Essential Oils For Pets

By Teresa Garden, DVM

Certain scents act like medicines, affecting the body on a biochemical level. Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of volatile essential oils to affect a psychologic or physiologic response. The fragrant scents used in aromatherapy are absorbed by the mucous membranes in the nose and then travel to the brain to elicit their response. The oils are administered to people in a number of ways: by diffusion or nebulization, with massage or by topical application. Routes of administration are more limited in pets due to safety concerns. Diffusion, which vaporizes the scent into the air, is the safest route in general. Essential oils for topical use on pets may be diluted in a base of vegetable oil at rate of 3-8 drops per teaspoon. It is important to apply the drops where the scent will reach the nose without the pet being able to lick them. You can massage a drop or two of the diluted oil on the inside of the ear tip where there is not much fur. The top of the head or back of the neck are also safe choices. A combination of oils may be best for topical therapy, thereby, reducing potential toxicity from any single oil.

Aromatic plant combustion, or fumigation, was probably used early in human history. The word perfume is derived from the Latin terms: “per” for “through” and “fumus” for “smoke”. Fragrant oils and spices were used thousands of years ago in the Middle East and Egypt. The description of essential oil actions by Paracelsus (1493-1541) probably accounts for the name “essential” oil. He theorized that the “quinta essential” (quintellence) represents the “last possible and most sublime extractive” and that this natural plant isolate should be the goal of pharmaceutical preparation. The term aromatherapy was coined in 1937 by Gattefosse. After compiling the work of a number of scientists, he concluded essential oils contained antiseptic and bactericidal properties as well as antitoxic and antiviral properties. Thus, he believed essential oils have an undeniable healing power and extensive therapeutic properties.

Aromatherapy works very quickly and it is almost always a short term treatment. The effect will wear off in 4-6 hours but one treatment is usually enough. At most, try treating for 3 times daily for 1-2 days. If not better, consult your veterinarian. If you are in need of a flea repellent, try a combination of Lavender, Eucalyptus, Citronella, and Tea Tree Oil. The oils can be diluted in water (5-10 drops per pint), shaken well and administered as a spray. I have not found essential oils to be helpful in killing fleas…only in repelling them. For ringworm infections a combination of Eucalyptus, Tea Tree Oil, Cinnamon and Lemongrass may be effective. Lavender and Chamomile can be helpful in decreasing stress and anxiety in dogs. Mild cases of gastroenteritis may respond well to Ginger, Cloves, Cardamon, and Thyme. Bronchitis patients may find some relief with a treatment of Camphor, Cedar, and Eucalyptus. Bacterial ear infections could be treated with a combination of Lemongrass and Thyme. These essential oils have shown inhibitory activity against Staphylococcus aureus, Strptococcus pneumoniae, and Streptococcus pyogenes. Dilute at a rate of 10 drops per 8 ounces of inert carrier oil such as almond oil. A combination of Lavender, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary may be used topically to treat localized Demodex mange mites. Again, it is important to remember the oils must be diluted and the dog must not lick the oils or toxicity may occur.

Aromatherapy in veterinary medicine is not without controversy. It is difficult to identify scents that are pleasant to animals. Human standards do not and cannot apply to animals. Scents we may find pleasant may be irritating to our pets. Animals are very sensitive to odor. Ambient odors may be too concentrated for animal comfort. Dogs and cats use odor as a communication tool. Our attempts to manipulate them with scent may confuse them or over-stimulate them with “messages”. There are a few essential oils whose risks exceed their benefits and should be avoided in veterinary medicine. I would include Pennyroyal, Orange, and Peppermint in this category.

The oils used in aromatherapy are available in health food stores and some on-line pet suppliers. Look for natural oils and avoid synthetics. Single oils are available as well as oil blends. Young Living is a reputable source for essential oils. Scent is a powerful signal. If used sparingly and effectively, the safety and power of aromatherapy makes it an important holistic modality.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.