Aromatherapy has been touted to reduce anxiety, enhance energy and induce relaxation in people. But there are few scientific studies that have looked at the use of aromatherapy for pets and whether it has the same effects in them. As a result, there are certain rules of thumb that should be followed whenever you use these products around your pets.
Aromatherapy uses essential oils to create all those wonderful scents that we humans love to breathe in deeply and enjoy. It’s important to realize, however, that many of these substances that seem relaxing to us are, in fact, volatile compounds, which means they can be potentially toxic to pets at certain concentrations. Animals and people are different in how they react to these substances, and your veterinarian should always be consulted before using these products around your four-footed family members. Keep in mind that what is safe for use around humans is not necessarily safe to use on or near our animals. These essential oils can be inadvertently inhaled by your pet, consumed by licking or actually eating the substance, or absorbed through the skin. This is a concern because many of these substances can be harmful.
One of the key things to understand is that dogs and cats have a much better sense of smell than we do. What smells good to us may be overwhelming for them. You wouldn’t want to be trapped on an elevator with an overly perfumed companion, so always make sure your pets have a way to escape from the smells that you think are wonderful — those same scents may be irritating to them. A dog’s sense of smell may be thousands or tens of thousands of times more sensitive than ours. And while cats are not as talented in the sniffing department as dogs, their sense of smell is still far more sensitive than ours. Birds in particular need to be safeguarded from strong scents — they have a very different and more sensitive respiratory tract than do humans, and the inhalation of essential oils is not recommended.
Many “natural” pet care products also appear to contain the same substances that are used in aromatherapy products. However, that does not mean that any aromatherapy product should be used indiscriminately on your pet. Essential oils in pet care products are generally constituted in greatly diluted amounts. For example, many natural flea shampoos or dips may contain essential oils, but because of the dilution of these oils with other ingredients, they are safe to use according to label directions. Always follow the directions and never assume more is better. In addition, keep in mind these are active compounds that may interact with any other medications your pet may already be prescribed.
For these reasons, do not apply 100 percent essential oils from aromatherapy products on your pet, especially on broken skin. The volatile compounds can be quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and possibly damage vital organs. Cats in particular are missing some detoxifying liver enzymes (when compared to dogs or people) and are highly sensitive to "hot" oils like cinnamon, oregano, clove, wintergreen, thyme and birch. Skin application of 100 percent tea tree oil has caused liver failure in some cats, for example. Essential oils should also never be given orally because some very common oils, including eucalyptus, tea tree, pennyroyal and thuja, can damage the liver. Seizures are possible with large doses of some essential oils. If your pet has ingested essential oils, call your veterinarian immediately.
While we are discussing essential oils, let’s also talk about potpourri. Liquid potpourri should never be used on, or ingested by, your pet. Liquid potpourri (the kind made for simmering pots) is a combination of essential oils and cationic detergents. These detergents are corrosive agents and can cause chemical burns in the mouth and on the skin. Be sure to keep any such burners away from areas that pets can access or climb. If your pet does accidentally come in contact with liquid potpourri, bathe him with hand-safe dishwashing detergent until you can no longer smell the potpourri. If any burns are noted, or you notice that drooling or vomiting occurs, call your veterinarian immediately.
The bottom line is to use common sense when dealing with scents in order to keep your pets happy and safe. And, when in doubt, ask your veterinarian.