We hurry to finish scooping your cat’s litter box as our throats close, eyes water, we try not to breathe. But it’s not the box we’re escaping from!

Fragranced litter, smelly additives, and worst of all the diffusers filling the air and plugged in at close proximity make us run for cover. The odor clings to our clothes and we can smell it for hours after we’ve left your space. Commercial fragrances and especially diffusers are not only the bane of our existence but are seriously bad news for your cat if he could only tell you, and for good reason.

Most people don’t give much thought to the air fresheners they bring into their breathing space. The masking powders that get shaken in the litter box and plug-in or battery operated devices steadily puffing into the air gives the false sense that you’re adding something positive to your environment. Exotic descriptions, claims of essential oils, all lull you into giving minimal thought about what’s really filling your breathing space. Unfortunately, these products are a gamble for you and even riskier for your cats.

First, air fresheners emit gasses that you and your pets breathe. Manufacturers would rather have you buy into the notion it’s simply fragrance. But let’s start with the fact that manufacturers are not required by any law to properly disclose the ingredients of what’s gassing into your home. In fact, when many of these products are tested including those that claim to be green, dangerous chemicals are found emitted that are nowhere on the label or ingredient list. The article “Ten questions concerning air fresheners and indoor built environments” (1) states:

“In tests comparing emissions among a range of air fresheners—including those with claims of being ‘green’, ‘organic’, ‘non-toxic’, ‘all-natural’ or with ‘essential oils’—all air fresheners, regardless of claims, emitted potentially hazardous compounds. Emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from “green” air fresheners were not significantly different, in types or concentrations, from the regular brands…seemingly natural aromatics such as essential oils can nonetheless emit and generate hazardous pollutants such as formaldehyde and nano-sized secondary organic aerosols, with potentially substantial health risks.”

Consumer Reports (2) states, “air fresheners can also contain phthalates, which are linked to cancer and reproductive problems. A few manufacturers changed their products after our 2007 report found phthalates in 12 of 14 air fresheners we tested,” says Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s good, because companies are reformulating to make their products safer, but it’s also bad because it’s hard to know what’s currently in any given product.”

So what are some of these chemicals? Glad you asked. They’re too numerous to list actually since one product can contain hundreds of chemicals, but here’s a starter of what seemingly smells so good:

volatile organic compounds (terpenes such as limonene, alpha-pinene, and beta-pinene; terpenoids such as linalool and alpha-terpineol; ethanol, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene) and semi-volatile organic compounds (such as phthalates). d-limonene; 4-tert-butylcyclohexyl acetate; acetaldehyde; benzyl acetate; 2,7-dimethyl-2,7-octanediol; acetone; ethanol; carene isomer; citronellyl acetate; hexanal; 2,4-dimethyl-3-cyclohexene-1-carboxaldehyde (Triplal 1); allyl heptanoate; methyl-4-(1-methylethyl)-cyclohexane; ethyl butanoate; 3-hexen-1-ol; o, m, or p-cymene; alpha-pinene. Of these compounds, four (acetaldehyde, acetone, ethanol, alpha-pinene) are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws; further, acetaldehyde is classified as a carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant, with no safe threshold of exposure, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (1)

Not so yummy after all and this all means conditions like eye, nose and throat irritation headaches, loss of coordination, lethargy and nausea, damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system according to the EPA. The EPA continues, some VOCs can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. (3)
How do we cat sitters tie into this? Have we seen a correlation between homes with long-term commercial fragrance use and illness in their family cats?
Yes, sadly we firmly believe we have and that’s exactly why we posted this product review. Mostly we’ve noted rare ailments and premature cancers in young cats that resulted in their passing. Can we prove it? No. But years of noting air fragrance and sick cats in an environment full of air fresheners is likely not coincidence. Given the evidence against fragrance manufacturers and the heavy use of air fresheners in the homes where younger cats have early onset of untypical illnesses or passing away, we think the connection is real.

Ultimately, do your own research. It will only take a quick search. This information is readily available online but just not readily known to the public. You’ll be convinced not to use these products around your family or your cats.
Your professional sitter hands-down will vote for the classic clean scent of nothing and if you’re thinking the chemical haze is disguising your litter box, forget it. We can smell it especially if it’s a box and floor area that’s in need of routine cleaning deeper than a simple scooping. But once a litter box area is cleaned properly, the sweet smell of nothing returns to fill the space.
What if you still have to have fragrance or a solution to litter box odor? There are essential oils that are non-toxic to cats but not all are. Do your homework thoroughly before selecting a nontoxic essential oil, then use it properly. Always store essential oil bottles away from your cat. There are numerous litter box solutions and boxes that sense and scoop for you. Ultimately, we find that scooping and routine maintenance through disinfecting litter boxes and flooring are ample. If you’ve just scooped and guests are due by, a spray bottle filled with water and a non-toxic essential oil to mist the air is enough to clean the air when the litter box area is kept clean.

And finally, consider that after a few minutes you go nose blind and can’t smell whatever you’re filling your breathing space with after a short while anyway so the idea of continuous fragrance is misdirected given how our olfactory system works. At a minimum you’re wasting your money with continuous diffusing since you can’t smell it. We find clients setting their diffusers on the highest setting or adding multiples around the home because they can no longer smell them thinking they need to add more. Being in these homes a few minutes and the smell is so thick we can literally taste it. Indoor cats, perpetually exposed, can’t step outside for fresh air like we can.

Do your homework, ditch the chemicals, clean the air naturally, and enjoy good health for you, your family and your pets. You will be relieved you did and we’ll be relieved that one more household has made things safer for their two and four-footed family members.