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You may have heard about the healing properties of essential oils. Could they have similar effects on our dogs? And which oils are safest for our canine family members? With the recent rise in interest in essential oils thanks to companies like doTerra, many pet parents are curious about this approach, but aren’t sure whether it’s a good idea. As a vet tech, I’ve often heard the question “are essential oils bad for dogs?” I wanted to dig into the issue to find out. Here’s what I discovered.
How is quality determined?
Essential oils are extracted from plants and the quality of the oil is impacted by several conditions—the sunlight, altitude, and even how much water a plant receives. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils – the concentrated, aromatic oils extracted from plants through distillation, most often by steam.
Essential oils produced for aromatherapy use are typically processed with a great deal of care. Why? Well, they’re costly! For instance, 220 pounds of lavender yield only seven pounds of lavender essential oils. The author of Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, Kristen Leigh Bell, writes, “oils that are produced specifically for the aromatherapy industry are typically made with the same care and attention that goes into a fine bottle of wine.”
Purity, however, doesn’t equate to safety—just like the word “natural” doesn’t mean “safe to use.” Essential oils are very potent because they’re so concentrated. That’s why they’re best diffused via steam and must never be given to your pet to ingest. Most veterinary experts also advise against using them topically. If used topically, they must be diluted in what’s known as a carrier oil; always consult with a vet before attempting this.
How can essential oils and aromatherapy help dogs?
Essential oils are thought to help with everything from skin irritations to fighting fleas. Lavender is popular for dogs because of its reported calming effects, for example. My dog Sherman suffers from anxiety, and we’ve had luck using lavender to help calm his nerves. We add a few drops of lavender to the essential oil diffuser we have in our kitchen before we leave the house.
The holistic veterinary community has embraced their use. One recent survey of holistic vets, in fact, reveals that some veterinarians use essential oils in disparate ways: diffusing lavender in waiting and exam rooms, using essential oils for odor control, giving a light massage with frankincense, and more. Veterinarian Dr. Janet Roark, known as the “essential oil vet,” has many good links and resources available about the benefits of essential oils for pets on her website.
However, there is scant research on the topic, and thus, a lack of hard evidence as to whether essential oils truly provide all of their purported benefits. If they’re not used properly, certain essential oils pose a risk to dogs. Cats are even more sensitive to these oils, and birds shouldn’t be around them at all. If you’re interested in trying essential oils with your pet, be sure to get professional guidance.
Safest essential oils to use with dogs
Below is a short list of essential oils that experts say are safe to use on dogs.
- Lavender: Universal oil. Useful in conditioning patients to a safe space. May help allergies, burns, ulcers, insomnia, anxiety, and car sickness, to name a few. Not for use with cats.
- Cardamom: Diuretic, anti-bacterial, normalizes appetite, colic, coughs, heartburn, and nausea.
- Chamomile: Anti-inflammatory, non-toxic, gentle and safe to use. Good for skin irritations, allergic reactions, burns.
- Spearmint: Helps to reduce weight. Good for colic, diarrhea, nausea. Helps balance metabolism, stimulates gallbladder. Not for use with cats.
- Thyme: Pain relief, good for arthritis and rheumatism. Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, excellent for infections and other skin issues.
Essential oils dangerous for dogs
Certain oils can be toxic to dogs when ingested or when coming into contact with the skin. Essential oils bad for dogs include:
- Tea tree
- Sweet birch
- Ylang ylang
How to use essential oils with your dog
Based on research, remember this about using essential oils with your pets: LESS IS MORE. Always start with therapeutic grade essential oils.
- A rough guideline is to add about 3-6 drops of essential oils to 1 oz. (30 ml) of carrier oil.
- Use a smaller amount of diluted oils on small dogs vs. big dogs – and fewer amounts of diluted oils on puppies and senior dogs.
- Use a hydrosol, a water-based byproduct obtained during the steam distillation process of an essential oil.
Dr. Roark adds the following precautions about using essential oils with cats or dogs:
- Do not use around eyes, ears, nose, or genitals.
- Exercise caution with pregnant or nursing pets.
- Know your pet’s health status and behavior, and discontinue use if concerns arise.
Note that all of these tips apply to dogs only. In general, essential oils are more dangerous for cats, and you should absolutely check with your veterinarian before considering their use with cats.
More safety tips
Dogs are more sensitive to essential oils than humans, so even if you’re familiar with them for yourself, remember that it’s a different story with your dog.
- Only use essential oils with your dogs to address a specific, ongoing and active concern – not to “prevent” a health issue.
- Do not add essential oils to your dog’s food or drinking water.
- Avoid using essential oils with puppies under 10 weeks of age and with pregnant or nursing dogs.
- Do not use oils on epileptic dogs or dogs who are seizure-prone.
Symptoms of essential oil poisoning in dogs
If essential oils are kept within reach of your pet, you run the risk of accidental ingestion. Watch out for these symptoms:
- Muscle tremors
- Difficulty in walking
- Low body temperature
- Excessive salivation
- Excessive pawing at mouth or face
If you suspect your dog has ingested an essential oil, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680) right away. Early intervention is best.
For more in-depth tips on safety and the use of essential oils with dogs, Kristen Leigh Bell’s book Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals is an excellent and well-regarded guide.
The bottom line
Be sure to consult with your vet before trying any essential oils with your dog. And if you’ve tried aromatherapy with your dog and had success, we’d love to hear about it!