Skip to main content

Is incense bad for cats? 4 important things to consider before using it in your home

Considerations, safety tips, and healthier alternatives for burning incense around cats

Burning incense and tabby cat
Oleksandr Shestakov / Shutterstock

Pet accidents, dirty laundry, stagnant air, and garbage are all common causes of an unpleasant smell. And if you’re a cat parent, managing the kitty litter box can be a smelly proposition in itself. So what’s a self-respecting homeowner to do?

Burning incense is among the various methods you can use to make your home smell nice, but is incense bad for cats? It’s important to learn whether the benefits of having a pleasant-smelling home outweigh the potential health risks that burning incense poses for your cat. If you love the smell of incense but worry that it’s not good for your feline friend, this is everything you should consider.

Cat sniffing and munching a vase of fresh catnip
Okssi / Shutterstock

What is incense? A primer on the centuries-old aromatic biotic material

Incense is made of plant materials and essential oils that are pressed onto a bamboo stick or shaped into a cone or block. When burned, it produces a fragrant smoke that is used for religious ceremonies, meditation, or simple everyday ambiance.

Burning incense dates back as far as ancient China, where it was used for worship and prayer. Egyptian priests were also believed to have used it in ceremonies and to fumigate tombs. Today, the world’s main producer of incense is India, where it is a fundamental part of the Hindu religion.

Some of the most popular scents include:

  • Sandalwood
  • Cinnamon
  • Frankincense
  • Myrrh
  • Palo santo

Today, incense is often used during meditation and yoga, as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, as a sleep aid, and as part of religious practices (Pagans, Christians, and Buddhists also incorporate the use of incense in their rituals and services).

Cat hunched over coughing
udeenmajid / Shutterstock

Is burning incense bad for your cat’s health?

Experts at Preventative Vet say incense can be harmful for several reasons:

  • A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times stronger than that of a human being, making them more sensitive to strong odors. Burning incense produces a very intense aroma. Talk about a headache!
  • Incense produces smoke, which is not healthy for your cat’s respiratory system. The smoke can act as an irritant, which may cause your cat to cough or have an allergic reaction. Rarely, this can happen in people, too.
  • Increased smoke in the home puts your cat at risk for developing asthma. Exposure to smoke is one of the leading causes of asthma in cats.
  • When incense is burned, it releases polyaromatic hydrocarbons, carbonyls, and benzene, which are suspected carcinogens. This is a fancy way of saying that incense contains allegedly harmful chemicals.
Woman doing yoga with incense and cat
mbframes / Shutterstock

Instead of incense, choose one of these pet-friendly ways to make your home smell nice

Before you reach for the nearest air freshener or light up a candle instead, you should know these methods can be just as unhealthy for your cat as burning incense. As much as possible, stay away from air-freshening activities that contain anything artificial. Don’t let this fool you, though. As we learned about incense, even natural ingredients can be harmful to cats.

Here are some tips for removing unwanted odors naturally:

  • Dust frequently. By keeping dust at bay, you remove its ingredients — dead skin, pet dander, pollen, dirt, and insect droppings. Left unchecked, dust can make a home smell musty and, understandably, affect the air quality in your home.
  • Use baking soda to absorb unwanted odors on furniture and carpeting. Sprinkle a bit on problem areas, wait 24 to 48 hours, then vacuum thoroughly.
  • Use fragrant plants, such as rosemary, sage, or lemon balm. Even though these plants aren’t toxic, do your best to keep them out of reach of your curious cats and put them in containers that aren’t easy to tip over.
  • Buy an indoor air purifier. These machines trap and destroy offensive odors before they have a chance to settle into the soft furnishings of your home, namely the furniture, drapery, and carpeting.
  • Simmer a pot of water and add cinnamon sticks, apples, or vanilla.
  • Bathe your cat every four to six weeks to remove dander and keep her smelling nice.
Cat smelling a flower
volcanogirl / Shutterstock

Other alternatives to incense for you to consider

If you just can’t get past those stinky odors, Preventative Vet recommends other, safer alternatives, such as Febreze, which has been reviewed by the ASPCA poison control center. They also recommend simmering things such as cinnamon sticks, vanilla, cloves, or mint tea to create a pleasant odor in your home. All these scents are safe and non-irritating to cats.

Cat looking at candle on table.
Fedor Ouspenski / Pixabay

Can I burn candles around my cat?

Unfortunately, candles cause many of the same issues as incense. Even unscented ones emit smoke, which can be harmful to cat lungs. Additionally, as every pet parent knows, cats are notorious for knocking things over. You definitely don’t want to leave a beautiful taper out and have your kitty wind up starting a fire or burning themselves.
Instead, only light candles in rooms that pets cannot access and try to open windows or use air filters as much as possible. On the flip side, don’t worry too much about the wax, so long as it comes from bees and not paraffin. Your animal probably won’t try to ingest it but also a small amount won’t hurt them.
Cat sleeping in sun on window.
supanee sukanakintr / Shutterstock

If you must burn incense, here’s how to do it safely

If you burn incense as part of your religious or spiritual practice, try to restrict the practice to one room in your home. Good ventilation is essential. Open the windows whenever possible, and invest in a small room air purifier to capture and destroy any particulates that remain in the air once you’ve finished. And, as much as possible, keep that room off-limits to your cat.

It’s also important to keep the incense itself in a safe place. Cats are curious creatures and may want to play with the sticks or ashes. Ingesting either can cause serious health problems, so if you suspect your cat has consumed incense, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Orange Maine Coon cat playing outside
ottawagraphics / Pixabay

Which incense scents and essential oils are toxic to felines?

Whether you’re continuing modified incense use or are looking for other, natural ways to make your home smell nice, be sure to pick your ingredients carefully.

As veterinarian Kia Benson, DVM, explains on Pet Poison Helpline, all essential oils have the potential to be toxic to cats. Not only are these oils extremely concentrated, but cats also lack the liver enzyme to metabolize many ingredients once they’re in contact with the body.

Still, some essential oils are especially poisonous to felines and should never be used in the home. These include:

  • Oil of wintergreen
  • Oil of sweet birch
  • Citrus oil (d-limonene)
  • Pine oils
  • Ylang Ylang oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Clove oil
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Tea tree oil

As lovely as these scents may smell, it’s very easy to find cleaning products and air-freshening methods that don’t use any of these essential oils. And if you have to stick to incense — now you know which scents to avoid!

Is incense bad for cats? Yes, but some people may have religious or spiritual reasons for using it. The good news? Cats and incense have coexisted for years. With mindfulness and a few modifications, you can still enjoy the benefits of burning incense while protecting your favorite feline’s health at the same time. Just stay mindful!

Debbie Clason
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Debbie Clason's work has appeared in Family Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Lutheran Witness, Massage Magazine…
How often should I feed my cat? Here’s what to know about cat feeding schedules
There's a lot more to think about than just what cat food to buy
Cat licking lips over food bowl

Trying to find the perfect food for your cat can be difficult -- just ask any cat owner with a picky eater at home. The shops and internet are home to endless delicious and nutritious options to choose from, but buying the best food for your cat is only half the battle — your cat's feeding schedule is another code to crack. If you've ever wondered, "How often should I feed my cat," you're not alone.

You can feed cats anywhere from one to five times a day, depending on their individual needs. After all, it's no secret that every cat has a distinct personality, right? No matter how often you feed your cat, their feeding schedule can impact their digestive system, energy level, and overall happiness, so finding the perfect balance for them is essential. Like many other animals, cats love routine, and once they learn their feeding schedule, they'll happily remind you of it.

Read more
Can cats eat raw chicken? Yes, but there are huge health risks you need to know about
Facts about feeding you cat raw chicken
A bowl of raw chicken plus supplements to feed to a pet

You've probably heard all about raw diets for pets. After all, more pet owners than ever want to give their animals a healthier diet! Given that wild cats eat raw meat all the time, it seems to make sense that your domestic cat would also benefit from these kinds of meals. But feeding uncooked meats, including raw chicken, is complicated, and it carries some risks.

There are definitely benefits of feeding raw chicken to cats, but it's also important to understand the concerns and to talk to your vet about your cat food plans so you can make the dietary choice that's right for your animal. Can cats eat raw chicken? Yes. But whether it's a good idea to feed cats raw chicken is a better question to consider.

Read more
What you need to know about your cat’s swollen lip – what causes it and how to help it heal
These are the most likely causes and best treatment options for your cat's swollen lip
Woman petting cat

Your sweet furry friend is a wealth of enjoyment and entertainment — from funny sleeping positions to those precious purrs. Cat behavior can be somewhat of a mystery for even the most dedicated kitty lovers, though, and those feline feelings can lead to physical manifestations that puzzle us.

If you've ever looked at your cat and noticed a swelling on the upper or lower lip, here's what you need to know: This common occurrence isn't something to worry about, but it isn't something to ignore, either. While your vet checks your cat's health, you can read up on this confusing condition. Here's what causes a cat's swollen lip.

Read more