Skin disorders in pets can be complicated and difficult to treat. Conventional medications provide rapid relief but may have negative side effects. Essential oils are an amazing and effective alternative.

As most veterinarians in clinical practice can attest, skin conditions are among the most common presenting complaints. From simple itching to severe infection, the clinical appearance of skin problems can run the gambit when it comes to the spectrum of presentation and severity. Another consensus among veterinarians revolves around the complex nature of dermatological conditions and the difficulty in treating them. In most instances, an integrative approach is often warranted. Essential oils can play an integral part in the treatment protocol, and are the focus of this article.


There is an old saying that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. In veterinary medicine, however, the skin can be a mirror of a pet’s overall health. As the largest organ of the body, the skin may be influenced by other pathological processes occurring within the body. When evaluating the skin, therefore, it is important to look at the pet as a whole and include environmental and dietary discussions with the owner.

The skin is composed of three major layers: the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous layer.1

  1. The epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin. It is composed of numerous cell types and provides protection from the environment as well as foreign substances.2
  2. The dermis is the next layer. It supports and nourishes the epidermis as well as other components of the skin, such as hair follicles, sweat and oil glands, and claws. This layer is rich with blood vessels that supply nutrients for the skin as well as regulate skin and body temperature. Sensory nerves are located in the dermis and hair follicles.
  3. The subcutaneous layer is the innermost layer of the skin. Subcutaneous fat and muscles are located within this layer. It has many functions, including as an insulator; a reservoir for fluids, electrolytes, and energy; and a shock absorber.2


With the skin being the largest organ of the body, and reflecting disorders associated with other organ systems, it goes without saying that many pathological processes can affect the skin.3 Before formulating a treatment plan, therefore, it is critical to determine the cause of the pathology. This can sometimes be challenging when dealing with dermatological conditions. Diagnostic options can be as simple as a physical exam and skin scraping, or as in-depth as allergy testing, biopsies, and referrals to specialists. While there are many options for treating symptoms, getting to the root cause is critical for the successful management of dermatological disorders.

Pruritis and alopecia: Pruritis is defined as itching or scratching at the skin. More specifically, it can be an unpleasant sensation that provokes a desire to scratch.4,5

Alopecia, on the other hand, is a loss or lack of hair. It can occur in any amount or distribution on the body, even culminating in complete baldness. While alopecia can be a primary disorder (i.e. caused by genetic conditions), it is most commonly a secondary occurrence resulting from other conditions affecting the body.5

Atopic dermatitis: Allergies can be very frustrating for owners and veterinarians, since so many factors can influence a pet’s susceptibility. Environmental allergens, genetic predisposition, and a weakened immune system response are just a few. The Merck Veterinary Manual defines atopic dermatitis as “a condition characterized by chronic pruritis and a typical distribution of skin lesions. It is generally associated with IgE antibodies to environmental allergens to which susceptible animals are genetically predisposed to become sensitized.”6,7

Ectoparasites: Fleas and ticks comprise the major group of ectoparasites. They can cause severe inflammation and irritation, leading to alopecia and pruritis with secondary skin infections. Fleas and ticks not only affect the skin, but can also transmit diseases to the pet and have the potential to cause zoonotic disease in humans.

Mange: Sarcoptic mange (Sarcoptes scabiei) is a highly contagious disease of dogs. While generally host specific,infection of other animals as well as zoonotic spread to humans can occur. Primary lesions consist of papulocrustous eruptions with thick, yellow crusts, excoriation, erythema, and alopecia. Secondary bacterial and yeast infections may develop.8

Demodex mange (Demodex canis) is the non-contagious form. In small numbers, these mites are considered part of the normal skin flora. However, large numbers of mites cause demodex mange. Immunosuppression, whether natural or iatrogenic, can precipitate the disease in some cases. Secondary bacterial deep folliculitis, furunculosis, or cellulitis may occur, leading to a guarded prognosis.8

Bacterial and fungal skin infections: Veterinarians have seen an increase in skin infections over the last several years. While there is often an underlying cause, such as allergies, which can weaken the overall immune system, these infections can be challenging to treat. Antimicrobial resistance and concurrent multi-organism infections are at the forefront of the battle.9


Topical application is one of the easiest and most effective methods for applying essential oils. This is especially true for conditions affecting the skin, where direct treatment at the site of the lesion is important. Essential oils can be applied neat or diluted with a carrier oil. Other than with certain emergency situations, it is always best to follow proper dilution and safety guidelines.

Topical applications can be subdivided into specific techniques, including direct topical application; petting along the body; rubbing oils on the tips of the ears; applying them to the pads and feet; and adding them to shampoos and ointments.10 Of these, direct application to a lesion, petting along the body, and oils added to shampoos and ointments are most commonly used.

The effects essential oils have on the skin and its disorders can be numerous. The benefits of adding an essential oil regimen to skin care dates back thousands of years and can be both preventative and curative. The ancient Egyptians recognized this and were among the first to include essential oils in their daily lives.11

Following are some of the benefits essential oils offer to the skin:

1. Nourishing and protecting the skin

Essential oils have been used for many years in the cosmetic and perfumery industries. They are well known for their ability to help nourish and protect the skin from the results of aging and UV exposure. Research is now underway to further develop the use of essential oils in products designed for UV protection.12 Essential oils are also being studied for their powerful antioxidant abilities. Antioxidants help with scavenging the free radicals and other pathophysiological components that can lead to inflammation and cellular damage.13

2. Alleviating pruritis

Pruritis (itching) is a very common symptom with most skin disorders seen in veterinary medicine. It’s often what pet owners notice first, and is honestly what concerns them the most. Essential oils, studied alone and in combination with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), have shown great success in improving pruritus in dogs with canine atopic dermatitis (CAD).14,15

3. Easing inflammation

A great number of essential oils are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. A large number of these have been researched over the years, with some better known than others. The inflammatory cascade produced within the body is a very complex response. Essential oils, with their large number of constituents and synergistic properties, can produce anti-inflammatory effects through varying mechanisms. One such mechanism is the inhibition of degranulation and the expression of cytokines and other inflammatory mediators.16

4. Offering antimicrobial properties

Over the years, the overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial medications has created multi-drug-resistant organisms. This creates an urgent problem for the future of healthcare, both human and veterinary, as conventional treatments can be limited at best. But essential oils can provide a viable alternative in the fight against resistant organisms.

Essential oils and their constituents have been studied in great detail for their antimicrobial properties. While most essential oils possess some degree of antimicrobial action, it should be noted that of all the commercially available oils (approximately 250 at this time), only about a dozen possess high antimicrobial potential.17 In fungal pathogens, essential oils establish a membrane potential across cell walls and disrupt ATP assembly, leading to cell wall damage. Essential oils can also disintegrate mitochondrial membranes interfering with the electron transport system (ETS) pathway. When it comes to bacterial pathogens, essential oils primarily destabilize the cellular architecture, leading to the breakdown of membrane integrity and disrupting many cellular activities, including energy production and membrane transport. Membrane rupture induced by essential oils can lead to the leakage of cellular components and loss of ions.18

5. Healing wounds

Wound healing is a very complex mechanism, involving the collaborative functions of multiple body responses working together to rebuild and repair the injury. In one study, essential oils containing the constituents of thymol and carvacrol were able to modulate the release production of reactive species, such as nitric oxide; pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α and IL-1β; and growth factors such as TGF-1β involved in the initial stages of the healing process. Carvacrol and thymol have been shown to stimulate re-epithelialization, angiogenesis, formation of granulation tissue and deposition of collagen fibers.19

6. Helping to control external parasites

External parasites can be vectors for spreading diseases to humans and animals. Many pharmaceutical products on the market have a proven success rate at treating these unwanted visitors. However, these products are not without their side effects. The proper use of essential oils can help control external parasites.20,21


A wide variety of essential oils can benefit the skin. It is important to remember that each patient is an individual and may prefer or respond better to one oil or blend over another. For the best results, always use the purest and most therapeutic essential oils, and the proper technique for the species being treated.

LAVENDER (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender is one of the most well-known essential oils. Its popularity has also made it one of the most adulterated. It is important for the veterinarian or client to make sure they are using a pure grade Lavender oil when working with animals.

Known as the “Swiss Army Knife” of essential oils, Lavender oil can provide calming and anti-anxiety properties as well as being anti-infective and displaying wound healing abilities. Topical application of Lavender oil has been shown to promote collagen synthesis and differentiation of fibroblasts, accompanied by up-regulation of TGF-β. These data suggest that Lavender oil has the potential to promote wound healing in the early stages by accelerating the formation of granulation tissue, remodeling tissue by collagen replacement, and by wound contraction through up-regulation of TGF-β.22

FRANKINCENSE (Boswellia carterii)

Most veterinary aromatherapists consider Frankincense one of the must-have oils. It is safe, well tolerated, and very versatile in treating a number of conditions. Frankincense is probably best known for its use in the treatment of various forms of cancer, but its other benefits are endless due to its amazing properties. It has anti-inflammatory actions, anti-infective properties, aids in tissue healing, and is immuno-stimulating, and antitumoral.23 Frankincense is a more expensive oil, since the growing and harvesting process is very time and labor intensive. A cheaper version, while appealing, is usually of poor quality or adulterated and should not be used.

COPAIBA (Copaifera officinalis)

Copaiba can have wonderful anti-inflammatory effects on the skin. Its main chemical constituent is β-caryophyllene, a sesquiterpene hydrocarbon with powerful anti-inflammatory effects. It acts much like an NSAID by blocking the oxidation of 5-lipoxygenace, a major player in the inflammatory cascade, thus reducing pain and inflammation.24

HELICHRYSUM (Helichrysum italicum)

This is an amazing essential oil. Reported medical properties include antioxidant and antispasmodic properties. It may also chelate chemicals and toxins, and help with neurologic issues by regenerating nerves. For disorders of the skin, Helichrysum has been reported to help prevent or lessen bruising, aid with tissue healing, and help stop bleeding.25

GERANIUM (Pelargonium graveolens)

Geranium essential oil is well known for its positive effects on the skin. It has been used for centuries to help regenerate and heal the skin. It is now being studied alone and in combination with other essential oils for its antioxidant effect and SPF properties.26 Geranium is also noted to be very useful in treating fungal infections such as ringworm.2

MARJORAM (Origanum majorana)

Marjoram was known as the “herb of happiness” by the ancient Romans, and “joy of the mountains” by the Greeks. It is best known for its wonderful muscle-soothing properties, that help relieve muscle and joint discomfort. When it comes to skin conditions, it has anti-fungal properties and is very helpful when treating ringworm.28

OREGANO (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano is considered a “hot” oil and should be used very carefully.29 Proper dilution and careful monitoring of the skin is a must. Within the current research, Oregano has many uses and has been shown to be very effective for a variety of cancers, as well as for eliminating internal parasites, and reducing stomatitis. Research on Oregano and its benefits for skin conditions include its ability to inhibit numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (e.g. MRSA).29,30


Skin disorders can be very complicated and create frustration among pet owners and veterinarians alike. It is crucial that you work with the client to get to the underlying cause of the disorder. While conventional medications have been shown to help, they can have unwanted side effects. Essential oils provide a wonderful  alternative.


Dr. Jared Mitchell graduated from Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. In 2010, he opened his practice, Mitchell Animal Clinic, in Mobile, Alabama. Wanting more for his patients, he began incorporating holistic modalities into his practice. Dr. Mitchell is currently completing certification to become a Certified Veterinary Medical Aromatherapist through the Veterinary Medical Aromatherapy Association. He plans to achieve certifications in herbal medicine, acupuncture, veterinary chiropractic and other holistic modalities.


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