Anna North & Sarah Hartwell

Tiger: from feline athlete to uncoordinated cat through tea-tree toxicity

I received the following account of tea tree oil poisoning resulting in long-term damage from Anna North.

Before my mother passed away, she made me promise to take care of her cat, Tiger. So, when the time came, I took Tiger, a big orange short-hair tabby, back home with me. Because of that promise, and because Tiger is such a fine feline, his care was a matter of importance. He was five years old at the time. He also had to adjust from being a farm cat, accustomed to lots of roaming and unpolluted air, to becoming a cat living in the suburbs of Denver. This he did quite well, having quickly bonded to both my Great Dane/German Shepherd dog and me. He chose to stick around the house and yard and gave up roaming. This was at the beginning of 2000.

The next summer (2001) Tiger began to show skin irritation and balding spots in areas he worried. My [now ex-] husband was opposed to spending money to let me take Tiger to the vet. I did telephone the vet, who recommended a tea tree oil shampoo for Tiger - and this is a very good clinic I have used for years. We had used such a shampoo on a previous dog, with questionable effect; we had also used tea tree oil for ourselves in topical applications. However, humans are not dogs are not cats.... So, I hit the Internet for further information and found tea tree concoctions broadly recommended for nearly everyone and everything, even by veterinarians. I could find no logical reason to not try some to relieve Tiger's skin irritation (I was looking for a reason, a side effect, a contraindication to rule out using tea tree oil) .

So, I applied a dilution to the bald patches, which were not ringworm, mange or anything else experienced over years of working with livestock of various kinds. Tiger's irritation acted like an allergic reaction to his new and different environment. Sorry for the vagueness but that is how vague it was. Here is the moral beforehand, as my husband discovered belatedly: Spend a little now and save a lot later - including your cat! About four hours after applying the diluted oil, my son came running upstairs yelling that something was wrong with Tiger. I sped down to find Tiger on his feet - barely - weaving and clearly uncoordinated. His breathing was shallow and rapid. He was clearly in great distress, mewling in a way I hope to never again hear. He also reeked of far more tea tree oil than had been put on him; that was very odd.

I swept Tiger up and yelled for my son to start running tepid water and to get lots of towels. There was no doubt in my mind that he had been poisoned by something (sans a stroke) and tea tree oil was my immediate, intuitive suspicion. Frankly, I used dish soap (UK: washing-up liquid) on him in a effort to cut the oil. However, I also allowed for the likelihood that he had managed to ingest some. After the rude bath, the smell was still incredibly strong, magnified even.

I sat on the stairs holding Tiger wrapped in dry towels. My son and I were nearly hysterical, as we watched Tiger visibly weaken, while my husband said we would wait to see how he was in the morning. By morning he would probably have been dead. The time was past midnight. I was not about to lose my mother's cat, so I called the vet, who referred us to an all night clinic. I called poison control in Denver to discover the number disconnected. My son got on the phone and found the number for poison control in Kansas City and called them; they, unfortunately, had absolutely no clue.

My son and I bundled the cat into the car and drove to the all night clinic. The vet at the clinic was mystified and rather doubted tea tree oil could cause such a reaction. He didn't really know what to do, except try to treat Tiger for general poisoning. Tiger spent a day and a half at the clinic while they tried to flush his system and remain watchful. Tiger survived that period and we picked him up. The vet said it appeared to be a poisoning incident and not a stroke or other event. He also suggested that what Tiger had survived could have long-term effects on liver or kidney function, or could even shorten his life. It was just too hard to know for sure.

Back at home, Tiger chose to remain in my bedroom for two weeks and a little more. He was still unsteady, lacked appetite and required force feeding of kitten formula and water for a while, and remained by choice in the cat carrier except for weaving trips to the litter box in the room. He couldn't stand loud sounds or bright light, or to have the other animals around him. Any stimulation seemed overwhelming. Sometime after two weeks, Tiger began to move to other areas of the room but was disinclined to leave. In the end, Tiger did recover but there have been long-term deficits that we have observed.

Tiger's motor control has been permanently affected. He no longer leaps on top of six-foot fences. He is not longer sure-footed and if not watched could topple from the height of the bathroom sink counter (he loves to drink from a dripping faucet). He is happy but, sometimes, he just doesn't feel so well - and this was a cat who scaled tall cottonwoods, ran fleet-footed and took on small predators in the country. He is a different cat after that experience. The vet thinks he is doing remarkably well, considering everything. The cost was about $500, compared to a regular vet visit and treatment. This does not include the cost to my cat.