Many tea lovers are cat owners or are owned by cats. A significant number of them associate tea, especially green tea, with health. It’s natural for them to then want to apply their own enjoyment and concern for well-being to that of their cats and permit or even encourage the use of tea as part of their regimens.
That makes for cute pictures but toxic outcomes. Tea in any form is not safe for your pet. You drink tea by the cup. The ingredients can wreck its body by the drop.
I love tea and I love my cats. I know that many of my friends are similarly entangled. I’ve had a nagging sense that I didn’t know much about the link between the two. That’s ironic since most of my writing on tea is supported by my research assistant, Callie, without whom my posts would take half the time to finish. A scholar with a dedicated sense of purpose, she has never met a keyboard she can’t sit on.
Long may she live to do so. While I write about tea, this is the nearest she will ever get to it. The more I looked into the simple question of how safe is tea for cats, the more it became clear to me that I have only fragmented and often incorrect knowledge. I researched this post to redress my ignorance.
My aim is to alert, not alarm. Looking at back at what I have just written, I admit that informed alerts here must almost surely evoke alarm. It’s impossible to quantify the frequency and severity of tea-related or tea-relevant cat poisoning. Most of the discussion is anecdotal cases and analysis. But it adds up to a rather disturbing set of conclusions.
The power of misinformation
When in doubt, don’t Google it. The web is packed with muddle, misinformation, and dangerously wrong claims and advice. In my own case, after going through several hundred blogs, scientific articles, cat lover forums, medical sites, ads and aromatherapy guides, I still can’t be sure about many of the basic issues.
To take just one all too representative instance. It is reliably clear that catnip is safe for cats. But around a third don’t respond to it. If you look for advice about a substitute, up comes “Then thyme may be your and your cat’s best friend.”
Look around a little more and “Thyme is safe for both humans and cats”… Next, “Thyme essential oil is toxic to cats”… Moving on,“Cat thyme is perfectly safe…” Then comes the muddler to add to the contradiction. Cat thyme is not the same as thyme. It’s a germander shrub, not a herb. So, in summary: catnip is proven safe, thyme is definitely safe or decidedly deadly, and catnip thyme is not thyme.
Here’s my own interpretation of the implications of all the evidence, opinions, experiences, analysis and studies on tea and feline toxicity. It’s what I feel we can be sure of, versus opinion. Much of it you may already know but I hope it is still useful as a personal checklist or message to less informed friends:
1. Basically, plants kill cats. One mouthful of a lily flower is life-threatening. A half teaspoon of a concentrated oil extract of lavender is as dangerous as a nibble of the fresh flower is safe. Rubbing eucalyptus or aloe lotion on your cat’s sore spots starts a buildup of toxicity that its biology simply cannot handle. As for a cup of tea…
2. Your cat does not process food or drink the way you do. A cat’s liver is its lifelong vulnerability. It lacks the enzymes to break down many substances and the internal pathways to remove them. In case you have ambitions of becoming World Scrabble champion, you may want to file away in your memory the one that is absolutely critical to humans in flushing out drugs and medications: glucuronosyltransferase.
Cats are totally lacking in glucur… — this enzyme. A large cat has a small chance of surviving one tablet of paracetamol. In 2012, a lady who meant to do no hurt was convicted in the UK of animal cruelty for feeding her injured cat just one quarter of a tablet. It died. The prosecution was brought because of the frequency of such incidents.
3. The cat’s body immediately stores anything it ingests that its enzymatic mechanisms do not recognize and process. This does not dissolve but builds up and becomes toxic, typically attacking the kidneys. That, alas, easily disguises the long-term impacts. In so many instances, cat owners are relieved when the symptoms of an attack disappear. That says nothing about the lifetime accumulation.
Here’s one of many examples from Web discussions:
“We had a cat decide that it liked Earl Grey… Nothing happened to her.”
Maybe, but the bergamot in Earl Grey is listed as highly toxic by the ASPCA. If it’s an essence, just a few small drops are enough to cause damage. In any case, it’s still in the cat’s body. Nothing happened to her… Yet.
4. Many herbal leaves are safe; their extracted essences aren’t. If a cat eats a lavender flower, it should suffer no effects. However, lavender and comparable herbs are mostly used in the form of essential oils – essences – in household products, odor sprays, lotions, and shampoos. And as additives in flavored teas.
Among the toxic oils are: eucalyptus, oregano, thyme, clove, cinnamon, lavender, sage, peppermint, citrus fruit, and parsley. So, too, in varying degrees are bergamot, the main essential oil in Earl Grey, chamomile (safe in “small” amounts, whatever that means, if it’s the German not Roman variety) and valerian root (generally listed as safe except when it’s claimed as not, which is in about twenty percent of formal references and ratings.)
If you pick any herbal tea with some variant on “sleepy,” “bedtime” or “nighttime” in its name, it will contain at least several of these ingredients. So, too, will any flavored tea.
5. The concentration of chemical extracts is 500-2000 times the natural leaf. Almost all over-the-counter essential oils are 100% strength in terms of percent of volume. To be safe, they must be diluted to 0.1-1.0% percent. Some commentators recommend using vegetable oil for this. So, here’s a bottle and spoon. Do the math and go ahead. And read the bottle label first.
The information you need isn’t on the label. There’s no metric for converting teaspoon measures to “drops.”
6. Cats that ingest caffeine don’t see it as the same concern as humans; they are too busy with vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst, restlessness and a racing heart rate. These signs can occur anywhere between 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion.
Caffeine is, ironically, less dangerous to a cat than herbal teas. However, there are too many instances of eating a single coffee bean or chewing on a teabag resulting in anguish and emergency treatment of caffeine overdose. Yes, it looks cute when your cat starts spazzing and there are plenty of Youtube videos, shown as entertainment, not obituary.
7. Cats are attracted to tea-like, sweet-smelling water-ish liquids. Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) offers a cautionary – no, alarming — example. It has a sweet smell suggestive of maple syrup. Many products have an added cool mint taste. It is a remarkably appealing liquid for children and even adults. For dogs as well as cats, it is irresistible.
It is not, statistically, the most common cause of household toxic damage to cats. Rat and mouse poisons account for far more incidents. Cats do not generally die from those substances, but ethylene glycol has a much higher fatality rate per accident. It is the biggest single cause of accidental household death. The most common danger is cats lapping it up in the garage from a car leak. But any outdoor puddle may attract it.
Catnip: the safest high
Now, from the worrisome to the good news: catnip is great. It is not tea but shares many of the characteristics of herbal teas: ground up green leaf, with a sweet and aromatic flavor.
Cats have been summarized as a unique combination of utter indolence and frenzied hyperactivity. Catnip moves them through both extremes. The hyper is their wild initial response, lasting 10-20 minutes. The idle is the soporific letdown that follows.
About two thirds of all cats go crazy for catnip. This is genetically inherited. The response does not develop in kittens until they are 3-6 months old. Australian cats do not seem to have passed on the gene within their isolated island. Leopards, lions and tigers react to it as wildly as kitties. (Rats hate it.) The driver is raw, atavistic, synesthetic, primeval autoerotic response: i.e., lust.
You don’t need the chemical details. Basically, the plant acts like an artificial pheromone. The cat may not have a powerful brain but it picks up the signals at near-light speed.
Cats supposedly come prepackaged with nine lives. It doesn’t make sense to throw away two or more of them by killing them with kindness. Don’t (1) let them drink tea, (2) mix tea supplements or extracts with their food, (3) dose them with herbal tea ingredients, such as chamomile or valerian, or (4) mess around with tea tree oils for wounds, sores or as shampoos or lotions (the tea tree is not actually tea but is naturally often equated with it.)
Here are two ending cautionary stories, with no comment needed.
Story 1: I just didn’t know
“HELP!! Cat people, I didn’t know lavender oil was toxic to cats. I put a couple of drops of lavender oil on the back of my cat’s neck… he started to lick it and started drooling at the mouth. I can’t catch him because he is like dialing out like he is paranoid and will hide then bolt before I get to him.
I rang the vets and they said they basically weren’t sure [about liver damage from ‘flea stuff’”] but if the foaming doesn’t stop then bring him in.”
Story 2: A cat’s last day.
Limping with a swollen foot. Two drops of highest quality myrrh rubbed on his fur, immediately licked off. (Google it: “Myrrh is one of the safest essential oils for cats.”) Salivates profusely. Admitted to vet emergency care overnight. ‘Severe’ respiratory distress. No sign of heart or lung problems on X-rays. No fluid, normal blood work. Breathing worsens, put on IV fluids and oxygen.
The sad ending: “My sweet cat died a few hours later.”
In summary: Keep your cat tea-free and herb-protected. All it needs is occasional catnip, along with a supply of clean, filtered water always at tongue’s or paw’s reach. That ensures it is kept hydrated and less tempted by the sweet minty puddle of antifreeze or the cup of cold tea you left sitting on the table. Doing nothing is the best gift you can give.
As ever, the last word or paw is a comment from Callie relating, I believe, to aromatherapy:
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