Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
In researching before adopting a pair of furrever friends from the rescue/shelter, I’ve found that odor is a powerful feline ability, important in territory and behavior and in food appeal, etc. Catnip is used as an incentive in many cat toys, scratching posts, etc. But I haven’t read anything about whether or not human or human-caused scents have an effect on cats. For example, there are many products commonly used to control odor; e.g. Febreze or other human products; and of course there are things like witch hazel, perfumes and things like that. Do these affect cats? Will use of these products cause cats not to like us?
Siouxsie: You’re definitely right about smells being very powerful for cats, and we applaud you for wanting to know if there are “human” smells that can make us want to stay away from you.
Thomas: In fact, there are odor-producing household cleaners and scents that can repel cats, and some can even cause us physical harm!
Dahlia: First, let’s go with the repellents. Many cats don’t like citrus smells or extremely bitter smells and tastes.
Siouxsie: That’s one reason bitter apple spray works well as a deterrent for cats that like to chew on wires and the like.
Thomas: The vast majority of commonly used household deodorizers and disinfectants, such as Lysol, contain phenols, which are toxic to cats. Phenols are processed through the liver, and we don’t have enough detoxifying enzymes in our livers to get rid of them effectively.
Dahlia: Pine oils, as found in turpentine, Pine-Sol and other pine-based cleaners, are also toxic to cats — again, because our livers can’t metabolize them efficiently.
Siouxsie: Keep in mind that anything you spray in the air — Febreze, spray deodorizers, those cutesy little deodorizing things that spritz as you walk by — creates a mist that will eventually fall on your cat’s fur. Since cats clean themselves all the time, any toxic elements in these products will make their way into your cat’s system.
Thomas: Those little plug-in diffusers, and scented laundry detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets, can also have the same effect.
Dahlia: Keep in mind, too, that because cats have such a strong sense of smell, an aroma that smells “spring-fresh” to you can be downright nauseating to cats.
Siouxsie: The same thing goes with perfumed cat litter: It may smell nice to you, but it could be overwhelming to your cat — which could cause litterbox avoidance.
Thomas: As for perfumes, it really depends on the type and quality. Mama uses scented oils — in small amounts — and we kind of like it when she smells like jasmine or lilacs.
Dahlia: We cats hate the smell of cigarette smoke, and because the toxic gunk in the smoke eventually lands in our fur, cigarettes can be at least as harmful to us as they are to you. If you smoke, we highly recommend that when you bring your cats home, you limit your smoking to outdoors. Better yet, quit smoking altogether!
Siouxsie: Mama says quitting smoking is easier said than done, but it’ll be worth it, both for your cats’ health and your own.
Thomas: Aromatic diffusers and potpourri can also contain chemicals that are harmful to cats. Many of the oils used in these products contain chemicals that can be harmful with long-term exposure.
Dahlia: But don’t think you’re totally safe if you use “all-natural” essential oils. Some contain chemicals that are poisonous to cats, too. Among the chief offenders are peppermint, lemon oil, lavender oil, melaleuca (tea tree) oil, cinnamon bark oil, wintergreen oil, thyme oil and birch oil. All of these oils contain phenol, which as we mentioned above is toxic to cats.
Siouxsie: You don’t have to live in a world utterly bereft of things that smell nice, but you do need to be very careful about the choices you make.
Thomas: If you have potpourri, make sure to put it out of reach of your cats. Also, spend the extra money for a high-quality product. You can even learn to make your own potpourri with things like dried rose petals and lilac blossoms if you like.
Dahlia: Incense can also be a problem. It produces smoke, and the fallout from that smoke eventually lands in our fur. Burning high-quality, low-smoke incense (such as Japanese incense) occasionally is not a big deal, but if you’re burning cheap, smoky incense every day, it’s going to be bad for your cats — and for you, too.
Siouxsie: There are plenty of wonderful unscented detergents and cat-safe cleaners on the market. You may have to work a little bit to find them, but they are there.
Thomas: There are a number of plants that are toxic to cats as well (there’s a good list of toxic — and non-toxic — plants from around the world here). They can cause symptoms ranging from vomiting to lights-and-sirens emergencies.
Dahlia: The website cathealth.com has a list of household products that are toxic to cats and some information on how you can find safer alternatives. We recommend you check it out.
Siouxsie: Our general rule of thumb for determining whether an odor is repulsive to cats is, if it smells strong to you, it’s probably five times as strong for cats.
Thomas: When you take your cats for their first checkup after adopting them, be sure to ask your veterinarian about household products that might be toxic to your cats.
Dahlia: He or she may think we’re going a little overboard by telling you to avoid scented detergents and cat litter, but many cat experts agree that we need to minimize the chemical load on our feline friends to keep them as healthy as possible.
Siouxsie: As Mama says, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Also, she’s kind of a hippie type who’d rather smell like Patchouli than perfume, and fresh air rather than “spring fresh” detergents.
Thomas: We certainly appreciate it, and we know that Mama’s looking out for us by keeping our home as chemical-free as possible.
Dahlia: And we’re glad to hear you want to keep your home as safe and cat-welcoming as possible, too.