Chris Lorrie & Sarah Hartwell

Miss Charlotte: Persian cat with severe illness following use of Tea Tree Oil Shampoo.

On 5th December 2003, I received another report of Tea Tree Oil poisoning from Chris Lorrie (the following account is summarised from several email updates):

I also once believed that Australian Tea Tree Oil products were safe and used one on one of my Persian cats (Miss Charlotte) for ringworm at approximately 2:00 in the afternoon, December/04/2003. I applied the Tea Tree Oil and when I checked on her a number of hours later she was uncoordinated (walking like a drunk), weak, and was suffering from hypothermia. she was curled in a corner on a blanket. At first it didn't seem like anything was wrong with her; however, when I approached her and she tried to stand up and walk I immediately noticed that she moved like someone who was extremely weak and drunk. She staggered and collapsed repeatedly and when she did move forward she would weave and appeared severely neurologically impaired.

I didn't really know what was wrong with her but instincts told me to wash her off immediately and this is what I did. I bathed her in warm water twice as she needed two bathes with mild (non-tea tree oil shampoo) soap and conditioner to take the oil product off of her skin and out of her hair. Specifically, I used Johnson's and Johnson's baby shampoo on her because it was the mildest shampoo in my house. After the first bath, under warm water, I took her out and began toweling her off. However, she still reeked like Tea Tree Oil and my gut reaction was to get as much Tea Tree Oil as possible off of her. Thus I immediately bathed her again. After the second bath, I toweled her again and placed her in a cat carrier in front of a space heater because she was so weak and shivering.

Then I called Poison Control. I knew somehow at this point that it was likely the oil because nothing else made any logical sense under the circumstances. My cat is not a kitten and she never gets into anything she shouldn't. There was nothing in my house that could have injured her in any way. This particular cat won't even climb up on anything high off the ground, so falls were not possible. Moreover, she is a 100% indoor cat.

Initially the Poison Control worker didn't want to give me any information and she just said, "We don't know about animals, you need to take her to a vet." The two vets I had come in contact with were totally ignorant of this possibility I needed to know exactly what was happening to my cat. I felt that if I rushed her to a vet without understanding what was happening to her the vet might actually do her more harm then good. It was the Poison Control operator who looked up the affects of Tea Tree Oil on cats and found the initial information regarding Tea Tree Oil poisoning in cats (via a study of three Angora cats who were treated for fleas using a Tea Tree Oil product, one of these cats died). From this Poison Control operator I learned that the first symptom of Tea Tree Oil poisoning in cats appears to be hypothermia.

I'd asked two vets before using the oil if it was safe and both said they saw no problem with it - so I needed to understand better about what ways it could be toxic. One of the two vets (a highly respected specialist for exotics, including birds, cats and reptiles) told me directly that the oil would not likely get rid of the ringworm but it also would not hurt my cat! From the Poison Control worker I learned that Tea Tree Oil is linked to hypothermia, coma and death. At least knew what I was dealing with. However, local vets don't seem to know what to do in effective treatment. Hypothermia gave me something to address or treat immediately at home. After all, if I let my cat continue freezing from the hypothermia she wouldn't likely make it to any vet in time. Luckily she was in that carrier in front of a space heater. However, as I learned later, too extreme of a re-heating process can also cause harm. Thus far local vets have not been helpful to either my cat or me. Therefore, I have ended up treating her myself.

She was poisoned by Australian Tea Tree oil yesterday afternoon. At this point she continues to be uncoordinated, lethargic, weak, depressed, her breathing seems slow, and she refuses to drink or move. Fluids can be administered through IV methods or under her skin, however, she is lethargic and depressed. She can walk, yet she doesn't do so very well. She is aware of people who come into the room, yet she doesn't sit up or move anything but her eyes and sometimes ears in response. She is being kept warm but between the ignorance of local vets and the level of poisoning she is likely suffering from the prognosis is not good. I still don't know how to tell if she's getting worse or better as detailed information about the stages or progression of this type of poisoning are not available. The only good news is that so far she appears to be physically comfortable and I can only hope that if she is to pass away or be put to sleep that she never suffers any terrible pain in the process.

I still can't believe the vet who is a specialist in exotics told me that Tea Tree Oil products would not harm my cat. It is far too obvious that he was disgustingly wrong. I spent my afternoon creating my own website in hopes that I might spare another cat owner the nightmare I am currently going through and the even worse the situation that my cat is suffering from.

Update 8th Dec, 2003: I am force feeding her water out of a syringe and I also forced a few CC's of goat milk into her this evening. I am using a product called a Treagger (magnet and red light pad) to provide her with some extra warmth and to help with her pain level. She is able to balance herself better, but is still extremely weak and shakes her head frequently which causes her to nearly topple off of her feet. However, a few days ago, head shaking did cause her to fall down all the way. I still notice darting in her eyes, especially when I feed her water, which appears to be mild seizure activity. It seems this might be due to the position of her head of the swallowing action more than an effect of the actual water. However, she can walk much better now and can even climb over my leg while I sit flat on the floor with her. Nonetheless, she is far from out of the woods

These are the basic steps I have taken after bathing her twice to remove as much Tea Tree Oil product as possible. I do not know if I have done the right things or if my cat will fully recover from Tea Tree Oil poisoning.

1) December/04/2003: I researched hypothermia first and then Tea Tree Oil poisoning in cats thoroughly on the Internet. From this research I learned not to re-heat my cat too quickly and not to burn her or over heat her in the process of trying to keep her warm. I also learned a lot of terms that I wish I hadn't ever had to hear of, such as ataxia (the lack of coordination and drunken appearance of animals suffering from both hypothermia and Tea Tree Oil poisoning). After researching these topics for hours I knew what my cat's symptoms were, a little about what to do to take care of her, and a lot about terrible prognosis potential for cats suffering as severely as my cat was. My cat had severe ataxia, dilated pupils (one pupil looked more dilated then the other), she could barely walk, her hind legs were very weak and could barely support her weight for even a few minutes, she had been vomiting (nearly whole pieces of dry cat food were in the vomit indicating that she likely couldn't even chew or swallow) and had had diarrhoea, she was unresponsive to most movements and/or sounds, she had hypothermia but she didn't shiver, she seemed to be having seizure activity in her eyes, she shook her head often and for no reason and when she did so she would fall down and be unable to rise again for several minutes, she did not want to move at all if given a choice, etc.

2) I placed my cat in a spare bathroom in a cat carried stuffed and layered with warm blankets.

3) I placed a Treager (i.e. High Density Magnetic/Monochromatic Biofield Stimulator -- magnetic red-light pad device onto the floor of the cat carrier (after wrapping the Treager in two plastic bags and placing it beneath one layer of blanket). The reason I wrapped the Treager in the plastic bags was to prevent electrocution in case my cat suffered through more vomiting or diarrhoea. I hoped that the Treager would help keep my cat warm (due to the hypothermia which lasted an extended period of time with my cat). The Treager is NOT tested or approved for use on cats. In fact, as far as I know, the Treager is an experimental device, which supposedly helps to control pain, and stimulates healing processes. Therefore, my use of the Treager in this case was due to my sheer helpless desperation in trying to help my cat. I was hoping that the Treager might at least alleviate her pain. The makers of the Treager claim that is does diminish pain in larger animals and that it also help to speed the healing of injuries. Nonetheless, as far as I understand, the Treager is a wholly untested device and it may harm cats.

4) At this point my cat was in a bathroom, isolated from all other animals, noises and stress from the outside environment. The space heater was set on low and placed away from the carrier inside the bathroom. From this point, I basically watched my cat non-stop through the night and through most of the next day as well. I turned the space heater off during her first night in the bathroom as I did not want to overheat her.

5) I monitored her water and dry food and noticed that she wasn't drinking or eating anything. In fact, she wouldn't leave the carrier. She seemed somewhat comfortable inside the carried and on top of the Treager. I am sure she was not really comfortable. Nonetheless, I hope that her shelter inside that carrier was offering her some comfort as she fought to survive.

6) December/05/2003: By the next day I had to force feed her water through a syringe (the needle was removed and I was dribbling the water into her mouth a drop at a time). I tried to get approximately 6CC's of water in her at a feeding. She seemed too weak to take anything else but water. I still have no idea what size a cat's stomach is and if this amount of water was too much for her. I was not very aggressive in the way I fed her the water, however, due to how weak and fragile my cat was. My local vets were not very helpful at all.

7) December/06/2003:By the second day I noticed that my cat had a fistful of loose skin hanging under her chest and stomach. This loose flesh began directly under her chest and continued in between her rear legs. Since there was so much loose skin this could have been due to dehydration or another less documented factor of Tea Tree Oil poisoning or both. My cat was still severely uncoordinated with all the symptoms of serious Tea Tree Oil poisoning and possibly with some remnants of hypothermia.

8) By the third day I was desperate to get some type of nutrition into my cat. I force fed her a few CC's of goat milk at a time and hoped she would not begin vomiting again as this could weaken her further. She was still obviously in dire shape. Though her condition was very slightly better I thought that I'd lose her for sure at this point if things didn't begin to improve more completely and/or rapidly. I continued to force feed her water and became more aggressive at this time. I figured I had to force more water into her any way possible if she was to have a chance at life at all. I used the goat milk because she still would not eat, no matter what. I had heard of a cattery owner who used goat milk on nursing cats and weaning kittens and that goat milk was less harmful and/or better for cats than cow milk. I thought that along with the nutrition she needed any sugars that she might get out of the goat milk. In any case, after being force-fed more water and goat milk she finally did urinate a great deal. Her urine was an excessive amount and it was thick and greasy (it looked oily) at the bottom of her litter box. After dumping the litter out of the box I noticed that my cat's urine had a faint smell of Tea Tree Oil. Because of this I removed her litter and washed the litter box with soap and water often as I thought it was possible for her to pick up the oily Tea Tree remnants on her paws and perhaps lick this substance off of her feet causing additional Tea Tree Oil poisoning. (The oily urine came at a time when some other owners may think their cats have recovered)

9) Also on the third day, I gave my cat another bath with non-Tea Tree Oil Shampoo because her coat still stank of Tea Tree Oil. It seemed like the Tea Tree Oil was coming up out of her skin in some way. I was extremely careful to avoid letting her become chilled due to the reality of how much she had suffered from hypothermia and how weak and susceptible she seemed to many potential complications at this time.

10) At the fourth or fifth day (truly the days blurred into one long nightmare of watching this poor cat suffer) I gave her some canned cat food and she ate it. She had also eaten dry cat food and drank water on her own. When she first drank by herself it seemed excessive and her urination appeared to be excessive too (far too much and alarmingly greasy at the bottom of the litter box).

11) I left the Treager on for her 24 hours a day because she seemed to suffer a drastic and immediately (within a few hours time) decline when the Treager was turned off for a few hours previously but after the first few days. I honestly don't know what component of the Treager appeared to be keeping my cat more stable (the added warmth or something else). I also still don't know whether or not a Treager device is truly safe or advisable for cats.

12) At this point, December/11/2003, she is drinking by herself. Her urine is more normal. Her coordination is nearly completely normal. All and all she appears to be recovering; yet I still don't know what kind of kidney and/or liver damage she may have. I plan to have her blood tested for renal complications in the near future.

I bought her some canned cat food, as she had begun to drink water on her own and seemed possibly ready to try feeding herself. I fed her canned cat food twice per day. The first day she ate only a miniscule portion in the late morning; by the second day she ate a little of her portion at both feedings. She is now eating more and she also ate dry cat food. She produced manure (poop) for the first time yesterday and again today. Her drinking and urination seem to be more normal. She is very well able to walk and even run today. Her reflexes are extremely quick and her balance is nearly perfect. She jumped off the top of her cat carrier (her cave through all this sick time) and ran at me across the bathroom floor this evening. Her ability to balance through all of this and the fact that she didn't falter or fall down at all, really gave me somewhat of a shock after watching her struggle to simply stay alive for so long (it's felt like a long time at least). Her eyes look more normal as well - not so dilated as they were before.

Her skin and ringworm patches are healing and she's growing fine patches of new hairs (her back was shaved before the mistake of ringworm treatment with a Tea Tree Oil product). This last point is interesting and hopefully a positive sign because the Tea Tree Oil product created large horrible looking deep open sores over the actual ringworm in her skin and very dry skin around her back area and ears. I was very worried that her skin might actually begin to die, erode or peel off. The skin on her back and ears appeared to be so raw, dry and brittle I thought it could be even more damaged than it is.

I've had some bloodwork done on Miss Charlotte. Her liver is functioning (though not perfectly) and she seems to continue on the mend, albeit slowly. The wounds on her back are indeed chemical burns, however, they are deemed to be mild at this time. Her hair is growing back in a healthy looking soft fuzz over the burned areas and the scabs are getting smaller in size. On the negative side, she's still thin and when she rubs against my leg demanding attention her rear end seems a little wobbly (her rear end sways very slightly from side to side after she's pressed against me), but it doesn't look like she's going to fall down. Also when she shakes her head now she keeps her balance perfectly.

I am truly grateful that I only used this Tea Tree Oil product on one of my nine cats. What a disaster it would have been if more than one of my pets had been harmed by the oil. I am a strong believer is using vets when one has problems, yet when I went through this ordeal it was frustrating to see how little information there was on home care - for many people home care could be the only option and with Tea Tree Oil products so readily available on the market (not to mention how highly recommended some of these products seem to be) the victims of this product likely need more information on how to deal with its affects in the worst case scenario - i.e. when they can't afford a vet ASAP, when the vet doesn't know what's wrong and what to do, etc. In my case, my regular vet could have left Charlotte in a cold metal cat kennel-cage in a room with high air conditioning overnight to observe her - with the hypothermia she was initially suffering through this kind of "care" could have killed her!