Harnessing the antimicrobial effects of essential oils in the veterinary clinic setting

Veterinarians and their staff are at risk of being exposed to viruses and infections, such as COVID-19. Biologically active essential oils are an effective alternative to disinfecting chemicals.

As veterinarians and essential businesses, we and our staff are at increased risk for coming in contact with novel viruses or infections. In veterinary medicine, we often become a bit lax when it comes to protection. However, because our patients are in direct contact with their families through hugs, cuddles, pets and kisses, their coats can become exposed to human-sourced pathogens, and as such we must consider pets as potential fomites. What should we do? Should we be spraying down or bathing pets in disinfecting chemicals? Are there alternatives? The answer to the last question is yes. Essential oils can offer a safe and effective alternative to chemical disinfectants.

Essential oil products must be biologically active

Much research has been done on the antimicrobial nature of essential oils; many are known to be effective for MRSA infections in addition to having antiviral properties. In our practice, they are the first go-to for viral infections.

The caveat to using essential oils safely and effectively is determining whether they are biologically active. Essential oils can cause harm if they are just as adulterated as other chemical products. There are many poorly-produced products out there that your clients are reaching for. Your job is to educate yourself on what constitutes a safe and effective essential oil.

All essential oils are not the same; however, they are often all lumped together as ineffective and even dangerous. As an analogy, life-giving water can sustain us or kill us, depending on how clean it is. Likewise, you can drink water or drown in it. The same goes for essential oils. Adulterated, contaminated oils are not medicinal, biologically active ones.  They can be ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst. Conversely, biologically active oils have powerful healing qualities.

What  follows is a  brief overview of the biologically active essential oils I have found to be safe and effective for antimicrobial use, through my practice and from clinical studies since 1997. Numerous culture results taken in the practice have confirmed the effectiveness of their use in bacterial infections.

Protection for patients and staff

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my practice instituted an essential oil disinfection protocol for all animals and staff.

  • First, videos and letters were sent to all clients so they were informed about what to expect upon arrival at our clinic.
  • All animals were sprayed down thoroughly with a diluted, safe, effective, biologically active essential oil disinfectant blend on the way in and on the way out.
  • Footbaths were also used for employees and pets as they entered and exited the building.
  • All surfaces were constantly sprayed down as well.

Our practice used products that animals could safely lick and therefore ingest (we have been using these for over 20 years) at a concentration known to not cause sensitivities. We avoid spraying animals or surfaces with harsh chemicals such as bleach, or any other product that humans themselves cannot ingest.

Essential oil mechanisms for environmental cleaning

Essential oils are lipid in nature and therefore able to break down the lipid coating of viruses, similar to what soap does. They can also dessicate viruses, bacteria, and fungi.  When essential oils are sprayed on surfaces, they remain in place rather than evaporating, and therefore increase the barrier function of the surface. Many of the essential oils with strong antimicrobial properties are also safe for ingestion.

In addition, essential oils have chemical constituents that support the cellular activities of the host cell and make the host stronger. Many essential oils can increase cellular regeneration and tissue repair, thereby increasing the integrity of the immune system’s barrier function. In contrast, through the inhalation or ingestion of many commercial cleaning products, protective mucous membranes can be burned or compromised, rendering the individual more susceptible to infections by allowing microbes to penetrate more deeply into the body. We need to consider the use of toxic products as contributing factors to respiratory malfunction and inflammation.

Using essential oils for respiratory health

In addition to external decontamination, essential oils can be used medicinally for respiratory health. They may be diffused into the air or applied rectally to gain higher blood levels in respiratory emergencies. Rectal application is well tolerated by the patient and easy for clients to learn.

In my practice, for viral infections such as canine distemper, I will use intense deep inhalation. The eyes must be lubricated during these treatments. They are best performed in the clinic setting where the practitioner can monitor vital signs and watch for a Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction as bacterial microbes from secondary infections begin to die off.

During the first few treatments, patients are put on oxygen and coupage is performed to move the mucus being broken up by the essential oils. Combining this treatment with ozone therapy is beneficial, with no side effects observed.

The best essential oils for the respiratory tract, according to French medical literature, is a combination of thyme, hyssop and eucalyptus, applied through diffusion or rectal administration. Other oils supportive to the respiratory tract are tree oils, such as pine.

For cats, avoid long-term use of essential oils that are more irritating in nature, including oregano, thyme, cinnamon and melaleuca.  Instead, a good choice for felines is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), an essential oil with strong antiviral properties but minimal tissue irritation. In my practice, it is my go-to choice for treating FIP, FIV and FeLV positive cats, with noticeable viral load reduction and no side effects.

Education is vital when it comes to essential oils

One of our jobs as veterinarians is to educate the public. Pet guardians should not be educated solely by the companies selling essential oil products, by the internet, or by well-meaning professionals who have not been trained in essential oil use. Practitioners can join unbiased, non-partisan professional organizations such as the Veterinary Medical Aromatherapy Association for education and support.

References

Astani A, Reichling J, Schnitzler P. “Comparative study on the antiviral activity of selected monoterpenes derived from essential oils”. Phytother Res. 2010;24(5):673‐679.

Brandt N. Chemical Free Pets. Spark Education LLC; 2016.

Brandt N. The Dig Deep Method. Spark Education LLC; 2018.

Brochot A, Guilbot A, Haddioui L, Roques C. “Antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral effects of three essential oil blends”. Microbiologyopen. 2017;6(4).

Choi HJ. “Chemical Constituents of Essential Oils Possessing Anti-Influenza A/WS/33 Virus Activity”. Osong Public Health Res Perspect. 2018;9(6):348‐353.

Franchomme P, Pénoël D, Jollois R. L’aromatherapie exactement; 2001.

Saika T, Saira W, Waseem R, et al. “A comprehensive review of the antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral potential of essential oils and their chemical constituents against drug-resistant microbial pathogens”. Microbial Pathogenesis.2019;134.

Sharifi-Rad J, Sureda A, Tenore GC, et al. “Biological Activities of Essential Oils: From Plant Chemoecology to Traditional Healing Systems”. Molecules. 2017;22(1):70.

Swamy MK, Akhtar MS, Sinniah UR. “Antimicrobial Properties of Plant Essential Oils against Human Pathogens and Their Mode of Action: An Updated Review”. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:3012462.

VMAA.vet

Wińska K, Mączka W, Łyczko J, et al. “Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents-Myth or Real Alternative?” Molecules. 2019;24(11):2130.

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