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Is incense bad for cats? 4 important things to consider

Pet accidents, dirty laundry, stagnant air, garbage … all these common things can make a home smell unpleasant. And if you’re a cat owner, managing the kitty box can be a smelly proposition all by itself. What’s a self-respecting homeowner to do?

Among the various methods you can use to make your home smell nice is the centuries-old custom of burning incense. But does the benefit of having a pleasant-smelling home outweigh the potential health risk burning incense poses for your cat? Is incense bad for cats? If you love the smell of incense but worry it’s not good for your cat, this is everything you should consider.

burning incense and tabby cat

What is incense?

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 often used for religious ceremonies, meditation, or simple everyday ambiance.

The use of incense dates back as far as ancient China, where it was used for worship and prayer. Egyptian priests were 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. Sandalwood, frankincense, and cinnamon, all basic fragrances from long ago, are still among the most popular scents.

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 (Christians and Buddhists also incorporate the use of incense in their rituals and services).

Is burning incense bad for your cat?

Experts at Preventative Vet say incense can be harmful, and here are the reasons why:

  • 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, especially at the source, produces a very intense aroma.
  • Burning 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.
  • 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.

woman yoga incense and cat

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 as unhealthy for your cat as burning incense. As much as possible, stay away from air-freshening activities that contain anything artificial. Here are some tips for removing unwanted odors naturally:

  • Dust frequently. By keeping dust at bay, you remove its ingredients — as in 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 24–48 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.
  • Use 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.

Other alternatives to incense

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 of these scents are safe and non-irritating to cats.

If you must burn incense…

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 Kitty.

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. If you suspect your cat has consumed incense, contact your veterinarian immediately.

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.

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