Aromatherapy literally means “treatment using scents.” It involves the use of essential oils for healing. Its therapeutic properties have long benefited people, but the same things can be used to promote dog health as well. (Last year, we told you about a company that makes aromatherapy products for dogs called Sniff Pet Candles.)
Read on to find out whether aromatherapy is right for your dog.
“Essential oils are concentrated liquids extracted from plant materials, including the petals, leaves, roots, and seeds, and the peels of citrus,” says Doug Knueven, DVM of Beaver Animal Clinic in Beaver, Pennsylvania. “They produce effects on humans and animals, both due to the fragrance of the oil and the chemical compounds that are absorbed through the skin when applied topically.”
Each essential oil contains approximately 200 to 800 different chemicals that contribute to its healing effect. For example, esters have anti-fungal and sedating properties, ketones ease congestion, alcohols are antiviral and antibacterial, and sesquiterpenes are anti-inflammatory and can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Essential oils are generally either massaged topically onto the skin or inhaled through the sinuses. “The method of delivery depends on the condition being addressed as well as the oil being used,” Knueven says.
Each essential oil produces a unique effect on the body. Lavender oil can induce a state of calm, citronella repels insects, and peppermint acts as a digestive aide.
To lessen the chance of irritation, dilute essential oils before applying them to your dog’s skin. Knueven advises mixing 30 drops of essential oil into one ounce of cold-pressed almond oil. Apply topically, massaging several drops of the diluted oil into the inside of the dog’s ear flaps.
Some oils –- such as cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, oregano, and thyme –- possess corrosive properties and should not be applied topically unless diluted. Many oils are also toxic if ingested. “Never apply an essential oil to an area the dog can lick unless you are sure it is safe to consume,” Knueven warns. He also advises keeping oils away from the eye area.
Babette Gladstein, VMD, founder of Animal Acupuncture in New York, cautions that the longterm effects of essential oils on dogs are still unknown. “Many people assume that because essential oils derive from plants that they are safe, but that’s not true,” she says. “We don’t know how they affect the lungs, nasal cavities, and brains of dogs, or at what level they are toxic or lethal. Dogs are far more sensitive to smell than we are, so what is safe for our systems may be harmful to theirs.”
Both Gladstein and Knueven stress that only oils labeled “therapeutic grade” should be used. Otherwise, the product may contain unwanted and potentially harmful chemicals.
“Giving your dog an oil that contains chemical additives could cause allergic reactions or other negative side effects,” Gladstein says. “Truly pure essential oils cost several hundred dollars a quarter ounce.”
Kneuven advises researching the oil producer carefully to choose the safest product.
Many holistic veterinarians incorporate aromatherapy into their treatment regimens. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association provides a list of holistic veterinarians sorted by name, state, zip code, and area code. Find that list here.
Diana Laverdure is an award-winning dog healthcare writer. Her 2011 book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (with W. Jean Dodds, DVM), was named Best Care/Health Book of 2011 by the Dog Writers Association of America and received the 2011 Eukanuba Canine Health Award. She has just finished her second book, Nutrigenomics: Foods that Heal Your Dog (also with Dodds), which will be released later in 2013. She lives with her rescued Shepherd mix, Chase.