Aromatherapy Around Dogs—Safe or Not Safe?

In recent years, essential oils have become more and more popular. They are often advertised as natural treatment options or even alternatives to traditional medicine, treating everything from anxiety to skin conditions.

What’s not to love about natural essential oils providing these benefits? Potentially a lot if you have pets in your home. Read on to investigate further! 

First Off, What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are made from highly concentrated plant substances and they have a powerful fragrance (or “essence”) of that plant. Preliminary research suggests that these potent oils may have some health benefits for dogs and humans, and many holistic veterinarians incorporate essential oils into their practices. Though a large body of scientific evidence does not yet exist about whether or not essential oils are effective at treating a number of illnesses in dogs, many owners are willing to try using oils to help with a wide range of conditions, from anxiety and skin problems to flea and tick prevention.

Why Essential Oils Can Be Unsafe For Your Pup?

One might think that our pets benefit from the calming effects of many essential oils, just as we do—but that’s not necessarily the case. While they may seem harmless, quite a few essential oils are harmful to dogs (and cats!) and should not be used in any form such as aromatherapy or other topical applications on pets.

This also applies to oils that you aren’t placing directly on your pet. For instance, people frequently use essential oils with diffusers, but even using an oil in a diffuser or a warmer can potentially make your animal sick!

Undiluted Essential Oils Are Too Strong For a Dog’s Sense of Smell

First off, it is important to note that a dog has an insanely sensitive nose. While many scents seem pleasant to us, they can be perceived as super strong, potentially stressful, and disorienting for your pup.

It all comes down to scent receptors and brain makeup. Dogs have around 300 million scent receptors, while we only have about 5 million. These scent receptors carry messages to the brain about the smells in a surrounding environment. This part of the brain–the Olfactory Bulb–is several times larger in a dog’s brain than it is in a human brain. This means that while something may smell mild to us, your dog can smell every ingredient, the location from which the smell is coming, and when it started. For such a sensitive nose, you can imagine plenty of smells might be a little overwhelming.

To learn more about the incredible abilities and functions of a pupper’s nose—check out this great animation from Ted Edu!

Essential Oils Can Be Absorbed As Toxins Into Our Pup’s Bodies

Think of it this way: Essential oils are very powerful. If nothing else, they have a powerful smell, but more importantly their molecules tend to be highly reactive with the compounds in our own bodies, and in pets’ bodies as well.

That’s what makes essential oils so useful. If they didn’t react with our bodies, they wouldn’t have any effect. But this is also why many essential oils and animals do not mix. Many oils are basically poisonous or toxic, because their reactions mess up a pet’s natural body chemistry.

With pets, the chemicals in essential oils are rapidly absorbed into the system, whether received orally or through the skin, and metabolized by the liver. Therefore, using essential oils could be particularly problematic for puppies and young dogs, dogs with liver disease, or elderly dogs. Due to the way the essential oils are metabolized by pups, the oils can act as toxins if not properly diluted. P.S. cats have even less of the liver enzyme for processing toxins than dogs do, making them even more sensitive to the risks of essential oils.

How to Use Essential Oils Safely

Given the risks of essential oils, it’s best to avoid using topically or directly on your dog without proper professional guidance. Instead, work with your vet, who can provide you with information about the best carrier oils to properly dilute essential oils for dogs, as well as appropriate dosages. You can also look for expertly formulated products that incorporate dog-safe essential oils and are properly diluted for your dog’s weight and size. For example, many of the natural flea and tick treatments available at your local store will contain essential oils like tea tree–don’t panic–these companies dilute potency for size and weight of your pet, so just be sure to read the labels carefully.

Additional Pro-Tips:

  • If you do want to diffuse essential oils , but you have pets, be sure to diffuse oils deemed as safe (see lists of ‘harmful vs safe below”) for only short periods of time, out of reach of your pet to avoid direct exposure. **This includes candles!!
  • Never leave essential oils unsupervised when there are pets around.
  • Never apply essential oils topically without checking with your vet.

Most Harmful Essential Oils:

  • Tea Tree oil
  • Citrus
  • Oil of Cinnamon
  • Peppermint
  • Pennyroyal oil
  • Sweet Birch
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Wintergreen
  • Pine oils

Essential Oils Largely Considered Safe (Always Dilute if Applying Topically):

  • Chamomile
  • Ginger
  • Valerian
  • Myrrh
  • Frankincense Carterii
  • Clary Sage

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