Essential logic: How oils and aromatherapy can help – or hurt – your pet |

Essential logic: How oils and aromatherapy can help – or hurt – your pet

Pet owners should consult with a veterinarian before exposing their animals to essential oils.
Photo by Jennifer Nobles

Many pet owners looking for a natural way to control fleas, itchy skin, and anxiety in our furry companions are turning towards essential oils. Manufacturers of essential oils are taking advantage of this interest, and it’s becoming more common to see animal-specific products on the shelves of our grocery and pet stores.

Essential oils are different from the oils we cook with. For example, if you spill olive oil – which is not an essential oil – on a piece of paper, it leaves a greasy stain. If you do the same with an essential oil it does not leave a stain on the paper. This is because essential oils are volatile and they evaporate completely.

The scent of the evaporating essential oil comes from the plant it was extracted from. But, it’s more than just your nose that is interacting with the oil. The small molecules that make up the oil are readily absorbed through skin, the intestinal tract, and the lungs. That means essential oils rubbed onto skin or inhaled via a vaporizer can end up in the blood stream. The effects of these molecules in the body after absorption can be positive, negative, or neutral depending on what exact compounds are in the essential oil.

Even if you are familiar with essential oil use for humans, it is important to remember that dogs and cats are not furry humans with four legs and tail. Essential oils you are familiar with and consider safe may have very different effects for your furry companion.

Unfortunately, there is very little research on the effectiveness of essential oils in pets. A common essential oil I see being used on my patients at the AnimalSave clinic is lavender. Lavender has been associated with some positive results, calming anxious dogs suffering for car ide phobia. But, it is not true that essential oils are something to try “because it can’t hurt.”

The most common essential oil toxicity that occurs in dogs is due to tree tea oil, also called “melaleuca oil.” Owners, to control fleas or treat skin conditions, apply concentrated oil formulations to the skin, which is toxic to the dogs. The small amount of tea tree oil that is found in regular shampoos is not a concern. Trying to treat fleas naturally is probably one of the most common uses of essential oils. Sadly, many of the choices such as pennyroyal (“squaw mint”) and clove oil can also be toxic to dogs.

Each species will uniquely react to certain essential oils. Cats are generally more sensitive to essential oils than dogs. For example, while lavender oil can be helpful for dogs, it should never be used for cats because of toxicity concerns. Other common oils that are toxic to cats include oil of wintergreen, pine, peppermint, cinnamon, and tree tea. The list is so long that it is best to avoid essential oil use in cats altogether. The Pet Poison Helpline puts it this way: “Like oil and water, essential oils and cats really do not mix.”

If you choose to use an essential oil with your dog, it is probably best to choose an essential oil type with a good track record, such as lavender, and avoid brand-new plant types. It can take time to associate negative effects, such as liver failure, with an essential oil.

After deciding what type of oil to use, you still have to decide where you are going to get it. In the world of essential oils nothing is standardized. Something as simple as the exact species of the target plant, maturity of the plant when harvested, and what other “helping” unlisted ingredients the companies choose to put in their propriety blend all matters. In most cases you trust the companies to be truthful on their label. Your veterinarian may have recommendations of companies with good reputations.

Even with careful research and good intentions, your pet may experience side effects from essential oils. Accidental exposure can occur because of diffusers or vaporizers in your home, oils on your skin that came into contact with their skin, or Fido decided your essential oil stash was tasty. Remember that pets don’t read directions. A problem can develop from essential oils simply because the pet licked the oil that was carefully applied to their skin, exposing their mucus membranes and intestinal tract to the oil. There are documented cases of toxic signs after dogs and cats have been treated with commercial natural flea products made of essential oils, even when used according to the directions.

If you suspect that your pet is having a reaction to an essential oil it’s important to see a veterinarian. The symptoms will vary based on type of oil and the sensitivity of your pet. Let your veterinarian know how long you’ve been using essential oils and how you’ve been applying them. Whether Fluffy ingested the oil orally, had skin contact only, or inhaled it matters. How much oil and the number of times they were exposed can also matter. It’s very important to bring in bottles of the essential oils to the veterinary clinic. The first step towards a diagnosis and treatment is accurate information.

A very important thing to share with the veterinarian is why you started using the essential oils in the first place. Sometimes the very thing you were treating with the essential oil is actually the cause of the symptoms, not the essential oil itself. The quicker veterinarians can diagnose what is actually wrong with your pet, the better we can help them.

Should you use essential oils for your pet? Maybe. There may be beneficial effects depending on what you are treating. But, choosing an oil that will “do no harm” may be difficult, especially in mixed dog and cat households. Remember that word “natural” does not mean it’s guaranteed as safe! Always work with your veterinarian to rule out any serious underlying diseases that may be causing the symptoms before starting an essential oil.

Melinda Newton, DVM, is a veterinary practitioner and free-lance writer located in Northern California. Dr. Newton is AnimalSave’s spay and neuter clinic veterinarian, and assists with other community outreach activities. She lives with her husband, daughter, two horses, two dogs, and a small parrot (that is really a tiny dinosaur in disguise) in Yuba City, California. To schedule an appointment for your dog, cat, or rabbit to be spayed or neutered, please call AnimalSave at 530-477-1706.

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