Pet Aromatherapy And Essential Oils: What You Need To Know

Essential oils and aromatherapy are useful aspects of integrative veterinary medicine and as more people become aware of ways we can use our patients' noses to assist their health, it becomes useful to learn a bit about the subject.
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It was a glorious morning. As I returned from my 5 a.m. bike ride, the air was laden with jasmine and eucalyptus oil. The grass gave off a clean earthy aroma. As I bent down to greet our new Chihuahua puppy I couldn't help but smile as his little tongue licked my nose and left behind that lovely smell of puppy breath. I held my breath for a moment and just let the scent flow through every fiber of my body.

It was a good morning.

Smell is an important primeval sense. The first major nerve that enters the brain detects scent. That nerve -- and the information it carries -- connects directly to the base of the brain where immediate responses occur. Our emotions are strongly influenced by scent. Good smells calm and attract us while bad smells repel us and cause aggravation. Our pets use their sense of smell to gain all sorts of complex information from the environment and this information is used to calculate and predict what states of energy and response they should adopt.

Essential oils and aromatherapy are useful aspects of integrative veterinary medicine and as more people become aware of ways we can use our patients' noses to assist their health, it becomes useful to learn a bit about the subject. And since animals and people are different, it is important to know how to properly use oils in pets so that we do not unwittingly harm them in the process. You should also always speak to a veterinarian before using any essential oils on your pet.

Essential Oils: A Brief History

Evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians were the first to use essential oils. They developed distillation techniques and pioneered the discovery of medical and other uses of essential oils. At about the same time, the Indians and Chinese were also developing the use of plant materials in healing. Knowledge of oil use was passed on to the Greeks, as the famous doctor Hippocrates pioneered holistic therapies. The Romans continued this process. After the Roman empire fell, a Persian physician named Avicenna (approximately 1,000 A.D.) is credited with perfecting the distillation process.

During the Dark Ages of Europe, bathing was frowned upon and people used essential oils and herbals on the skin to cover bad odors as well as for their antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Church monks became educated herbalists and oil users during this time period, and monasteries became repositories of healing literature. During the Renaissance, the famous physician Paracelcus revived holistic therapies and used natural means as a cure for leprosy.

Modern oil usage dates to a French chemist and perfumer named Rene Maurice Gattefosse who is known for his accidental discovery of lavender oil's ability to assist in the healing of burns. During the the second World War, another pioneer named Jean Valet used oils in the treatment of wounded soldiers. As research ensued, many properties of essential oils and plants were categorized and isolated. This process continues today with the pharmaceutical research of essential oils, which makes up a large part of botanical research globally. Recently, at the University of South Dakota, a student received her doctoral degree for pioneering work in ethnobotany, which examined veterinary essential oil use. American veterinary practitioners, such as Dr. Nancy Brandt and Dr. Melissa Shelton, are working to better codify oil use in animals.

Oils have been shown to have many possible desirable effects such as reducing anxiety and inflammation, fighting oxidative processes, battling toxins and fighting infections by inhibiting bacteria, fungi and viruses. Oil odors can also be used to affect mental states and memory. Modern doctors are looking for agents that will assist in management of resistant infections and cancer, and these natural products may well hold the key to several major advancements.

Essential oils contain a host of biologically active and powerful compounds. Used correctly, they are an indispensible part of integrative medical care. However, they can cause undesirable and even dangerous side effects, and people using oils medically should seek specialized training.

Oil Essentials

Plants manufacture oils for many reasons. Plants cannot move and escape predators and infectious threats, so they produce compounds that neutralize or repel pests and pathogens.

Essential oils are absorbed by inhalation, ingestion and contact with the skin. They rapidly enter the body and the blood stream and are distributed to various tissues. As with all compounds, some chemicals have a biological affinity for specific tissues, and doctors -- or those knowledgeable about oil use -- can use this property to select oils that will target specific tissues.

The compounds present in essential oils are powerful. Very small amounts of these substances can have powerful biological effects on every system of the body. For example, lavender oil has powerful effects on the brain and creates a calming sensation. Small amounts of lavender oil can be used when traveling to calm pets or make them feel sleepy.

Some Safe Oils To Consider

Veterinarians are skilled in the diagnosis of disease in animals and should always be consulted -- especially in situations where symptoms are severe or persist. Always tell your veterinarian what natural products your pet is using and involve him or her in these decisions. The following oils can be used in first aid and are safe for short-term use:

  • Lavender: Universal oil, can use pure or diluted. Useful in conditioning patients to a safe space. May help allergies, burns, ulcers, insomnia, car ride anxiety and car sickness, to name a few.
  • Cardamom: Diuretic, anti-bacterial, normalizes appetite, colic, coughs, heartburn and nausea.
  • Fennel: assists the adrenal cortex, helps break up toxins and fluid in tissue. Balances pituitary, thyroid and pineal glands.
  • Helichrysum: Anti-bacterial, reduces bleeding in accidents, skin regenerator, helps repair nerves. Also useful in cardiac disease.
  • Frankincense: Has helped some cases of cancer. Works on the immune system. Has reduced tumors and external ulcers. Increases blood supply to the brain (although it can worsen hypertension so use caution).
  • Spearmint: Helps to reduce weight. Good for colic, diarrhea, nausea. Helps balance metabolism, stimulates gallbladder. When diluted and used short term, this oil is helpful for many gastrointestinal issues in cats.


While oils are useful in healing and affecting mentation, they are powerful and can cause a wide variety of adverse effects. Principles of safe use are recommended. The largest problem with essential oils is that they may contain contaminates or adulterants that make more serious issues arise. For this reason, one should only use therapeutic grade oils from reputable companies and verify the quality of oils before using them.

Animals have sensitive senses of smell, so in most cases it is best to use oils that are diluted and always provide an escape route. If a pet does not like an oil do not enforce its use. Cats are particularly at risk for oil reactions and in most cases we use oils very sparingly on cats. One drop of essential oil diluted in 50 drops of a pure dilutional oil such as grape seed oil is usually sufficient.

Since animals metabolize and react differently to essential oils, it is important to know about species-specific differences before using oils. One problem we see in our clinic involves people overusing oils. A person discovers essential oils and begins to diffuse the oils into their homes leading to an unintentional overdose for their pets. Lavender oil is highly useful, but it contains no antioxidant compounds and can therefore oxidize as it is stored. These oxidized alcohols can aggravate patients and lead to the development of allergic responses.

Some essential oils can cause liver and kidney toxicity in sensitive species. Cats use a different system in their liver to detoxify and are particularly sensitive to essential oils that contain polyphenolic compounds. These are so-called "hot" oils like cinnamon, oregano, clove, wintergreen, thyme and birch, which are oils that should be avoided in cats. Cats should not receive melaleuca oil, and never put essential oils into the ear canal as they can damage cats' delicate ear drums and nerves. Care is needed around eyes as well. Always wash your hands after handling oils to prevent accidentally getting them into your eyes.

To reduce the chances of sensitivity and organ toxicity, we generally use an oil for no more than two weeks and then provide a rest period. Under certain circumstances -- like in the treatment of cancer -- we will use oils for longer periods, but this is something best left to those trained in the use of oils.

Used properly essential oils can benefit people and our animal friends. Do you use essential oils in your family or with your pets or other animals? Tell me about that below. What company makes the oils you prefer? How did you learn about using oils?

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