Is Potpourri Safe For Dogs & Cats?

fragrances poisonous to pets

Lilac or lavender, gingerbread or cinnamon - favorite fragrances can ease the tensions of a tough day. In recent years, potpourri has become a popular way to fill our homes with special scents. During the holidays, many of us relish being met at the door by balsam and bayberry.

As pet owners, we also love being met at the door by our cherished companions. Recently, however, one Pennsylvania pet owner was met by the chilling sight of her cat standing in a puddle of his own drool, his feet the color purple, gurgling with each breath and sticking out his tongue. On a high shelf, the owner discovered an overturned container of liquid potpourri, with guilty paw prints leading away from the scene. The cat, a healthy 11-pound, 3-year-old neutered male, was rushed to the veterinarian, a victim of his own curiosity.


Potpourri comes in several forms. Solid potpourri contains pieces of dried plants, fruits, pine cones and more. Toxicity varies with the kinds of plants that are used, but solid potpourri generally results in an upset stomach. Essential oils may be used to refresh the potpourri and renew the scent, and these oils can cause drooling and vomiting.

Simmering or liquid potpourri, however, often contains cationic detergents, which can cause serious injury. Cationic detergents, also referred to as quaternary ammonium compounds, are found in some household cleaners and fabric softeners, as well. Their effects can be both localized and systemic (affecting several body systems), depending on the quantity that the animal ingests.

Cats are typically exposed to potpourri while exploring. They knock the liquid over and walk through it, or it splashes on their coat or skin. They then groom themselves. Dogs and ferrets are usually willing to taste the scented liquid right out of the container or to lick up spills courtesy of the cat.

The cationic detergent causes severe burns and blisters on the tongue, the larynx and esophagus. Typical clinical signs include drooling; vomiting, sometimes with blood; muscle weakness; and fevers sometimes as high as 107°. Hair and skin loss, as well as lesions on the paws, can occur. A cat may have difficulty breathing due to swelling of the larynx, and its lungs may sound raspy, as in pulmonary edema. In high doses, seizures and coma can occur. Shock can also occur. Signs may resemble those of overexposure to organo-phosphorus or carbamate insecticides, which are used in sprays to kill ants, flies and garden pests, and well as fleas and ticks on pets. It is critical to obtain the correct diagnosis, since the treatment for each toxin is radically different.


Small quantities of milk can be given to an asymptomatic animal to help reduce the effects of the burn. Vomiting is normally not induced with any substance that can cause esophageal or oral burns. The pet should be bathed to remove all potpourri from the coat.

A veterinarian will treat the clinical signs with antibiotics, medication to help the oral and esophageal ulcers heal and supportive care for breathing difficulties and seizures. Nutritional support is also very important, because many cats will not eat if their mouth is painful. Some cats require a feeding tube until the mouth is healed. An exam with an endoscope (a flexible tube with a camera) is generally recommended a day or two after an animal ingests a cationic detergent. If ulcers are in the esophagus, they can leave a stricture (scar) as they heal. Strictures, in turn, can cause subsequent problems with swallowing and eating. An endoscopic exam allows the veterinarian to be prepared for stricture formation.

As always, preventing problems is key. Candles, potpourri and other scented objects should be placed out of furry ones' reach. Liquids, in particular, should be placed in a cupboard or enclosed area to prevent cats or ferrets from knocking over pots while exploring. The labels of simmering potpourris need not list active ingredients, and some may state "nontoxic," even though cationic detergents are present. For these reasons, it is safest to assume that all simmering potpourris contain cationic detergents and to protect your pets accordingly. Returning to a sweet-smelling home is wonderful - but only if your pet is there to greet you in good health.

Dr. Means, a veterinary toxicologist, is a member of the staff at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

© 1999 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch - Winter 1999

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