Rhonda Baerwald & Sarah Hartwell

Foxy + 3 Week Old Kitten - Killed by Tea Tree Oil?

I received another case of apparent Tea Tree Oil poisoning in May 2003; this time in breeding Persians owned by Rhonda Baerwald. The following is reproduced (in summary) with permission of the cats' owner as a warning to others.

A kitten bought in November 2002 led to ringworm infection in other household cats. By January 2003, all of the cats, except the 2 pregnant females, had been treated successfully with Keteconozole (a drug used in the USA). The pregnant cats showed ringworm symptoms in March 2003; the preferred drug was griseofulvisin which is apparently hard to obtain in the USA (It is widely used in the UK). By then, the kittens from the 2 pregnant cats developed ringworm aged 8 weeks and 3 weeks.

Foxy, a shaded silver Persian, was 4 years old (DOB 28 Feb 1999) and weighed 4.5 lbs (the female |Persians ranged between 4.5 lbs to 7 lbs). The owner found a spot on Foxy's neck under her chin, but Foxy was possibly pregnant so no oral medication could be used (risk of kitten deformities or miscarriage). The mother of the 3 week old kittens could not be treated in case the drug was passed in the milk. Myosan cream was used on the spot. With 11 cats and 6 kittens in the home (a cattery, but uncaged), the bill for eliminating ringworm could run into thousands of dollars.

According to a website review, Tea Tree Oil could cure ringworm within 72 hours and was safe to use on cats. Although it smelled strong and the breeder was concerned that the kittens might accidentally ingest some while nursing, the instructions provided with the oil did not mention any danger if ingested.

The mother of 3 week old kittens had numerous patches around the nipples and the kittens had it on their faces. The owner applied Tea Tree Oil full-strength to the belly on a cotton swab according to the manufacturer's instructions for Cat and Dog uses. Within an hour all 3 kittens were weak, unco-ordinated, shaking and staggering (resembling neurological problems). They were immediately washed with soap and water and bottle-fed. They were unco-ordinated and shaky for approximately 2-2.5 weeks; 2 of the 3 kittens improved after a couple of days and began nursing again. The third would not start nursing again, lost the ability to swallow (when bottle-fed) and died. Because the instructions did not mention toxicity or symptoms of Tea Tree Oil poisoning, the owner did not link the oil to the kittens' illness or the death of one of the kittens.

In March 2003, Foxy turned out to be not pregnant. She was bathed to remove all residue of Myosan cream and given 20 mg Keteconozole. Tea Tree Oil was applied topically to spots on her belly using cotton wool. Later in the evening (when the owner returned), Foxy was weak and unresponsive. She smelled very strongly of Tea Tree Oil and this was immediately washed off. She was unable to walk and diagnosed by a vet as anorexic, ataxic and havin muscle tremors.

The vet diagnosed poisoning of some sort, but was unaware of Tea Tree Oil toxicity. He washed Foxy to remove any remaining contaminant and gave her fluids. The vet said that Foxy might recover given time and fluids (to flush the system and give it time to eliminate any toxins). Foxy received further fluids and returned home; she was able to stand, but was unco-ordinated and unable to walk much. She would not eat and after 4 days had to be force fed diluted liquidised food. The smell of Tea Tree Oil remained strong despite the previous thorough bathing (by this time she would have been excreting it in urine).

After a 3rd bath, the owner found Foxy's stomach to be raw in some areas where the oil had been used (chemical burns). The skin on the neck had become leathery where the oil had been used. Foxy refused to leave the litter box; she urinated on herself, cried and whimpered. Foxy had to be euthanized 1 week after being treated with Tea Tree Oil. She still smelled very strongly of tea tree oil, indicating it was still in her system (it is absorbed through the skin). The vet was in no doubt that Tea Tree Oil was the poison responsible. The manufacturer asked for a statement from the Vet and details of medication used for all of the cats.

Despite the lack of clinical evidence, Tea Tree Oil is considered to be a cure-all and non-toxic. Claims to the contrary are not accepted by manufacturers and vendors. The manufacturer claimed that the oil had not been used as directed and apparently accused the owner of giving the cat several other medications (which had not actually been used). In spite of no warning about ingestion, the manufacturer apparently considered the owner negligent for allowing the oil to be licked off. In fact all cats groom and any externally used preparation will end up being ingested to some extent.

The manufacturer also referred to a disclaimer, which followed 6 pages of specific uses and directions, to say it was not intended to treat or cure any disorders or diseases (in spite of claims apparently made on a website). He could not be held liable for correct or incorrect use of his product. The accompanying literature had no information on ingestion of Tea Tree Oil and apparently cited 3 instances of directly using it full strength in the mouth. The manufacturer claims the oil was used incorrectly and in unreasonably high amounts yet a responsible owner followed that manufacturer's instructions.

The moral of the tale is Tea Tree Oil is not a safe product to use on cats. It is marketed based on anecdotal evidence. Clinical studies are lacking. If it poisons you cat (or dog) the manufacturers will deny all responsibility - even if you followed their instructions to the letter. The manufacturers are making money and are in a win-win situation. Cat-owners, on the other hand, risks losing their cat and have no comeback.

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