August 27th, 2008

It’s amazing how nature has the ability to offer powerful healing aids, and in the case of aromatherapy, all that’s needed is a nose! Sunny de Bruyn looks at aromatherapy as an effective treatment for dogs.

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to heal and revitalise the body, mind and spirit. Essential oils are derived from plants and are extracted from the flowers, leaves, stems, roots, buds, gums and even peels of fruit, usually via a process of steam distillation.

They can heal many ailments, emotional upsets and distress, give vitality and energy, and even strengthen and regulate the immune system. An Essential Oil Therapist (EOT) can create blends for your dog that can assist with everything from preventing ticks and fleas, to soothing and healing skin problems, treating flatulence and bad breath, and relieving the pain of rheumatism and arthritis.

Essential oils can also help with behavioural issues, such as anxiety, aggression, fear, defensiveness, compulsive behaviour and trauma. And whats more, many essential oils are antiseptic and detoxifying. They’re just as effective on other animals, too, such as horses and cats.

However, EOT Eileen Mallard says cats are highly sensitive to essential oils because their livers have a very limited ability to metabolise oils. Its preferable to use hydrosols with cats, and essential oils should only be used with professional guidance, she says.

Don’t be fooled natural doesn’t mean non-toxic, and just because they are plant-based, doesn’t mean they aren’t potent chemicals. They are highly effective, yet potentially dangerous if not used correctly, so it is essential to consult a vet or qualified therapist before using them with your dog. Correct dosage and application requires professional advice, Mallard tells Dogs Life.

How does aromatherapy work?

As the name implies, aromatherapy works on our sense of smell. Oils can be inhaled or applied topically. Essential-oil molecules are very small, so they pass easily through the skin and into the bloodstream.

And although topical application through massage is the most common from of delivery for humans, Mallard says inhalation is the most effective method with dogs.

Mallard says animals have an innate ability to self medicate – that is, to seek out what they need to maintain health through herbs and minerals. The essential oils contain components that they would instinctively select for their own wellbeing if they were living in their natural state in the wild, she says.

In a domestic setting, however, this natural ability to seek out therapeutic plants is often restricted due to the environment and the living arrangements we impose upon our pets. But your dog will be able to let you know whether it doesn’t like the oils you are offering, and Mallard says it is vital to get your dogs permission before application.

Only ever apply essential oils when you have the clear permission from your pet. Allow the animal to smell each oil before treatment. Applying oils to an animal without permission is like being smothered in a perfume you dislike with no way to wash it off, she says.

Open the bottle and let your dog smell the oil. He may even want to lick it. When hes had enough or if he doesn’t like it, hell make it clear. If the animal doesn’t like the scent, stop the treatment as it may have an adverse effect. Things to look out for to tell you that your dog doesn’t like the smell include turning away, whining, pacing and rubbing its head on the ground.

Benefits of aromatherapy

The benefits of aromatherapy are immediate and long lasting. But as is the case with humans, every dog is different, so what works for one may not work for another.

Aromatherapy is subtle, and your animals reaction may change from session to session or over a period of days or weeks, says Mallard. Once an oil is offered, patiently observe the animals reaction (your aromatherapist will advise you on what to look for). A dog may show an interest for as little as one day if a problem is recent or superficial, or it could be as long as a few months for more deep-rooted problems. It might be probable that a series of different oils will be used to resolve the issue, she continues.

It is important to use high-quality, pure essential oils on your dog. And as dogs have highly sensitive scent receptors in their nose around 200 million compared to our 50 million you must always dilute the oil. Mallard says to add one to two drops to 5ml of a base oil, such as grape seed oil. Ask your animal aromatherapist to dilute the oils for you using an appropriate base oil, she says, and remember, more is not better!

Essential oils are available from aromatherapists, as well as a variety of stores, such as health-food stores and even beauticians, but Mallard warns that it is important to buy them from a reputable supplier.

Always make sure you are buying 100 per cent pure essential oil. This should be stated on the bottle, along with the name of the oil, the botanical name and the extraction method. It is important to note that fragrant oils and perfume oils are not essential oils and are usually synthetic and offer no therapeutic value, Mallard says.

Oils should come in dark bottles either amber or cobalt blue. And don’t be fooled by price; cheap usually means they are not pure essential oils and are of poor quality. Remember that although they may appear pricey, you only need to use one to two drops at a time, so the bottle will last a long time.

Consulting a professional is a must when it comes to canine aromatherapy. Your animal aromatherapist will give you information on each oil you are offering and advise you on how to use them with your dog. This is particularly important, as some oils can be harmful if not used correctly. For example, citrus oils are photo-toxic, meaning they can increase the skins sensitivity to strong sunlight and burn if exposed within 12 hours of application.


Mallard says, like any medicine or health treatment, there are some precautions you need to take when administering essential oils:

  • Never apply essential oils to your dog without clear permission from the animal!
  • Its vital to follow the instructions. Your EOT will instruct you on how to use the oils on your dog, as well as how to assess its reaction.
  • Never offer/apply undiluted essential oils to an animal. Dilution is vital.
  • Don’t use the oil on your dog if it clearly doesn’t like it.
  • Store oils in dark bottles with tight-fitting lids and away from sunlight. Dont leave oils within reach of animals or children.
  • Don’t use on pregnant animals.
  • Never apply the oils on the nose, genitals or near the eyes.
  • Don’t use the oils for more than two weeks without professional advice.
  •  Every oil is different, so be aware of the cautions and safety issues with each essential oil you are using.
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