I have no doubt that pure essential oils can work wonders on our pets when used with care and as directed. My observations over decades confirm that essential oil actually can strengthen the canine-human bond. But when using oils on or around dogs, it is important to be aware of which oils are harmless and which oils carry potential risks – especially when used incorrectly.
During a time of Covid-19 restrictions, more and more people are fostering and adopting pets because of the comfort and companionship they provide. Essential oil use has also seen a surge during this time, a way to uplift the mood while cooped up indoors. But a rise in the use of potent antimicrobial essential oils has also led to a spike in toxicity reports regarding pets.
Our furry friends are an adored member of our family unit, so it’s no surprise that I get so many enquiries about using oils around pets, ranging from Shetland ponies to budgies! There is not a great deal of published scientific research available on the impact of certain oils on pets in general, and it is often conflicting, at times alarming and at others, just simply inaccurate. I have therefore developed the following guidelines based on owners’ reports, anecdotal evidence, and an understanding of the chemical properties of the most widely used essential oils for home use to guide you.
Why are some essential oils proving a problem with our cherished canines?
Dogs have millions of olfactory receptors and an acute sense of smell. Unlike humans, who are able to metabolise essential oil particles relatively easily, dogs cannot.
When we talk about essential oils, we are actually talking about organic chemistry. Yes, they are natural, but this does not mean they are totally safe and without side effects! We know from using them, that essential oils are highly concentrated liquids made up of lots of chemical compounds prepared by the parent plant to protect itself. Certain chemical groups found in essential oils, such as esters, are safe and gentle, while others, such as phenols and ketones, can be stimulating and irritating – especially if used carelessly and incorrectly. These same chemical groups determine the action of each oil and, above all, its safety data.
General guidelines when using essential oils around your pet
When using essential oils around your pet, you should apply the same general rules of safety as you would for yourself and your human family members.
- When introducing essential oils, make sure to observe your dog’s response as you would with any new product.
- Introduce oils gradually. Use them on yourself first to determine their impact before using them on or around your pets.
- Use oils correctly and as directed – avoid ingestion and neat application to the skin.
- Keep essential oils away from your dog’s ears, face, nose, and eyes.
- Avoid using essential oils for prolonged periods of time. Do not use a higher dosage than directed and do not use the same blend day in and day out.
- Avoid using any oils on or near puppies ten weeks old or younger. For designer breeds and miniature dogs, seek breeder advice before you commence use.
- Keep bottles locked away and out of reach. The last thing you want is a beloved pet ingesting it.
- Avoid spills and do not leave dishes of oil at ground level.
- If your pet exhibits any toxic symptoms (lack of coordination, tremors, vomiting, ataxia and dermal irritation) seek veterinary advice immediately.
- Above all, make sure you purchase 100% pure essential oils from a trusted supplier and within their use by date. Avoid synthetic copies and fragrance oils as they are guaranteed to make the whole family sick if used in excess.
Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals by Kristen Leigh Bell identifies the main chemical groups to avoid using on or around dogs. She offers a comprehensive guide to the use of over 40 essential oils and hydrosols for use with animals. She maintains dogs that once feared bath time eagerly await their grooming session once oils are in the mix. Kristen Bell stresses that the wrong essential oils are not easily tolerated by dogs when used in high concentrations, accidentally ingested or used neat on large areas of their fur.
In the event of any adverse reactions or toxic symptoms, act quickly. Remember to take the offending oil to the vet with you as there are so many species, varieties and brands of the same oil and each can be remarkably different.
Oils to avoid using on your pets:
- Avoid phenol-rich oils such as oregano, savory and thyme (CT thymol).
- Avoid oils that contain ketones such as thuja, yarrow, pennyroyal, rue, hyssop, wormwood and mugwort.
- Other oils to be avoided include, but are not limited to, basil, rosemary, cinnamon, wintergreen, clove bud, pine, sweet birch, tea tree, ylang ylang, star anise, juniper (Juniperus sabina) and sage. Such oils are stimulating and can be irritating, and although they make effective disinfectants, they can also be toxic if absorbed through the skin or accidentally ingested. Even excessive inhalation via your diffuser can have dire consequences.
Tea Tree oil and your dog
There is a great deal of controversy about using tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) on pets. Even though, it is used in most dog shampoos and commercially prepared grooming products – and readily available from health food stores to supermarket shelves – it can cause adverse reactions in dogs. The offending chemical compound in tea tree is terpene 4-ol, which dogs simply cannot tolerate if used incorrectly and in excess.
My research indicates that most recorded toxicity cases are a result of accidental ingestion, attempting to treat a skin condition with concentrated and neat application, and diffusing excessive amounts for prolonged periods in a confined, unventilated space. (Kristen Leigh Bell recommends using Sweet marjoram in place of tea tree.)
Safe essential oils to use with dogs:
- Lavender is first aid in a bottle. A drop is all you need to relax and settle your pooch.
- Roman Chamomile is soothing and comforting and reduces inflammation.
- Frankincense is grounding and settles a hyperactive, anxious dog. It can also aid in the healing of injuries, itching, allergies, and infections.
- Cedarwood is deeply grounding and can be used as a substitute for frankincense. It will relax your dog and can also be used to treat skin conditions. Its antiseptic properties can help repel ticks and fleas with regular washing.
- Australian Sandalwood helps calm, protect and nurture your pet. It reduces inflammation, and a few drops will help relieve dog flu symptoms.
- Geranium is a sweeter-smelling option that heals wounds and has an overall calming action. It is also an effective tick repellent.
- Ginger is the perfect remedy for motion sickness.
- Bergamot is very relaxing for hyperactive dogs before a trip, a hike or puppy school.
- Myrrh is antifungal and treats inflamed skin conditions.
- Sweet Marjoram is a great substitute for tea tree if there is any concern about its being an irritant (see the section above).
Diffusing (vaporising) with pets
Diffusion remains the most popular method of use in the art and practice of aromatherapy. It provides endless pleasure, creates a clean breathing space and rids the air of germs. It is a great place to start when trialling essential oils around your pet. Just remember that those vapour particles are drawn into the brain and lungs when inhaled, so care must be taken for the entire family.
Tips for safely diffusing around dogs:
- Begin by diffusing a few drops in an open area where the family congregates and your canine likes to relax.
- Do not diffuse for more than three-hour intervals and do not exceed the recommended drop count.
- Ensure the room has adequate ventilation and the diffuser is out of easy reach.
- Do not use the same oil or blend for extended periods of time.
- Do not leave the diffuser operating unattended.
Topical application for pets
Once your dog has responded favourably to diffusion, and assuming you have a healthy, happy, full-grown pooch, you can graduate from diffusing oils to using them topically. Let the following chart guide you as you experiment!
|Use these oils to…||
Suggested oils and application
|Calm and settle nervous, fretful dogs, especially rescue dogs||Simply warm a few drops of Lavender or Frankincense in your hands and then apply by gently stroking your dog for a few seconds. Wash your hands and resume petting.|
|Manage fleas||Add 2 drops of Cedarwood to a tissue, then dust it over the brush before brushing your dog’s coat.|
|Make wash day once a month a more soothing experience (only for healthy, fully grown dogs)||Add 2-3 drops of your chosen oil to 1 tbsp. white vinegar before adding to 10 litres of warm water. Mix well. OR add 2-3 drops of your chosen oil to 50 ml of an all-natural shampoo base. Mix well and use a capful per wash. Try Myrrh or Geranium for ticks, Lavender for anxious dogs, Frankincense for wounds and sores, and Cedarwood for fleas.|
|Treat wounds||Add 1 drop of Frankincense or Australian Sandalwood or Lavender to 20 ml warm water. Use a cotton ball to apply to the affected site. NOTE: Do not use essential oils on puncture wounds until the healing process is underway.|
|Freshen bedding||Combine 2-4 drops of Lavender or Geranium to 1 tbsp. white vinegar before pouring into a 1 litre spray bottle and top with cold water. Shake well before each use. Spray the underside of your dog’s bedding, cage or isolation ward before putting them in it. Do not spray directly towards your pet.|
|Prep your pooch for puppy school or ease separation anxiety||A few drops of Lavender rubbed into hands and gently cupped over the muzzle of a stressed dog for a few seconds can have a calming effect.|
|Soothe arthritis||Add 2 drops of Frankincense or Roman Chamomile to 20 ml of sweet almond oil. Warm a small amount in your hands and apply gently to the area of discomfort. Do not apply to areas that your canine might reach with its tongue.|
|Repel insects||Combine 2-4 drops of Australian Sandalwood or Bergamot to 1 tbsp. of white vinegar before pouring it into a 1-litre spray bottle. Shake well before each use. Spray it around your dog’s bedding and area. Do not spray directly towards your pet.|
|For motion sickness||Add 1 drop each of Ginger and Peppermint to a tissue and lodge in the air vent to circulate the particles through the car during a road trip.|
|Treat itchy skin and allergies||Combine 1 tbsp. aloe vera gel and 1 tbsp. sweet almond oil to a 100 ml dark glass bottle with a spray cap and fill the rest with spring water. Shake well. Add 2 drops Lavender, 2 drops Roman Chamomile and 1 drop of Geranium. Store in the fridge and shake well before each use. Spray it onto cotton pads or your hands and gently rub it onto the tummy area. Your dog will smell divine.|
As we start to ease restrictions and come out of isolation (with the exception of Victoria, it seems!), your pooch may experience separation anxiety after being used to having you at home. To bond with your dog, you might consider wearing a tissue with a few drops of Neroli or Lavender tucked into your bra or pocket as you hold and pet your dog. Your dog will come to associate this scent with your love, even when you are absent. Simply dust the tissue onto their favourite toy before you leave home for a bit of comfort.
In my book, A Scented Life, I cover using scent to safely enhance the parent-infant bond, which can also be used to strengthen the canine-human bond.
All you need is a little bit of knowledge, care, and sound judgement to use aromatherapy on your beloved pet. Let them experience the joys of essential oils just like you do!
All the best,