Essential oils for what ails your pet

Dr. Julie Schell uses lavender essential oil daily at her southeast Calgary vet clinic to help calm her patients.

Dr. Julie Schell uses lavender essential oil daily at her southeast Calgary vet clinic to help calm her patients.

By Pam Porosky

Dr. Julie Schell, DVM, owner of Bow Bottom Veterinary Hospital in southeast Calgary is no stranger to the benefits of aromatherapy. “Every day, with every patient, I use lavender essential oil. It calms the animals, especially in an intense environment like a vet clinic,” she says. “I feel better by smelling lavender, too. But it’s more than just the scent; it’s what it does chemically to the brain (and the rest of the body).”

Dr. Schell has been practicing veterinary medicine since 2002 and is certified in veterinary acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and animal chiropractic. She began  taking formal aromatherapy courses two years ago.

The clinic had already been in “aromatherapy mode” five years earlier with diffusers in the exam rooms, but says her training has given her the confidence to use essential oils topically and orally to great effect with dogs, cats and other pets.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an internationally recognized organization based in North Carolina, defines aromatherapy as “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit.”

These “essences” are essential oils, obtained from the leaves, flowers, roots, bark, seeds or fruit of plants and the same organic substances plants use to protect themselves. Alleviating anxiety is just one of the benefits of quality, therapeutic-grade oils. Repelling insects, relieving skin irritations and easing car sickness are other examples given by NAHA.

When applied, ingested or inhaled by warm-blooded pets, essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream, travel through the body and react to the body’s chemical makeup, affecting each and every cell, explains Dr. Schell, and stresses safety and the importance of diluting them first, due to their chemical complexity.

Not all essential oils are created equal. “It’s not worth using something that might be dangerous if I can think of five other oils to use instead,” she says. “And you can’t just go and transfer from a human to an animal, either,” she adds, stressing the physiological differences between animal species.

Schell explains: “There are ways to use essential oils with birds, but it is very difficult. We use them heavily diluted, and never directly on the bird.”

Certified Master Aromatherapist, Kristen Leigh Bell, writes in her book, Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, “Aromatherapy can be very dangerous if misused.” The expert from Georgia recommends using hydrosols when it comes to birds, rabbits and other small pets, including cats.

“A hydrosol is a water-based substance that is the by-product of steam distillation,” Bell says. “They contain water-soluble parts of the plant, and a very minute amount of certain essential oil components. They are extremely … gentle.”

Still, a high level of caution should be observed when it comes to the use of any aromatic materials around birds, Bell says, underlining the species’ extreme sensitivity to fragrance intensity and chemicals.

Dr. Liz Ruelle, DVM, Alberta’s first feline specialist, further explains that cats, and especially their liver, are extremely sensitive to chemicals, natural or synthetic. “Because their olfactory sense is so much better (than ours), and they are a different species, how they smell and react to a scent might be a concern.”

The owner of Calgary’s Wild Rose Cat Clinic says, “The biggest challenge we face is they will likely groom it off, so that is where toxicity might become an issue.” And inhaling or absorbing too much — especially the wrong oil — can be detrimental.

Science shows that oils high in phenols (i.e. oregano, tea tree and wintergreen) are the most dangerous — to dogs, as well — but Dr. Ruelle admits, “It is tough to say how much it takes or what level of exposure would (cause harm]).” She lists thyme, eucalyptus, clove, cinnamon (bark), bay leaf, and parsley as just some of the other oils to avoid.

That’s not to say oils and cats never mix. “We consider cats living in a world of scents, so it makes sense that aromatherapy should work well,” says Ruelle, and adds that she uses and recommends lavender for calming and citronella as a deterrent.

“I’m not afraid to use oils responsibly,” Dr. Schell agrees. “My quality of medicine would diminish if I were to stop using essential oils, even if I just stopped diffusing lavender in the exam rooms.”

Cindy Peacock, a Calgary-based dog trainer, uses essential oils on her Maremma Sheepdog, Dylan, to help with his itchy skin.

Cindy Peacock, a Calgary-based dog trainer, uses essential oils on her Maremma Sheepdog, Dylan, to help with his itchy skin.

Southern Alberta certified animal trainer, Cindy Peacock, feels the same about the calming oils she uses in her group classes and private sessions. She ranks stress-relieving violet leaf oil high on her list. “Essential oils affect the mind, body and spirit and are an excellent complement to my work, because I always focus on the animal as a whole.”

She first experienced essential oils to enrich the lives of zoo animals. Now she mainly uses them with dogs, but always gives them a choice. “I hold the cap in a way they can’t lick or bite it and let them smell it. If they don’t seem interested or move away, I take that as ‘no’ and don’t force it,” she says. “Every dog is different; what they want and how they react will be different, even from one day to the next.”

She looks to the physical benefits of essential oils when it comes to her own pets. Dylan, a six-and-a-half-year-old Maremma Sheepdog, has chronic seasonal contact dermatitis. His condition worsens in spring and makes him uncharacteristically cranky and reactive. Peacock tried a host of remedies, including antihistamines and dietary changes; the only thing that helped was steroids.

“I was skeptical,” she admits of trying aromatherapy for Dylan’s sore and itchy skin. “I’ve seen people try and sell (essential oils) as a miracle cure before, but they’re not.”

Still, Peacock tried a blend of frankincense, geranium and other oils known for their skin conditioning properties last summer, hoping it would at least lessen his steroid intake. She was surprised when his symptoms and discomfort diminished. Dylan would get excited whenever she brought out the bottle. It was the first year he didn’t need steroids.

She clarifies not all pets will respond the same way. Rocky, a lab/pit bull cross she fostered, ran away from the same blend, snorting and rubbing his face on the rug.

Peacock took a workshop on pet aromatherapy, but still trusts the guidance of certified aromatherapists. In doing so, she discovered the two-year-old simply preferred one oil at a time.

Dr. Schell also advises pet guardians to talk to a trained professional before trying anything on their own. “I treat it like a prescription. But, if they’re used properly, you don’t have to be afraid of them.”

—Pamela Porosky, CTMT, CSMT is the owner of Ashbury Cottage, specializing in animal aromatherapy and canine therapeutic massage. Visit for more info.