Essential oils have benefits for humans and dogs … but they can be harmful or downright toxic to dogs if used the wrong way. Essential oils (EOs for short) are aromatic oils that have been used since the ancient Egyptians starting around 4,500 B.C. as recorded history shows. Throughout time, these wonderful oils have been used as fragrance enhancers, mood boosters, and even for medicinal purposes.
Essential oils are a part of a plant’s natural defense against predators and pathogens. Because plants can't move, they secrete the oils to repel pests and fend off threats they can't naturally escape. When used as directed, essential oils can offer many potential benefits for dogs. Veterinarians like internationally-recognized holistic vet Dr. Melissa Shelton are making it easier for pet owners to understand how to use them thoughtfully as well as safely.
Let's embark on a journey into the aromatic and occasionally contentious world of essential oils for dogs!
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated compounds that are extracted from plants through water or steam distillation. As the name suggests, they are the essence of the plant. You’ll find these highly potent compounds in a plant’s seeds, flowers, bark, roots, leaves, stems, rinds, fruit, and resin. As an example, essential oils are found inside the peel of citrus fruits.
In the Essential Oil Universe, You Get What You Pay For
Essential oils come with all sorts of price tags — from low to hefty — based on their manufacturer and quality stamp.
High-quality essential oils are expensive for a reason — the manufacturing process takes an ample amount of plant material. For example, it takes around 250 pounds of lavender flower to make just 1 pound of lavender essential oil! No wonder why knock-offs use toxic lavender scents or synthetic fragrances instead of actual oil to minimize costs.
With low-quality essential oils, such as the ones sold at Dollar General or Walmart, you get what you pay for — nothing pure, nothing worth the salt. That is why relying on a reputable company, even though that means forking over a few extra bucks, will get you the real deal.
Unfortunately, low-quality manufacturers cut their essential oils with all sorts of contaminants and adulterants that may cause severe adverse reactions.
Conversely, quality manufacturers help dog parents identify all the ingredients included in their essential oils through clear labeling. Also, they conduct third-party testing to ensure the quality of their product.
As Dr. Shelton shares, it all starts with making sure you’re using pure, natural essential oils, not synthetic or altered EOs. She states,
“Certainly, any essential oil that would be more towards a ‘fragrance-grade’ oil will have the potential to cause long term problems….In homes with a lot of air freshener and artificial fragrance use, these lesser essential oils are akin to spraying perfume on your [pet] and wondering why that didn’t bode well. And it is just unfortunate in the current market of essential oils that there are so many poor grade essential oils being sold as high quality.”
How Does the Canine Body Absorb Essential Oils?
To enjoy the concentrated effects of essential oils, you can apply them topically, typically added to other carrier oils, creams, and lotions. Other benefits come from diffusing these oils’ inviting aromas throughout your living or workspaces with an essential oil diffuser. Certain grades of oil can even be ingested and are used to flavor food and drinks. Of course, concentrated extracts like essential oils should be handled with care. Be sure to always check individual labels for instructions on how to use and apply an essential oil. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure a particular oil is right for your dog.
The easiest way to absorb essential oils is through the skin. Essential oils are lipophilic (Source: 24Petwatch), meaning they penetrate deep skin layers before entering the bloodstream and dispersing to various tissues. Massaging the area promotes faster absorption through increased blood circulation.
Other essential oil absorption methods include inhalation and ingestion, although they're not as effective as using essential oils topically.
How are Essential Oils Made?
This is the most important question you need to get answers about when choosing an oil company.
Extraction of essential oils is commonly achieved through steam distillation. This method entails combining water with chosen aromatic plants inside a specific apparatus known as a distiller. As water is heated and steam is generated, it draws the essential oils from the plants. This vapor rich in oil is then cooled in a condenser, converting the oil back into its liquid state.
Various companies specializing in essential oils employ distinct distillation techniques, with some being milder than others. Essential oils are composed of numerous tiny molecules, termed constituents, which can degrade with excessive heat and pressure. Hence, even minor fluctuations in temperature or pressure can modify the oil's chemical makeup. Oils derived from gentler processes tend to be more powerful.
Typically, oil producers utilize cold pressing to derive oils from citrus varieties like lemons, grapefruits, limes, oranges, and tangerines. This method is favored for such fruits since alternative extraction techniques might diminish the oil's strength.
Historically, cold pressing was a manual task. Now, the citrus fruit's peel is positioned in a spiked container. As the apparatus turns, the spikes pierce the peels, letting out the essential oil contained in the rind. This oil is subsequently gathered and isolated from the inherent fruit juices.
Oil gatherers employ resin tapping techniques to derive oils like frankincense and myrrh. By lightly nicking the plant's exterior, it secretes a sap-like material in response to the injury. Over time, this sap solidifies into resin, which is subsequently harvested and sent for distillation. When executed with care and consideration, this method doesn't damage the plant.
Resin tapping shares similarities with resin cutting and is a method employed to extract oils like copaiba. Rather than just scratching the plant's surface, a gatherer practicing this method creates a minor incision in the plant's trunk, facilitating sap release. Over a period, the plant seals the incision with resin, which the gatherer then gathers.
Should I Use Essential Oil Diffusers?
Many pet parents ask us, Are oil diffusers safe for dogs?
Using a diffuser to release essential oils might sound sophisticated, but the process is surprisingly straightforward. All you require is a bit of water, your chosen essential oil, and a diffusion device. Its ease of use has made it a go-to for many essential oil enthusiasts, appealing to individuals across various age groups.
How to Start an Essential Oil Diffusing Session
- Pick an essential oil you want to use. Remember, you can use multiple oils to create your own blend.
- Add water to the fill line, usually approximately 1 cup; but be sure to follow your diffuser’s directions.
- Add 5-10 drops of your essential oil into the water.If you are using multiple oils then no more than 1-2 drops of each.
- Put the lid back on top, turn on your diffuser and enjoy!
- Never lock the dog in the same room as the diffuser. Always give them a way to leave the room if they find the scent unpleasant.
- Don't put the oil diffuser right next to the dog's crate, as your dog may create a negative association between the two.
Essential Oil Candles are a Big No-No for Dogs!
Essential oil candles are not safe for dogs, even when they're unlit, since their cheap wax releases harmful toxins into the air.
Knowing What Essential Oils are Good for Your Dog
Discerning pet-safe essential oils from toxic ones is all about their ingredients.
Always inspect the label carefully before purchasing an essential oil, as seemingly minor ingredients can make a huge difference in the experience.
Once you've decided on a dog-safe essential oil, consider its biological affinity, as certain oils address health issues related to specific tissues (for example, fennel essential oils help balance the pituitary gland).
Don't Forget About Your Dog's Heightened Sense of Smell!
Always be aware of your dog's supercharged sense of smell — up to 100,000 times more acute than ours. A scent that's too strong for us might be downright torture for a dog's nose!
The easiest way to see if your dog enjoys being around certain essential oils is to let them sniff the bottle with the cap on. If your dog turns away or shows discomfort, you need a different oil. Don't worry about having to open the bottle — dogs can smell it right on the residue.
Essential Oil Safety Guidelines
Do a Patch Test
Apply a single drop of oil to a hairless part of your dog's body, like the inner forearm. After waiting for an hour, if there's any sign of irritation, apply a carrier oil to the spot to dilute it.
For the initial application of an essential oil, it's wise to start with a diluted mixture to gauge your skin's response. Mix one drop of the essential oil with two drops of a neutral, plant-based oil like coconut or olive. For more potent oils, consider a ratio of one drop of essential oil to every five drops of the carrier oil.
Dilute Hot Oils
Certain oils, like cinnamon bark and oregano, possess a potent chemical composition that can induce a warming feeling on the skin. These "intense" oils typically have cautionary notes on their labels. It's recommended to always dilute such oils prior to skin application. For these intense oils, mix one drop with five drops of a carrier oil.
Read the Labels
Before using a new oil, always check the bottle for any special guidelines or precautions. Any essential information will be clearly indicated on the label.
Avoid Certain Areas
Certain parts of the body, like the inside of the ears, eyes, nostrils, broken skin, and other delicate regions, may not respond favorably to essential oils.
Check for Sun Sensitivity
Certain oils, notably those from citrus fruits like grapefruit, lime, and tangerine, can cause skin sensitivity when exposed to sunlight post-application. It's best to use these oils during times when you won't be in direct sunlight, such as in the evenings. Always examine the label for any indications of sun sensitivity prior to applying them directly to your skin. After using such oils, steer clear of direct UV exposure, including sunbeds, for a minimum of 12 hours.
Store Them Safely
To prevent unintentional consumption or incorrect use, keep essential oils in a secure location away from children. Given that the properties of the oil can change with excessive heat or light exposure, it's recommended to store them in an area with moderate temperature and away from direct sun.
Considering how sensitive our dogs' sense of smell can be, pet parents must always use diluted essential oils — 0.5% to 1% dilution or 3 to 6 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil.
A carrier oil is a diluting agent that minimizes the scent of essential oils while protecting your dog from skin irritation. The most common carrier oils include:
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Jojoba oil
- Olive oil
The appropriate dilution level varies from one dog to another. We recommend starting off with a significantly diluted oil to observe your dog's reaction.
Gauge Your Dog's Propensity to Essential Oils
Less is always best when starting off with an essential oil. Don't put any essential oils right on the dog's skin. Instead, put a small drop on their collar or a bandana — if they have a negative reaction to it, you can always remove the collar/bandana and wash it.
However, if your dog reacts adversely to essential oils being applied to their skin, you'll have to wash the whole dog. It's the only way to thoroughly remove the scent.
Signs of Essential Oil Poisoning
The telltale signs of essential oil poisoning in dogs include:
- Blood in the stool/urine
- Difficulty breathing
- Inability to urinate
- Liver failure
- Loss of appetite
- Mobility issues
- Muscle tremors
- Skin irritation
8 Essential Oils We Recommend for Dogs
We can't talk about the best essential oils for dogs without starting with the most iconic scent — lavender.
This versatile essential oil promotes relaxation and delivers a calming effect to anxious dogs, among numerous other health benefits. It also works as a natural flea and tick repellent, calms down skin inflammations and rashes, and keeps annoying mosquitoes at bay.
Fennel oil helps hormone-producing glands (for example, the pituitary, thyroid, and pineal glands) preserve the balance of melatonin in the canine body, helping your furry friend inhibit symptoms of stress, anxiety, alopecia, and poor sleep (Ruiz-Cano et al.).
Furthermore, it neutralizes all the toxins pent up inside tissues while giving the digestive system a well-deserved boost!
Helichrysum is all about reducing trauma-induced bleeding, treating wounds, and repairing damaged tissues (for example, hematomas and scars).
Furthermore, a 2021 study concluded that helichrysum oil showed promising results in promoting wound healing, although more clinical trials are required to confirm its efficacy (Andjić et al.).
Frankincense oil has a litany of health benefits for our canine companions, such as:
- Building up the immune system
- Helping with certain forms of cancer
- Mitigating arthritis and asthma symptoms through its anti-inflammatory properties
- Reducing tumors and external ulcers
- Increasing blood supply to the brain
In some cases, frankincense can worsen blood pressure, so use it cautiously around dogs with high blood pressure.
Spearmint is the preferable substitute to peppermint oil due to its lower concentration of menthol making it less pungent.
Spearmint oil helps our furry friends with:
- Weight management
- Balancing the metabolism
- Stimulating the gallbladder
- Managing colic, diarrhea, and nausea
Ginger oil is one of the natural remedies with the highest antibacterial activity (Friedman et al.). Furthermore, it aids in digestion, relieves nausea and motion sickness, and shows a promising potential in preventing various forms of cancer (Mashhadi et al.).
Lemon Balm Oil
Akin to lavender oil, lemon balm has all kinds of soothing effects, helping our dogs deal with anxiety and stress, as well as digestive issues. Furthermore, the soothing fragrance of lemon balm will lull your dog into a restful night of sleep!
Myrrh is an antimicrobial known for helping with skin irritations. It also provides anti-inflammatory benefits, alleviating conditions such as irritable bowel disease and asthma.
Calming Essential Oils for Dogs
If your dog is showing signs of stress or anxiety, our selection of calming essential oils will help take the edge off any feelings of restlessness and bring your four-legged partner into a state of calmness:
Essential Oils Used as Natural Flea and Mosquito Repellents
Keeping fleas and mosquitoes away from your dog's fur is always a challenge. Luckily, these essential oils will deter pests and parasites from biting your dog's skin:
- Rosemary (avoid it for dogs with epilepsy)
24 Unsafe Essential Oils for Dogs
Many of the following essential oils may cause skin rashes, gastrointestinal upset, and central nervous system issues. That's why we recommend that pet parents avoid them altogether:
- Juniper berry
- Tea tree (Melaleuca)
- Ylang ylang
Always Stick With Dog-Safe Essential Oils
You will find dozens of essential oils on the market, all with different quality marks and price tags. Always go with pet-safe essential oils, but do not force your dog to like your preferred scent. Although we want what's best for them, dogs always know better. If one brand doesn't resonate with your dog, keep trying different ones until you find the perfect pleasant scent. For more advice on dog nutrition, health, and training, make sure that you contact us and check out our blog! Volhard has affiliates with qualifications in essential oils — to reach them, please join the Facebook page The Holistic Guide to the Volhard Dog and ask your questions!
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