Judy Hansen & Sarah Hartwell

Judy Hansen from California provided details of her cats' reactions following a bath in a shampoo containing Tea Tree Oil. In July 2002, she took her Maine Coons, Buddy and Baby, to a grooming parlour for bathing, clipping and grooming. When she collected them later, they were "not happy" and remained unsettled into the evening. Both were grooming more than usual, but not then in obvious distress. The following morning, both were unwell and had raised temperatures and were rushed to the vet clinic. Their temperatures were over 105 Fahrenheit and they were in pain. They were given immediate cool baths to lower the fever and subcutaneous fluids to combat dehydration.

Judy contacted the groomer to find out what products had been used in bathing and grooming. These were a shampoo containing oatmeal & tea tree oil, followed by an oatmeal conditioner. The groomer said that they used these products all the time, they were "all natural" and she had never had any problems. Judy had read of potential problems with cats reacting to Tea Tree Oil and requested they be rebathed to remove the residue, but there the only available time was a few days later so she took the cats straight to vet.

Five year old Baby was bathed and given subcutaneous fluids. Six year old Buddy was in worse shape. While being bathed to reduce his temperature, a 6" x 3" patch of hair fell out at the scuff of his neck. The underlying skin was red and raw -"like it had been blowtorched". He was given subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate him and sent home on Prednisolone 5 mg. Note: This wound may have been due to a skin reaction to a substance (e.g. an undiluted substance) being poured onto the fur and reaching the skin.

Over the next 24 hours both cats ate and drank little and were restless and obviously unwell. The following morning Buddy became very sick, unresponsive, in obvious great pain and cold. Both cats were rushed back to the vet. Buddy's blood test showed nothing except a high bilirubin count; his abdominal X-rays (because of extreme tenderness) were negative. He was given dexamethazone injection and intravenous fluids and was by then critically ill. Baby showed the same symptoms to a lesser degree and was given subcutaneous fluids. Buddy was put into a 24 hour emergency facility and the emergency clinic vets wanted to see Baby also. En route to the clinic it became obvious that Buddy was dying and he died a short while later. Judy described it as a hard death and that he suffered.

Baby remained on subcutaneous fluids, Baytril and Methylpred injections. Blood tests showed increased eosinophils. She received Baytril and Methylpred injections. Her condition was upgraded to "fair" and she was discharged for home nursing. Her long-term prognosis (e.g. impaired liver/kidney function) is not yet known.

Judy took photos and asked that tissue samples be taken from Buddy, including fat since Tea Tree Oil accumulates in fatty tissue, and delivered to her own vet to be sent for analysis. The amount of grooming the cats did after being bathed could have led to them ingesting the substance as well as absorbing it through the skin and, in Buddy's case, through the wound. The cause of death has yet to be confirmed, but a reaction to Tea Tree Oil remains the most likely explanation.

Through this experience, Judy learnt that the vets she saw and the poison control center in Chicago were unfamiliar with tea tree oil toxicity in cats. She found many websites praising Tea Tree Oil, mostly manufacturers of Tea Tree Oil products, though few mentioned its specific toxicity to cats. Groomers may be buying these products unaware of the growing number of reported poisonings. Tea tree oil appears to be neuro-, hepatic- and nephro- toxic at a minimum to cats, a little like drinking anti-freeze.

Baby update: August 2003. Baby seems to be doing well. She didn't seem to either be as affected or received a lower dose during her bath than Bud. During the week after he died she was pretty sick but eventually turned the corner, had several days of high velocity sneezing, just clear fluid, and an odd brown substance in her right ear. I gave her 7 days of Baytril and she is almost back to normal. Her skin has patchy areas and it is flaking off somewhat like REALLY bad dandruff.

My vet called and reported on the tissue samples that were sent for study. Unfortunately from an ammunition point of view they had no clear signs pointing to Tea Tree Oil. Vascular congestion which she says would be seen in any dead body. Samples were sent of major organs and skin but neurological sites were not obtained. She doesn't know if this would have had any definitive answers or not. I have not personally seen the reports yet. On the Petco front, we have not approached them yet in any fashion as we were waiting for the sample results. As it happens, I finally received a response to the message I sent to them asking who I would contact regarding a serious problem that occurred in one of their grooming shops. A "Customer Satisfaction Coordinator" suggested I contact them so
we could file a formal report.

The medications received are US brand names. There is no clinical evidence that Tea Tree Oil can cure ringworm in cats.