Aromatherapy, helpful or harmful for your pet?

By Shawn Messonnier DVM
A resource from Pet-Togethers

Aromatherapy uses volatile oils to achieve a physical or psychological response. Fragrant oils and spices have been used medically for thousands of years in the Middle East. In the 1930's Gattefosse who characterized the chemistry coined the term aromatherapy and medical uses of a number of oils. He and other doctors of his time discovered the healing powers and therapeutic uses of the oils.

The volatile oils can be administered by diffusion or nebulization, by massage or topical rubbing, or rarely orally (the oral method of administration is not recommended due to potential toxicity.) The nature of the volatile oils allows rapid absorption through the skin (during massage or topical application) or through the mucous membranes of the nose (if nebulization is used to treat the patient.)

The oils are generally obtained from various parts of plants, including flowers, buds, fruits, skin, and resins. The oils are obtained from the plant parts by distillation, separation (pressing,) or solvent extraction. Volatility is mainly a function of the molecular mass of the oils. As with herbs, most therapists recommend oils only be obtained from organically grown plants to prevent chemical and pesticide contamination.

The oils appear to work by stimulating chemical receptors in the skin and mucous membranes; these receptors relay information to the olfactory cortex of the brain and limbic system, which deals with behaviors.

Topically, certain oils exhibit antibacterial and antifungal effects. This is not surprising when it is remembered that plants produce these oils to protect themselves against infections and parasitic infestations. For example, thyme has been recommended for its antiseptic actions. Thyme has been shown to have the greatest overall inhibition of bacteria in laboratory culture. Tea tree oil has demonstrated antimicrobial action as well. Fungal infections of the nails (onychomycosis) responded similarly to tea tree oil and the antifungal drug clotrimazole in people.

While generally considered safe when used as directed under veterinary supervision, volatile oils can be toxic and even fatal if used incorrectly. Tea tree oil, for example, has shown toxicity when the oil was applied topically in high doses todogs and cats. Oils taken orally can be quite toxic or fatal, even in small amounts. When applied topically, oils should be applied in areas of the body where the patient as well as other household animals cannot lick off the oils. Cats in particular are very sensitive to toxicity with phenols, and phenols are a major chemical constituent of volatile oils. With proper administration (usually by diffusion through the air) and dilution, most volatile oils can be safely administered to most dogs and cats. In general, 5-10 drops of the volatile oil is mixed with 1 ounce of oil (such as almond oil.) Prior to using any of the volatile oils, consult with your veterinarian to make sure the chosen oil will not be toxic to your pet.

While aromatherapy has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity in people, veterinary medical applications are limited, and current reports of using the volatile oils are quite rare. As a result, indications for using aromatherapy are largely unknown and often extrapolated from human data; more research is needed to determine the best use of volatile oils in pets.

Volatile Oils Commonly Used In Veterinary Aromatherapy

Aniseed (gastroenteritis, bronchitis)
Basil (gastroenteritis)
Bergamot (antidepressant) 
Birch (anti-inflammatory, pain relief
Camphor (bronchitis) 
Cardamom (gastroenteritis) 
Cedar (bronchitis, dermatitis, insect repellant) 
German Chamomile (dermatitis, gastroenteritis, sedative) 
Cinnamon (dental problems, external parasites) 
Citronella (insect repellant) 
Clove (skin infections, gastroenteritis, dental pain) 
Eucalyptus (bronchitis, urinary tract infections
Fennel (enteritis) 
Geranium (skin disorders, antidepressant) 
Hyssop (skin disorders) 
Juniper (diuretic) 
Lavender (antidepressant, tranquilizer) 
Marjoram (sedative) 
Orange (insecticide) 
Peppermint (gastroenteritis, bronchitis, asthma) 
Rosemary (stimulant) 
Thyme (gastroenteritis, bronchitis, skin infections, oral infections) 
Turmeric (anti-inflammatory)

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