Essential Oils for Pets
How to Use Them Safely
Essential oils are derived from plant-based sources, leading people to equate natural with safe; but that’s not always the case. Knowing how and when to use oils is vital, according to Gary Richter, DVM, an integrative veterinarian and medical director of Holistic Veterinary Care, in Oakland, California. A veterinarian trained in the use of essential oils understands the properties of each oil, along with its proper dilution and application, a subject not generally taught in traditional veterinary schools; holistic medicine requires additional training.
With proper use under professional guidance, essential oils can be part of a larger treatment plan, says Richter. Cats are generally more sensitive to oils because they don’t metabolize medicine as efficiently as dogs, he notes. “As one professor used to tell our veterinary class, ‘Cats are not small dogs, so they can’t be treated as if they are’—always good to remember.”
Just as chamomile tea relaxes humans, anxious dogs find its scent calming. Some vets spray the exam room with lavender between appointments to calm anxious clients.
Sally Morgan, a physical therapist and advanced certified practitioner of the gentle animal bodywork therapy known as Tellington TTouch, sees clients in her Northampton, Massachusetts, office. “I put a drop of a peace and calming blend or lavender on the carpet or a pillow,” she says. “It relaxes the animal and dissipates the smells of previous clients. I don’t use diffusers. The odor can be too strong for their sensitive noses. There’s also a danger it could spill and be licked up.”
~Gary Richter, integrative veterinarian and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition
Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed Kim Paciotti, owner of Training Canines, LLC, based in Statesville, North Carolina, finds the scent of green apples relieves anxiety and soothes upset tummies for dogs and puppies that suffer from motion sickness. “Cotton balls placed inside a small container clipped to the outside of their crates deliver the smell,” she says. “They don’t have direct contact, but still reap the benefits, allowing the dogs to self-medicate by sniffing when they feel the need.”
Kimberley Wallace, founder of kW Sustainable Brands, in San Diego, burns organic, sweet basil-scented candles for their antiviral, antibacterial properties. Her pugs love the smell. “Our rescue pug has mast cell tumors which compromise her immune system. I do my due diligence to buy all-natural products whenever I can.”
Proceed With Caution
Pure essential oils are far too strong to use undiluted, Richter says. Age, physical condition and species are so varied that guessing which oil and how to use it can be dangerous to the pet. “Skin irritation like a hot spot or rash is a relatively minor problem that could benefit from the right essential oil. An open wound requires a veterinary visit,” he says. “Some oils aren’t recommended unless under veterinary guidance. Reactions can range from mere annoyance to toxicity.”
Wintergreen, melaleuca, pennyroyal, tea tree and pine oils cause the most reported problems for dogs, according to PetPoisonHelpline.com. Peppermint, cloves, cinnamon and oregano oil also can be quite strong and require educated use, says Richter. An uneven gait, vomiting, diarrhea, drooling and weakness can be symptoms of toxicity, requiring immediate veterinary care to prevent damage to the central nervous system or organ failure.
Oil Safety Tips
24/7 Animal Poison Control Center: 855-764-7661
In its fragrance and taste, plants have defense mechanisms to ward off destructive insects or to attract bees and butterflies. Those same properties can help people and animals. The plant’s natural compounds can ward off fungi, bacteria, parasites or inflammation. However, just reading a label isn’t enough to know which oils will work best for these problems.
“The Animal Desk Reference II: Essential Oils for Animals, Second Edition, by Melissa Shelton, is a reader-friendly guide,” says Richter. “I touch on the subject in my book The Ultimate Pet Health Guide: Breakthrough Nutrition and Integrative Care for Dogs and Cats, but for deeper study, I recommend Shelton’s book.”
“One thing I’d say is, learn all you can before using oils around pets,” Richter says. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all formula for dilution for safe use. There are too many variables with oils and animals.”
Be more than a well-meaning pet lover—also be well-educated.
Sandra Murphy is a freelance writer in St. Louis, MO. Connect at StLouisFreelanceWriter@mindspring.com.
This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.