Are Plug in Air Fresheners Safe for Cats?

Plug in air fresheners have become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to their convenience and effectiveness at filling a room with pleasant scents. With many different styles, fragrances, and delivery methods available, it's simple to find an air freshener to suit your needs.

However, this rise of artificial air fresheners has sparked valid concerns over the potential health risks, especially for indoor pets like cats. Unlike humans, cats lack certain enzymes that help metabolize and detoxify many chemicals commonly found in air fresheners. Their smaller size and tendency to groom also increases exposure.

Before using plug in air fresheners around your feline companions, it is crucial to understand how they work, evaluate the possible dangers, and look at safer alternatives. While definitive scientific evidence of harm is still lacking, the following information will help you make an informed decision regarding your cat's wellbeing.

How Air Fresheners Work

Air fresheners come in many forms, from gels and aerosols to electric plugins, but they all operate on a similar principle. The products contain a mixture of fragrance oils, essential oils, and/or gels that act to mask other odors that are perceived as unpleasant.

Plug in air fresheners in particular provide continuous fragrance release by utilizing an electrical outlet to slowly diffuse oils into the air over time. Many are made of a porous wick-like material that draws the oils up by capillary action. Heat from the plug in unit then accelerates diffusion into the surrounding space.

Others may use a small fan to propel fragrance outward, or are designed to spray a fine mist at periodic intervals. Motion sensor activated plugins are also popular for releasing bursts of air freshener when they detect nearby movement.

No matter the exact method, the goal is dispensing these chemical fragrance compounds into the indoor environment at a steady, low level over a prolonged period. However, this means our homes and indoor air are being continually filled with synthetic substances that can have surprising effects.

Common ingredients in air freshener products include:

  • Phthalates - added to help fragrance last longer
  • Formaldehyde - preserves the product
  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds) - strong smells that mask odors
  • Essential oils - extracted from plants, often toxic to cats

Understanding what goes into air fresheners and how they operate is the first step to assessing the possible impacts on our furry feline friends. Next, let's look at some of the specific risks frequent use may pose for cats.

Potential Risks of Air Fresheners for Cats

While air fresheners are designed to be safe for human use, the same cannot be assumed for pets like cats that have very different physiology and sensitivity to chemicals. Here are some of the main potential risks and dangers to be aware of:

Respiratory Irritation

One of the most common health concerns is that the chemicals and fragrances in air fresheners can irritate the nasal passages, throat, and lungs when inhaled regularly.

Cats are especially vulnerable as they self-groom and lick their fur which increases ingestion of the chemicals that deposit there. If you notice your cat begins coughing, sneezing or wheezing frequently, the air freshener could be a possible cause.

Bronchial constriction and difficulty breathing are also possible with prolonged exposure. This is particularly concerning for cats with preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma. Their lungs are already compromised, so introducing air fresheners can further exacerbate issues and inflammation.

Harmful Ingestion

Cats are innately curious creatures, which also makes them prone to licking, chewing, or biting on air fresheners out of interest. This creates an opportunity for direct ingestion of the chemicals and ingredients.

Licking at the liquid oils can immediately cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea and oral irritation. Consuming the chemicals found in common air fresheners like phthalates or VOCs introduces toxins into the feline body which can potentially cause organ damage and metabolic disruption over time.

Essential oils are especially hazardous if ingested, even in small doses, as cats lack the enzymes to process them. Any evidence of chewing or licking should prompt immediate removal of the air freshener.

Allergic Reactions

The artificial fragrances used in air fresheners can also provoke allergic reactions in some cats. The chemicals and oils may irritate the skin upon contact or inhalation, causing redness, bumps, itchiness and other symptoms.

Cats spend much of their time self-grooming as well, allowing chemicals that deposit on their fur and paws greater opportunity for contact with skin and mucus membranes. Watch for signs of rashes, scratching, or excessive licking which could indicate an allergy.

Liver and Kidney Damage

While not an immediate effect, prolonged exposure to air freshener ingredients like phthalates and VOC compounds has been linked to potential liver and kidney damage over time.

These chemicals must be detoxified and excreted from the body, so gradual buildup can put extra strain on these organs and impair their function. Symptoms of organ dysfunction including lethargy, appetite changes, vomiting or inappropriate urination could raise concerns about the air freshener's impact on your cat's hepatic and renal systems.

Endocrine Disruption

Ingredients found in air fresheners are also suspected endocrine disruptors. This means they can exert negative effects on cats' hormonal pathways and glandular systems like the thyroid, potentially impairing reproduction, development, metabolism and more.

Interference with the endocrine system is very difficult to detect clinically, but could present with symptoms like lethargy, weight gain or loss, changes in thirst and appetite or inappropriate urination. These vague signs certainly warrant investigation into environmental factors like air freshener exposure as a possibility.

The bottom line is that we do not yet fully understand the extent of synthetic fragrance exposure on cat health. Their small size and tendency to groom exacerbate contact with the various chemicals, increasing risk. It is best to exercise caution when using air fresheners around cats.

Tips for Using Air Fresheners Safely Around Cats

Given the many potential risks outlined, you may decide it's safest to avoid air fresheners entirely if you have cats at home. However, if you wish to use them in a manner less likely to endanger your cats, the following tips can help minimize exposure:

  • Choose unscented or naturally scented products to avoid artificial fragrances. Peppermint, lemon, and lavender are safer options than synthetic "summer breeze" type scents.
  • Avoid air fresheners that use high volatility meaning strong chemical smells that easily vaporize into the air. Opt for mild gels and essential oil options less likely to become airborne.
  • Place plug in air fresheners up high, out of reach of curious cats. This prevents licking and direct contact. You may also use baby gates to block access.
  • Only use air fresheners in well-ventilated rooms, and provide ample opportunity for fresh air circulation through the home daily. This dilutes the scent molecules circulating.
  • Closely observe your cat in the days following first use of a new air freshener. Monitor for any symptoms of respiratory irritation, allergies, lethargy or other concerning signs as outlined earlier.
  • Consult with your veterinarian about the safest alternatives for odor control that pose minimal risk to cats. There are healthier options available.

Exercising common sense and care in how air fresheners are used in your home can help mitigate some of the risks to cats. But it is still ideal to avoid or minimize use whenever possible. Now, let's go over some specific signs of illness to look out for.

Signs of Illness in Cats From Air Fresheners

Since cats can't tell us when they aren't feeling well or are being harmed by an environmental irritant, vigilantly monitoring their health is vital. Be on the lookout for the following symptoms which may indicate a negative reaction to air freshener exposure:

  • Respiratory signs - chronic or acute coughing, wheezing, sneezing, nasal discharge or difficulty breathing may signal respiratory irritation.
  • Allergic reaction - excessive licking, scratching, itching, and development of skin lesions, rashes or scabs could be signs of contact allergy. Hair loss around the face is also suspicious.
  • Oral irritation - drooling, lip licking, mouth pawing, retching and vomiting after direct contact with the air freshener.
  • Gastrointestinal upset - vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and lethargy. Can occur from inflammation, allergic response, or toxic effects of ingestion.
  • Kidney or liver issues - drinking and urinating excessively are markers of kidney dysfunction. Yellow gums, stomach upset and dark urine can indicate liver problems.

Any sudden onset or worsening of these vague symptoms in tandem with introduction of a new air freshener should prompt veterinary examination. Mild signs are easy to overlook but may indicate larger issues at hand. Don't hesitate to contact your vet for guidance, and consider removing the air freshener as a precaution.

Alternatives to Plug in Air Fresheners

To best protect your cats, avoiding synthetic fragranced air fresheners as much as possible is recommended. But you can still keep your home smelling fresh without the health hazards using some of these alternative strategies:

  • Open windows regularly to circulate fresh outdoor air which naturally provides a clean slate for smells.
  • Scoop litter boxes frequently, use odor-controlling litters, and replace litter often to eliminate bathroom odor sources.
  • Set out small dishes of baking soda or activated charcoal which naturally absorb funky smells instead of masking them.
  • Use an automated air purifier or filter which traps odors and freshens air by sanitizing as it circulates.
  • Place bowls of fragrant dried potpourri or sachets around rooms.
  • Simmer aromatic herbs like rosemary, mint and citrus peels on the stove for a temporary scent boost.
  • Use cat safe essential oils only, like lavender or lemon, in very small amounts in diffusers. Never apply directly on cats.
  • Ensure adequate home ventilation daily and maintain tidy environments to prevent odor issues in the first place.

Discuss options with your veterinarian as well for their insight on the safest and most effective solutions that won't compromise your cats' health. Their wellbeing comes first and foremost.


At this time, there is still inconclusive evidence from scientific studies definitively proving the hazards of air freshener use around cats. However, the chemical ingredients, continuous diffusion into the air, and research showing links to respiratory irritation and organ damage in animals demonstrate valid reasons for caution.

Cats' small size, constant grooming behaviors, and sensitivity to chemicals mean air fresheners do pose genuine risks that merit attentiveness. It is wise to avoid using artificial fragrances around cats whenever possible, or to select only mild, vet-approved products.

Monitor your cats closely for any signs of discomfort or illness, and put their wellbeing before any desire to make your home smell a certain way. With some vigilance and vet guidance, you can maintain a fresh, healthy indoor environment without the use of harsh air fresheners. Your cats will thank you for considering their needs and safety first when making choices in the home.


Are there any definitive scientific studies proving air fresheners are dangerous for cats?

At this time, no published studies definitively prove the dangers of air fresheners specifically towards cats. However, studies on household chemicals show links to respiratory and organ issues in mammals. Given cats' sensitivity, risks are still present. More research is certainly warranted to identify harmful effects directly on cats. But we can make reasonable assumptions based on the ingredient toxicity and known risks in other species.

What ingredients found in air fresheners seem most concerning for cat health?

The most hazardous ingredients for cats appear to be phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and formaldehyde. All three are common in air freshener formulations.

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and linked to organ damage with gradual accumulation in the body. VOCs and formaldehyde can cause respiratory irritation with inhalation. Essential oils also pose dangers for cats when ingested. Checking product labels and avoiding air fresheners with these ingredients is wise.

Are plug in style air fresheners more risky for cats than sprays or gels?

Yes, plug in air fresheners that release fragrance continuously seem to carry greater risks for cats than other styles. The constant diffusion means cats are continually exposed through respiration and grooming. Automatic sprays or gels only freshen intermittently.

Plug ins also allow opportunity for direct contact and ingestion if a curious cat interacts with the device. Overall emission into the home's air will be highest from plugins. Limiting use, blocking access, and monitoring cats closely are key if using plugins around felines.

If I keep my cat away from the air freshener, is that sufficient to prevent risks?

Simply keeping cats restricted from direct physical access to air fresheners does not entirely eliminate risks. The nature of these products is dispersing chemicals into the air which will still reach your cat through respiration. Any particles landing on surfaces are also later ingested during grooming. Restricting access helps, but does not guarantee full safety. Limiting use overall remains ideal.

Are essential oil or naturally-based air fresheners safe for use around cats?

It's a common misconception that essential oil or plant-based air fresheners must be harmless for pets. Many essential oils themselves are actually toxic for cats, even in diffused form. Oils like tea tree, limonene, peppermint and lavender can cause illness in cats when inhaled or ingested in small amounts. Always consult your vet first about safety before exposing cats to any essential oil fragranced product. Terms like “natural” or “organic” do not guarantee safety for our felines.

Nora Johnston
Nora Johnston

Hi, my name is Nora. As a busy working mom, I'm always looking for ways to keep my home clean and fresh smelling. With two kids and a husband who works construction, odors can build up quickly in our house. I've tried many different air fresheners over the years with mixed results. I'm pretty sensitive to strong artificial fragrances, so I have to be careful about choosing scents that won't give me a headache. I prefer fresher, lighter scents rather than heavy florals or perfumes. I've had good luck with some essential oil-based fresheners, but some brands seem to lose their scent too quickly. I want an air freshener that will last a while after spraying and effectively neutralize odors rather than just covering them up. Automatic spray air fresheners are nice for high-traffic areas like the bathrooms. But I worry about all the chemicals being released into the air. Lately I've been experimenting with some natural odor absorbers like baking soda, vinegar and charcoal. But it's hard to keep up with replacing them all the time.