Pets and Incense: What You Need to Know

Pets and Incense: What You Need to Know

Getty/Ade Theou

Enjoy using incense in your spiritual routine? Consider the effects it might have on your canine or feline companions.

Aah, the smell of frankincense. Humans extract the pungent resin from trees of the genus Boswellia, common to the Arabian Peninsula, and package it into small cones we burn in hopes of reducing anxiety, depression, and inflammation, or for spiritual reasons. I can’t get enough of its musky smell combined with a hot salt bath.

I was originally introduced to the mysterious frankincense through my church, in a song proclaiming that three wise and exotic travelers gifted it to a holy child, along with gold and myrrh. Over time, I would learn that Christians weren’t the only ones burning incense. Its use is common in most religious and spiritual paths around the world for a wide variety of reasons that holiday song did not expound on. For example, Buddhists use incense to symbolize the purification of the mind. Hindus offer it during daily puja to deities. Orthodox Christians rely on incense to send prayers to heaven, while Muslims often use it to create sacred space during Ramadan. Many Indigenous peoples use incense smoke to communicate directly with spirits and ancestors. So do plentiful Taoists and Shinto folks.

Because my husband and I share our home with our animal roommates, Deacon and Bubba-ji, I recently wondered: What is the impact of incense on the animals living in my home? What does it smell like to them? And is it safe for them?

What a Dog’s Nose Knows

A dog's smelling capability is much more powerful than ours. “Because of their keen sense of smell, dogs can help track down criminals, find people buried under the rubble of a collapsed building, detect cancer, and predict the onset of epileptic seizures,” offers canine expert and ethologist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., in his book Dogs Demystified: An A-to-Z Guide to All Things Canine.

Dogs have approximately 300 million receptors in their sniffers, compared to the 6 million in our human noses. Plus, the olfactory part of their brain is approximately 40 times larger than ours. Dogs also possess a vomeronasal organ that we humans lack. It helps them detect pheromones, which gives them information about the world they live in. In addition, dogs hold smells in their noses longer than we do, so they have more time to process them.

All these factors together mean your canine roommate can smell at least 10,000 times more acutely than you can, identifying aromas from as far away as 60 feet! They spend about a third of their time sniffing, so a dog’s sense of smell plays a much larger role in their life than smelling does in yours. This means the scents you use around your home, including incense, can affect them.

Exploring Cat Sniffers

While they have less keen noses than those of dogs, cats have a stronger sense of smell than humans (about 14 times stronger). Smelling is crucial for their survival. Anyone who’s ever seen a cat mark their territory has observed this important method of communication. Cats use pheromones and smelly things to signal to each other or us. A well-placed poop left uncovered outside the litter box may be a sign to other cats to stay away or a general indicator that they are stressed.

Like dogs, cats, too, have a vomeronasal organ and more olfactory receptors, located in the roof of their mouth. You may have even seen your cat use it. Ever notice them with their mouth open, lips pulled back oddly? I’ve seen our cat, Deacon, do this when I use my favorite hand cream and then try to pet him. This is called a flehmen response. In turn, I try to remember not to pet him after using that cream! I don’t want to mess up his important smelling system.

“Some scents make cats feel safe and secure, [and] we need to preserve them for the sake of our cats,” offers animal behavior expert Zazie Todd, Ph.D., in Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. “Avoid using strongly scented cleaners near places where the cat likes to relax, because they may remove the cat’s scent and replace it with something the cat finds unpleasant.”

In fact, Deacon’s response to my hand cream is what made me curious about the impact of incense.

The Problematic Impact of Incense

Incense smoke contains a complex mixture of potentially harmful substances, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants can have serious adverse effects on pet health because cat and dog respiratory systems are more sensitive than ours.

Particulate matter (minuscule bits) can penetrate deep into their respiratory system, exacerbating asthma, chronic bronchitis, and lung diseases or increasing the risk of respiratory inflammation or infection. Likewise, nitrogen oxides can cause the same issues. Carbon monoxide can be even more dangerous, leading to oxygen deficiency, which could cause your cat or dog to experience confusion, weakness, loss of consciousness, and even death in severe cases. Finally, some specific aromatic plant materials and essential oils can be toxic to pets. In sum, research suggests that prolonged exposure to incense smoke can result in significant complications for our animal companions.

Burning Responsibly

If you do choose to burn incense in a home with Fido or Fluffy, here are some important considerations:

  • Make sure you burn incense in a room with good ventilation.

  • Don’t burn incense while your pets are in the room.

  • Avoid benzoin, camphor, cedarwood, cinnamon, eucalyptus, myrrh, patchouli, and sandalwood for all animals. And yes, skip my beloved frankincense, too. Avoid strong floral or citrus scents, especially around cats. Choose incense with natural ingredients, such as gentle basil, sage, or thyme. Essential oils can also be problematic. Check with your veterinarian for suggestions on what scent may be safe for your animal companion.

  • Use an air purifier before pets return to the room where you have burned incense or used aromatic scents.

  • Do not leave incense where an animal might ingest it.

  • If you notice difficulty in your animal companion’s breathing or observe sneezing, coughing, vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, tremors, seizures, or diarrhea, seek medical attention for the animal. Your vet may induce vomiting in them, suggest using activated charcoal, or prescribe medications. Oxygen therapy or fluid therapy might also be recommended.

Alternatives to Incense for Pet Lovers

If you love scent in your home but incense feels on the risky side, consider these creative ideas:

  • Heat up a “simmer pot” of water with nontoxic herbs or spices such as basil, sage, or thyme to fill your kitchen with a gentle natural aroma.

  • Place a potpourri bag in an area that pets can’t munch on. Include dried petals of nontoxic plants for a subtle scent throughout the room.

Living with cats, dogs, or other animals who we want to live long, healthy lives requires that sometimes we need to compromise. While I still burn my frankincense, I’ve chosen to do it on our deck, in a beautiful fire-safe bowl, where the ventilation is far superior to the inside of my home. As a bonus, I’m treated to additional sensory delights, like the twinkle of bird songs, the faint rustling of tree leaves, and a delightful breeze that drifts across my face.

Want more interspecies meditation ideas? Read "An Easy Meditation Practice for You and Your Dog."

Pets and Incense What You Need to Know

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