I used to really love incense. I burned a different fragrance every day as a teenager, filling my room with perfumed smoke. I found it delicious, calming my mind and helping me to relax. All that stopped in my 20s, when I discovered that my incense habit might be affecting my asthma. I switched to scented candles for a while but eventually abandoned the whole business of room fragrances (other than potpourri). I’m so glad I did. Incense can be very bad for both humans and cats alike. I’d hate for my incense habit to harm any of my pets.
Is incense bad for cats? Yes. Breathing in the smoke and particulate matter produced by incense can irritate your cat’s respiratory system. Incense can also irritate your cat’s nose and eyes. A cat’s acute sense of smell might make the fragrance used in incense very unpleasant to them.
You’ve landed on this page because you have concerns about cats and incense. Maybe you currently burn incense, and you want to know if it’s safe to introduce a cat into your home. Maybe you’ve noticed your cat coughing, sneezing, or looking uncomfortable when you burn incense and you want to know if the incense is the problem. Maybe you’re a cat owner who would like to try incense, but you’re not sure if it’s safe. Whatever your situation, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for the answers to all your questions.
Is Incense Bad for Cats?
Incense is, regrettably, bad for just about everyone. While I adore the way it smells, I don’t love knowing that I’m breathing in all that smoke and all those nasty burned-up chemicals. According to some studies released in 2008, the prolonged use of incense can cause cancers of the mouth, nose and respiratory system. The cancers are similar to those found in long-term smokers. Imagine my horror if I’d known that as an incense-loving teen.
If incense is bad for you, a full-grown human, just imagine what it’s doing to your cat. With their smaller bodies, cats are much more vulnerable to chemical hazards and pollutants than we are. When you burn incense in the home, your cat is forced to breathe it in too.
Part of the problem is the smoke itself. That graceful curling plume is, unfortunately, composed of tiny particles that you and your cat can both breathe in. These little particles can settle in your cat’s lungs, throat, nose — all through her airway. If your cat is prone to allergies or asthma (some cats are), the smoke from your incense could cause an immediate reaction. Over time, this kind of constant low-grade smoke inhalation can contribute to long-term respiratory ailments. If your cat doesn’t have asthma now, she may well do after years of breathing in smoke.
It’s also entirely possible for cats to develop the same kinds of upper respiratory cancers found in humans who smoke, or who have burned a lot of incense over a number of years. It’s entirely possible for incense to cause these if burned frequently enough and over a long enough period of time.
Another big problem for cats is the fragrance used to make incense smell good to us. What seems like a pleasant hint of musk on the breeze to a human might be an overpowering reek to a cat. Some cats don’t seem to mind, but others are definitely disconcerted by the strong smell of incense. A cat’s sense of smell is one of her primary means of navigating the world. Strong, overpowering, all-pervading odours can leave her disoriented and deeply unhappy.
Incense can also represent other hazards to a curious cat. Having anything burning that could be knocked over is asking for trouble if you have a cat in the house. I don’t think I’ve ever seen incense blamed for starting a fire (those little sticks and cones fizzle out pretty quickly if they’re knocked over), but it’s a risk I’d rather not take. It’s also quite possible for your cat to step on the burning ember, or rub against it, which could leave a nasty burn.
If you absolutely must have incense burning in your house, try to do it near an open window so that the room can air and smoke won’t build up. Ideally, you should confine your incense to a room where your cat doesn’t go.
Incense and Carbon Monoxide
The above applies mostly to joss sticks and incense cones. If you’re using the type of incense that is burned over a charcoal brick, a new hazard comes into play: carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas produced by combustion. It is colourless, odourless and deadly. Molecules of carbon monoxide can bond with the body’s haemoglobin instead of oxygen, preventing the red blood cells from transporting oxygen around the body and resulting in suffocation.
Every year, countless people and their pets are sickened and killed by CO. These cases typically involve poorly maintained heating systems, but sometimes people are poisoned after trying to use a barbecue grill or a hibachi in an enclosed space. Deaths and poisonings are common during sudden blizzards or unexpectedly cold winters when people try to use charcoal appliances indoors to keep warm.
You might not think a single brick of charcoal could be that dangerous, but you’d be wrong. In a confined space, such as a room with the doors and windows closed, it’s entirely possible for a charcoal brick to put out enough CO to kill you. It can certainly produce enough to kill your cat.
I recommend against the use of this type of incense indoors at all, particularly if there are pets in the house. If you must burn it, keep your windows open and exclude your cat from that room.
Alternatives to Incense
As I mentioned, I’ve replaced my incense with pet-safe homemade potpourri. It’s in a container that my cats can’t get into (despite the very best efforts of my curious domestic shorthair, who seems intrigued by the contents).
Another option for those who can’t live without a little room fragrance is an essential oil diffuser. Be very, very careful with these, however. Essential oils themselves can be highly toxic to many animals, including cats. It doesn’t matter how “pure” or “natural” the manufacturers may claim their oils to be — they still contain compounds that are literally poisonous to felines. You need to be absolutely sure that the diffuser can’t be knocked over and spilt. If your cats step in spilt essential oils, they will lick it off their paws and could become very sick.
There are several types of diffuser on the market. The simplest ones, and the ones I’d recommend, use wicks stuck into a reservoir of perfumed oil that is drawn up and slowly evaporates into the room. If you use this type, you need to put it somewhere that your cats can’t get to it and chew on the wicks.
Another type is an evaporator. This usually contains a heating element, which warms a reservoir of water into which a little essential oil is added. Again, if you use one of these you need to be sure it can’t be tipped over and spilt. The water and oils could get onto your cat’s feet or fur, and be ingested when she cleans herself.
Even with these smoke-free options, the fragrance may still be noxious enough to your cats to make them unhappy. My cats are largely unfazed by most fragrances, but for some reason, my British Shorthair really hates the smell of eucalyptus.
Smells that some cats like include mint and basil. Take care with these, though, because while some cats enjoy them, others find them absolutely repellant.
I’ve found that most cats are attracted to the smell of honeysuckle, and don’t mind having that fragrance in the room. One problem is that it can be a bit too attractive, causing cats to seek out the source and potentially come into contact with oils or other materials that would be toxic to them.
Lavender is a nice relaxing fragrance that most cats find unobjectionable. Be really careful if you use lavender oils or the plant itself for a room fragrance, though. The oil is toxic to cats, as are all parts of the plant.