Depending on how much attention you've paid to the world of natural and homeopathic treatments over the years, you may have some passing knowledge or a deep interest in essential oils.
Generally used for aromatherapy and adding scents to items, essential oils can have a variety of effects on our bodies and minds, usually in the realm of stress relief and overall calm. Plus, they just smell nice!
A topic that comes up pretty frequently is how these essential oils work with dogs. Are they safe or dangerous? Are they effective or meaningless? How can you make the best use of them? Let's talk about it.
Every plant is made up of a wide variety of chemicals when you break it down into its component parts. Among the many different organic chemicals, some of them come in the form of oils.
These oils are what give plants their distinct aromas and flavors. Sometimes, it's a brilliant scent like sandalwood or lavender. Sometimes, it's a pungent combination of scent and flavor like those of garlic and onion.
Sometimes, it's harsh and acrid, and the oils are more often used in other preparations rather than as oils.
Essential oil is what you get when you take a plant, strip out every part of it that isn't one of these oils, and concentrate it down.
Have you ever held a sprig of mint or a bunch of lavender in your hands and smelled the fragrance that comes from it when you lightly crush or break the plant? That's a minuscule amount of essential oil being released.
A true essential oil is vastly more concentrated and extremely potent. Just a single drop of essential oil can be enough to infuse something like a blanket or plushie with scent for days or weeks, and just a few drops can scent an entire candle.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
Physically and chemically, essential oils are oil-based compounds that carry the molecules that are themselves the scent and flavor components of a plant. For some plants, you're after the scent, and for others, both scent and flavor are important. Chemicals like monoterpenes, terpenoids, and phenylpropanoids are the most common, though every essential oil has a different set of compounds.
As for medicinal uses, there's more questioning involved. Essential oils are used as part of aromatherapy, which means it's all about the smell. When you smell an essential oil, some of those compounds are making their way into your system and can react chemically with other compounds in your body.
Some essential oils can promote calmness, fight stress, and, in some cases, possibly even help alleviate minor pain and fight the effects of depression.
Disclaimer: Modern medical science is still studying how aromatherapy works and what therapeutic benefits it has on both people and animals. Essential oils aren't going to do something extreme like fight off illness or cure disease, but stress is a core contributing factor to many illnesses, so stress reduction can be very beneficial in conjunction with other treatments. At the very least, when used properly, essential oils aren't going to be harmful.
To use an essential oil, you generally use a diffuser of some sort. These are often similar to humidifiers but can also be as simple as reeds that wick up oil and diffuse it into the air via passive evaporation. There are many different kinds of diffusers, and you can always directly apply essential oil to something like a pillow or plush toy as well.
Are Essential Oils Safe for Dogs?
Yes and no.
One thing we all know about dogs is that they have an incredibly powerful sense of smell. Most dogs are at least 10,000 times keener than human senses, and some of the more scent-focused breeds can be as much as 100,000 times stronger in their sense of smell than we are.
What this means is that a single drop of a powerful essential oil, which is enough to flood your room with a strong scent, can be overwhelming to even the least sensitive of our fur babies. Even a scent that isn't dangerous to dogs can still be unpleasant until it fades.
Moreover, dogs have different kinds of physiologies than we people do. You know this well, right? Things we enjoy, like chocolate and garlic, are toxic to dogs. It's why we should always avoid giving dogs human food, especially things like spiced meats, because we love cooking with compounds that other creatures can't eat safely. And, sure, while a dog eating a bit of meat that was cooked using garlic powder is unlikely to die from it, even that digestive distress isn't something any of us want to deal with, let alone our poor fur babies.
What Are the Benefits of Essential Oils for Dogs?
If you're considering using essential oils for your dog, the question is, for what? What can an essential oil do, and how can it benefit your fuzzball?
Relaxation and anti-anxiety effects. For much the same reason as why we people use essential oils, they can have some impact on relaxing our furry friends and helping calm down their anxiety.
Skin benefits. Some essential oils have antibacterial properties and can help soothe dry and irritated skin, along with fighting off rashes, skin infections, and parasites. It's not as effective as a prescription treatment, but in cases where you don't need something that strong, an essential oil concoction might be a good idea.
Joint health. Dogs with joint problems, especially older dogs with arthritis, may benefit from certain essential oils that are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and can potentially soothe joint pain.
Respiratory support. Have you ever tried Vicks Vapo-Rub? That pungent menthol scent suffusing your sinuses helps to clear them out when you're feeling under the weather. Some essential oils can have a similar effect on both you and your pooch when you're suffering from congestion or a cold.
Bug repellant. Nobody likes bug bites, and while our fur babies have thick fur coats that can ward off many bugs, a dab of certain essential oils can repel those bugs from even getting close.
Deodorizing. If your fur baby rolled in something or just has a scentabout them and you can't seem to get rid of it with a bath, a bit of essential oil can at least help mask it while it fades.
It's all about picking the right essential oils and using them safely and properly. So, let's get into that discussion next.
Which Essential Oils Should You Avoid?
First, let's talk about the essential oils you absolutely should never use on your fur baby or even in the same household as them. These essential oils are toxic and dangerous to dogs, so no matter how good they smell to you, avoid them.
You can divide the dangerous oils into two groups. One group is the "never use" group; these are dangerous enough that no matter how well you use them, you risk doing serious harm to your fur baby. The second group is the "dangerous" oils; these can be used sparingly and carefully to good effect but need to be very carefully controlled to avoid doing harm.
First, the Never Use list:
Tea Tree. While it's commonly used in people for skin issues, it can cause extreme skin irritation, respiratory issues, lethargy, and even organ damage in dogs.
Cinnamon. Thoroughly toxic to dogs, this essential oil can lead to vomiting, intestinal distress, and liver damage.
Pennyroyal. A less common essential oil, this one can cause serious liver damage and damage to the nervous system and should be avoided entirely.
Clove. A powerful oil for numbing pain, particularly dental pain, this should never be used for dogs because of the risk of serious organ damage.
Wintergreen. Similar to peppermint, wintergreen is more dangerous and less beneficial than its cousin. In particular, one of the chemicals giving it the characteristic smooth mint scent is closely related to aspirin, which can cause aspirin toxicity. Avoid it.
Next, the Use with Caution list:
Peppermint. Peppermint has a lot of benefits and smells great, but it's very, very easy to overdo it because of how strong it is. It can also be toxic to dogs in larger quantities, so if you use it, use it very sparingly.
Thyme. While it's not deadly toxic to dogs, it can be irritating if not diluted or used properly, so it is best to use with caution. We use it in our repel & revive paw balm to help with bacterial and yeast overgrowth in dogs with skin folds.
There are some other oils that could be added to these lists, but you aren't likely to find them in common use. Either way, always check for specific oils and their effects on dogs before you choose to use them, just to be safe.
Which Essential Oils Should You Use?
So, what are the safest essential oils to use on dogs? Here's my list.
4. Cornmint (Wild Mint)
23. Clary Sage
You'll want to look up what each oil can treat and how it can benefit your fur baby before picking one, and read my tips on using them effectively if you're going to get started with essential oils.
How Can You Use Essential Oils Safely for Your Pooch?
Picking an essential oil is only the first step. You also need to know how to use them safely. A discussed some essential tips on how to safely use essential oils in the home in a previous post, here are additional tips.
Use a very diluted essential oil, and only use it for a short time. While you do, keep an eye on your pooch and make sure they aren't showing any signs of illness or distress. Lethargy, trouble breathing, and signs of nervous system issues are all reasons to stop and consult your vet immediately.
Remember, even if an oil isn't toxic to all dogs, your dog might be allergic or sensitive to it, so it could irritate them specifically. Allergic reactions can be very serious and require veterinary attention, so don't set and forget your essential oils.
Never Use an Essential Oil Directly on Your Fur Baby.
There are two big reasons for this. The first is that you almost never need to; essential oils are all about the scent, and there are much better ways to address skin issues than applying an oil.
Moreover, a concentrated essential oil can cause chemical burns; you need to make sure it's properly diluted to even consider topical use, and at that point, you've reduced the effectiveness of the oil enough that it's more for scent than effect anyway.
The second and more important reason is that dogs are dogs. They groom themselves, and the way they do that is by licking themselves. If you wouldn't feed your dog something, you shouldn't put it on their skin or fur either because when they lick themselves, they may as well be eating it. The only exception to this is if they're in a cone or e-collar to prevent licking, but you shouldn't put them in a cone just for an essential oil.
Next, Limit Your Use of Essential Oils and Rotate Them.
You don't want to saturate an area with scent. You'll get used to it and start to use it more, even unconsciously, and that can be irritating. Moreover, since the scent is the important part, getting used to the scent will start to remove the impact of the oil.
The best way to use an essential oil is either with a basic diffuser and a very dilute oil or to put a drop or two into something like a pillow or other object that your fur baby doesn't chew on. Again, you don't want them ingesting the oil, just smelling it. There are plenty of objects designed just for this; you can always make your own, too.
Finally, Never Use Essential Oils In Place of Real Veterinary Treatment.
Essential oils should be complementary and supplementary, not in replacement of effective medicines. You don't want your fur baby to suffer unnecessarily, right? Trust that your vet cares for animals as much as you do and won't steer you wrong.
So, after reading this article, do you have any questions about essential oils or how to use them around your canine companions? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more