints are toxic to cats and they’re responsible for a long list of problems in humans as well.
But that’s not the biggest issue for cats.
Essential oils are metabolized in the liver and cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver that would allow them to process and eliminate essential oils. Without this enzyme, essential oils are toxic to our feline friends.
According to VCA Hospitals, cats that are suffering from essential oil poisoning can have a wide range of symptoms including vomiting, muscle tremors, weakness, and difficulty breathing.
It’s also important to point out that cats don’t have to even ingest essential oils to suffer their toxic effects and their skin can easily absorb the essential oil as well.
This is especially problematic when you consider putting essential oils in the litter box where cats have no choice but to dig and scratch around– after all that’s just part of being a cat! While fur can cover most of your cats to protect them, their exposed paws can easily come in contact with essential oils. Grooming their paws can make things worse and increase the odds that cats ingest essential oils.
As if that wasn’t enough, VCA Hospitals further explains that “Only a couple of licks or a small amount on the skin could be harmful to a cat.”
So not only are essential oils extremely toxic to cats because they lack the enzymes to metabolize them but it doesn’t take much to cause problems!
Why Do Some People Recommend Using Essential Oils In Litter Boxes?
Well, it might seem like a good idea at first.
After all, litter boxes stink and essential oils smell good. You might also think that only a few drops won’t cause a problem.
But we’ve already seen that it takes very little (just a few drops) to cause serious problems for cats. So while a few drops won’t cause a problem the majority of times if your cat enters the box right after you places the drop then you’re in for problems.
Other folks will explain that some specific essential oils are less toxic and because of the way they’re made they may be safe for cats.
And they’re not wrong.
There are essential oils that are safe for cats but I’d still suggest skipping the essential oils for the litter box. The downside of picking the wrong essential oil is just too significant when what you get in return is a litter box that smells a little better!
Most essential oils are not regulated by the FDA and approval isn’t required for them to go to market. On top of that, it’s rare to find essential oils that are marketed specifically for pets which means finding cat-friendly essential oils can be tricky and even dangerous.
What Essential Oils Are Safe For The Litter Box?
You’ll find a handful of credible sources that suggest lavender oil, rose oil and a handful of other options are safe for cats. Again, this can be true if you select the correct product but with little regulation and differences in manufacturing between brands it’s better to skip the essential oil within the litter box.
Instead, consider other options that improve the smell around the litter box instead of in it.
Essential Oil Diffusers Aren’t Any Better
Essential oil diffusers can actually be worse than directly placing essential oils in the litter box.
That’s because instead of being placed on the skin, diffusers aerosolize the oils and allow them to be inhaled by cats. Veterinarian Murl Bailey explains that “Not only are these oil droplets dangerous themselves, but the inhalation of these oils can cause a foreign body pneumonia in cats.”
Obviously, the toxicity of essential oils is the biggest issue here but it’s generally not a good idea to expose cats to anything that they could possibly breathe in. Remember that your feline friend’s lungs are so much smaller than our own that even the smoke from incense could cause problems for cats.
It’s just another reason to skip the essential oils altogether!
5 Essential Oil Alternatives For Handling Litter Box Smells
Making litter boxes smell better is a big subject and well beyond the scope of this article so we’ll just go over the basics.
1. Diet Can Help Manage Smelly Stool
Improving the quality of your cat’s diet can make a big impact on the smell of their stool which will help with smelly litter boxes. I’ve written an entire guide for finding the best cat foods to manage smelly poops which you can check out here.
Investing in your cat’s nutrition can do a lot more than just helping with smelly cat poops and there’s a long list of other benefits including the potential for reduced shedding and improved overall health!
2. Keep The Litter Box Clean
Regular scooping will of course go a long way to keeping the box clean so make sure you have a consistent schedule before you start trying to cover up smells. Not only will you want to regularly scoop the box but you should also clean the entire box on a consistent schedule.
There’s no shortcut for deep cleaning the box- even though some folks seem to consider the dishwasher. Dish soap with water is your best bet.
3. Pick The Right Box and Litter
These days, there’s a lot of technology that goes into litter boxes! You can choose between a wide range of systems from automatic boxes to standard litter trays. Depending on the size of your space, one litter box may make more sense than the other, and selecting the right litter box is even more important if you live in an apartment or small studio.
But it’s not just about the box and the right litter can also make a huge impact, especially in small spaces. I’m personally a big fan of wood pellet litter which can help cover up smelly stools with natural smells.
4 . Make Sure You Have Enough Litter Boxes
Having multiple litter boxes will make each box smell less strongly. That means it will be easy to manage and cover up the smell.
Even though cats can share a litter box, it’s not a great strategy for happy felines or managing smell.
5. Cover Up Or Neutralize The Smell With Cat Safe Products
It’s no accident that we don’t mention anything about covering up smells until the 5th item on our list.
That’s because this shouldn’t be a starting point and you want to make sure all the basics like having enough boxes and keeping up with cleaning are handled first.
Febreeze makes a great alternative to essential oils and not only does it smell great but it’s also safe for cats. Febreeze is happy to promote their product as cat-safe and they explain on their website that “Our on-staff vets and toxicologists, working with third-party partners like SafetyCall International and the Safety Call Pet Poison Help Line, always make sure our product safety thresholds fall well below any danger zones.”
That’s way more than you’ll get from a typical bottle of essential oils and you can check out Amazon for a good deal on the basic Febreeze spray.
Baking soda is another good option for managing odor and has the added benefit of helping to prevent cat litter from sticking to the side of the box. Baking soda won’t cover up cat smells but it can work to neutralize odors.
Then there are a handful of litter-specific sprays that are worth checking out. Most of the major cat litter brands carry some version of these products but I actually prefer this spray from Zero Odor which you can check out on Amazon.
Instead of trying to cover up the smell (as you would with essential oils or Febreeze), Zero Odor neutralizes the smell from your cat’s bathroom breaks. The spray itself has no lasting odor which also makes a great option for people that are sensitive to fragrances.
You can also explore options for adding odor neutralizing charcoal to the litter box as long as stick to cat-specific products.
Between those options, you have all the tools you need to cover up, absorb and neutralize litter box odors which should be more than enough to enjoy a cleaner smelling home!
Avoiding Adding Too Much Of Anything To Your Cat’s Litter Box
While we’ve already seen that essential oils aren’t a good addition to the litter box we should also be careful about adding anything to the litter box if we can help it.
Our cats love consistency when it comes to bathroom breaks and any changes to the routine could lead to some confused looks at the litter box at best and urinating outside of it in the worst-case scenario.
So make sure not to overdo it with multiple additions to the litter box all in the name of improving the smell.
I wish that adding essential oils was a good option for cats! I love the smell of tea tree oil and it’s certainly powerful enough to cover up smelly cat stools…
But essential oils and cats just don’t mix.
These compounds are simply too dangerous for our feline friends and while some essential oils could be considered to be cat safe, it’s not worth the risk of tracking them down when you have so many other good options out there including many choices that are specifically made to manage litter box odors.
So skip the essential oils and explore other ideas for keeping your cat’s bathroom smelling great!