When Sue Klimas' 8-year-old cat, Dinah, began vomiting, coughing and sneezing last May, the Texas woman took her furry companion to the veterinarian.
Through blood tests, ultrasounds and an eventual exploratory surgery to check for cancer, Dinah's veterinarian was unable to determine the cause of her failing health.
"She went from weighing 9 pounds to 6 pounds. She began to appear thin and lethargic and would refuse food," Klimas, who lives in Lewisville, a suburb of Dallas, told TODAY. "The vet and I were at a loss. It wasn't until early December that I figured it out on my own."
Klimas had been diffusing lavender and eucalyptus oils in her bathroom, where Dinah frequently slept on a fluffy bath mat the cat had taken a liking to. Klimas was also using a lavender essential oil remedy for wrist pain and realized Dinah would sometimes lick her owner's wrists and hands to get attention.
Little did she know that this increasingly popular practice posed a problem. Michael San Filippo, senior media relations specialist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, warns that essential oils can be harmful, and even toxic, to all pets.
"We'd advise pet owners to be cautious using them around the house," he told TODAY. "If you do, keep them out of reach and monitor your pets closely for signs of poisoning such as drooling, pawing at the face, difficulty breathing, lethargy, vomiting or muscle tremors."
Klimas got rid of her essential oil diffuser and saw her beloved cat return to normal. "She's back at 8 pounds and has been maintaining her weight," she said. "I am no longer diffusing oils, and I don't plan to ever again."
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cats are especially sensitive to essential oils.
"Effects such as gastrointestinal upset, central nervous system depression and even liver damage could occur if ingested in significant quantities. Inhalation of the oils could lead to aspiration pneumonia," reads the organization's website. "There are significant variations in toxicity among specific oils. Based on this, we would not recommend using essential oils in areas where your pets have access, unless pets are supervised or the use of the oil is approved by your veterinarian."
Annie Walther of Washington, Pennsylvania, recently learned of the danger after her 7-year-old cat, Pedro, started behaving strangely.
"I had my oil diffuser beside my bed — normally I diffuse lavender and lemon," she told TODAY. "Pedro noticed the diffuser, sniffed the fumes, sneezed and then swatted at it. He then left the room, but I didn't think anything of it."
Days later, Walther noticed Pedro wasn't following her into her bedroom at bedtime, and had ceased sleeping with her at night.
Walther did some research and learned about the possible harm associated with essential oils. "I moved my diffuser to the bathroom and make sure the door is closed when I use it," she said. "Pedro sleeps with me again now and I couldn't be happier."
For Erica Jackson, the wake-up call was sudden, and frightening.
The Arlington, Texas, woman adopted her cat, Kylo, in October. She learned the kitten had ringworm and would need to be seen by a veterinarian for treatment. Since Jackson's vet wasn't available to treat Kylo for a few days, Jackson searched online for holistic ringworm treatments that she and her boyfriend, Alex, could try in the meantime.
"This was my first cat, and I wanted to do everything right for him," Jackson told TODAY. "A holistic website I found said that tea tree oil was great for combating fungi...I applied tea tree oil directly onto each spot."
Jackson says later that evening, Kylo began stumbling around her home and acting strange, so she and her boyfriend rushed the kitten to the animal hospital.
"The veterinarian asked what the strong smell was, and I told him I had put tea tree oil on Kylo because he had ringworm," Jackson recalled. "The entire tone of the conversation changed, and he told us tea tree oil was highly toxic to cats. I completely broke down into tears. They had to give him multiple baths, and it came down to waiting to see if he could survive."
Jackson's vet treated Kylo for both ringworm and the exposure to tea tree oil, and warned that tea tree oil can cause kidney and liver damage, and possibly organ failure in cats.
Thankfully, Kylo recovered.
"My vet told me later to always call if I want to utilize holistic treatments, since they are better informed on the health of my animal," said Jackson. "I'm very happy to say that today, Kylo is as spunky and friendly as can be...we call him our 'little warrior' all the time."
The bottom line for all pet owners? Stay vigilant.
"You know your pets better than anyone," said San Filippo of the AVMA. "So if you notice they're acting sick or something just seems off — in any situation — contact your veterinarian immediately."