Thanks to Integrative Medicine Veterinarian Susan Wagner, DVM, MS, ACVIM for authoring this article.
Over the last few years the popularity of essential oils and aromatherapy has exploded. People are using them for everything from enhancing sleep to treating cancer. With the increasing popularity of these oils, the use of them with our pets has increased as well. But, is that a good thing?
There are warnings and even horror stories on the internet about the use of essential oils with animals. Because animals metabolize oils differently than humans, caution is warranted. Knowledge is essential when utilizing these products but when used properly I have found therapeutic grade oils can be extremely effective, with the added benefit of avoiding pharmaceutical side effects.
Essential oils are actually contained in many products, from dishwashing detergents to perfumes to air fresheners. Many of the oils found in home cleaning and personal care products are synthetic. While some do contain natural essential oils, these are of a lesser grade than what is needed for healing purposes. It’s important to look for a high quality, therapeutic grade essential oil for use on animals or yourself.
Essential oils are extracted from the leaves, roots, bark, flowers, seed or fruit of plants. Look for some that are organically grown, extracted without chemical solvents, and processed with low heat distillation.
They can be used topically or inhaled. Oils can also be diffused into a small area. It’s best to use a cold air diffuser, as warming oils interferes with their potency.
Because cats lack the ability to process some of the components of essential oils, many are toxic for them. Hydrosols (a water based product derived from distilling the therapeutic plant) of those oils which can be broken down by a cat’s liver are safer for cats precisely because they are water based.
Essential oils exert their effect through several mechanisms, depending on the oil. They can be anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-itch. Some oils help the immune system, while others have calming or stimulating effects on mood. For example, one study showed that dogs experienced less anxiety in the car when lavender was used.
(Debra Wells, JAVMA 2006, Vol 299, No 6, 964-967)
Should you choose to try essential oils, two that you may want to get started with are lavender and frankincense. Both are safe for topical use in dogs, cats and horses. Again, be sure they are therapeutic grade! If the fragrance is too strong for you, dilute with coconut oil to the intensity that is right for you and your pet. Lavender has excellent calming properties, as well as being antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Frankincense can be used in just about every situation. It is especially good for balancing the immune system, helping a pet through stress, a severe illness, and cancer. Place one drop of lavender or frankincense in the palm of your hand, then rub from the back of your pet’s head all the way down the spine. You may feel better, too!
Consulting with a veterinarian who has experience with the use of therapeutic essential oils is recommended. To locate a veterinarian with this knowledge, begin by searching for someone who lists integrative medicine among their specialties.
Educate yourself as well. Because there is so much contradictory and incorrect information on the internet regarding the use of essential oils with pets, I would recommend consulting the following sources: Holisitc Aromatherapy for Animals: A Comprehensive Guide to the Use of Essential Oils and Hydrosols in Animals by Kristen Leigh Bell (Findhorn Press) and Essential Oils Desk Reference for Animals (Life Science Products & Publishing).