Essential oils for treating anxiety
Behavior problems and emotional health issues arising from anxiety can be effectively alleviated with the correct use of essential oils.
In the Winter 2015/2016 edition of IVC Journal, I discussed the concerns and benefits of using essential oils with animals. In this issue, we look at how essential oils, when properly used, can give wonderful benefits for behavior problems. Quality is critical, as one essential oil may bring true and wonderful health benefits, while another is akin to spraying perfume directly onto the animal! In this way, essential oils can be paralleled to the variation of health responses we see from feeding a “dollar store” brand of pet food versus a premium version.
Anxiety and behavioral issues a common concern
Behavioral concerns contribute to an amazingly high number of relinquished animals. There are great opportunities for veterinarians to aid these issues with essential oils.1,2,3,4 Anxiety presents in all species in many different ways, from dogs who tear up couches, carpets and doors when an owner is not at home, to birds who pluck and chew at their feathers. Symptoms such as increased respiratory rate, shaking, diarrhea, excessive vocalization, hiding, over-grooming, inappropriate urination, and even biting or aggression have all been attributed to fear, stress and anxiety.
Essential oils affect emotional health
Within integrative medicine, essential oils are, in my eyes, one of the most complete and holistic modalities I have encountered. There are true and documented physical effects5 that also complement the emotional planes, whether it is our intention or not. Gut health and inflammation of the gastrointestinal system are becoming increasingly recognized as contributing to anxiety and behavioral concerns, as well as a plethora of other physical relationships.6 In clinical practice, we often noticed that when essential oil therapies were instituted to help with nausea or diarrhea, a calming effect was duly noted.
Single essential oils such as Geranium,7 Lavender,8,9 Bergamot,8,9 and Roman Chamomile9 are commonly thought of when referencing essential oils with anxiolytic capabilities. However, even essential oils that are not commonly considered, such as Cinnamon,10 Lemon,11 and members of the Anise family12 have behavioral benefits. Other essential oils such as Orange are very uplifting, and Clary Sage is well regarded for supporting the hormones, and seems to aid in hormonally-related behavior issues.
Uses and applications – diffusion
A single calming oil or a blend of several (my preference) may be applied to handlers and/or animals prior to a nail trim, car ride, thunderstorm, or other stressful event. Water-based diffusion can be utilized to expose the entire household to calming benefits on a more consistent and widespread basis. Generally, three or four drops of undiluted essential oil(s) are added to one cup (8oz) of water to be diffused. Humans and animals alike can experience calming effects, which are always helpful when dealing with an emotional situation. When possible, bridging the use of essential oils with positive experiences prior to their use is especially helpful. For instance, exposing the animal to the scent of the essential oil while he is eating or spending “happy time” with his guardian, can link the scent of the oil(s) with positive and calm feelings. Although the physical and emotional responses to the essential oil chemistry will still be present, we can ensure a larger response when positive reinforcement bridging has been initiated.
Examples of recipes that can be used vary, and almost any combination can affect an animal in a positive way. One of the greatest things about essential oils is that you are rarely wrong with a selection. For example, if you only selected Lavender, and used it for a cat scared during a car ride, a dog who is aggressive at a vet visit, and a horse timid about the farrier, you would most likely see results in all of them, to varying degrees. However, if you blended Lavender, Bergamot and Roman Chamomile together – you would find that a larger portion of animals responded to the blend, and likely with more results than with one essential oil alone.
Consider the patient’s species
As with most aspects of veterinary medicine, there are species variations in how we should proceed. Whether we are administering anesthesia, medications, or even restraint techniques, we proceed far differently with a bird, cat, dog or horse. The same approach should be used for essential oil use – in both selection and methods of administration.
For birds, exotic animals and cats, I prefer water-based diffusion of essential oils. Essential oils such as Roman Chamomile, German Chamomile, Lavender, Bergamot, Geranium, Clary Sage, Lemon and Orange tend to be milder in nature, so are therefore appropriate selections for use with these delicate species. They can be utilized singly or combined in any pleasing combination for diffusion. Inaccurate statements abound in regards to cats, citrus oils, terpines, and a variety of other chemical constituents, but when used properly, I do not find these cautionary statements to be clinically accurate. Many of my own personal felines, as well as veterinary patients, have experienced long-term exposures to “contraindicated oils” through diffusion (as well as other routes) with only benefits noted.
If there are ever changes in an animal that we feel may not be beneficial – such as increased respiratory rate, squinting, repeated sneezing, or avoidance of the diffusion area – diffusion should be ceased and the situation re-evaluated. In my experience, the majority of situations where diffusion is not well tolerated results from poor quality essential oil use, or from the overuse of the essential oil(s).
Uses and applications – topical
While dogs, horses, and other large animals will still benefit from diffusion in their environments, we can also explore topical applications of essential oils. Selecting a variety of essential oils known for calming effects, and mixing them together (in any combination that results in a pleasing scent to human and animal) can create a base blend for your use. For most situations, additional dilution of the essential oils into a fatty carrier oil (I prefer fractionated coconut oil) should be performed for topical use. I would recommend using a concentration of 1% to 5% essential oil to carrier oil for most applications. When creating a base blend or a diluted blend, I recommend rocking the blend to mix it several times a day, and allowing the oils to “marry” for 24 hours or more prior to use, as this seems to result in a more harmonious and effective end product.
Petting would be the method most often used for topical applications. In this situation, we would place several drops of the diluted blend into our hands, and rub them together. For a horse who is anxious around the farrier, I may “pet” the essential oil blend onto my own clothing prior to handling the horse. Each individual is different, so it is nice to use a blend prior to the “necessary event” to make sure the animal issues a noticeable and positive response to it. And ideally, I would bridge the scent of the essential oil blend with prior regular activities that the horse does not perceive as stressful, whenever possible. In some situations, I may layer multiple application methods to the calming blend; wearing the blend on my person, and also “petting” the blend onto the horse or other animal. Depending on the sensitivity of the animal, I may use one to five drops or more in my hands, allowing them to be absorbed to varying degrees, before petting. I will often “pet” the oils onto the shoulder and heart areas – and focus on taking calming breaths alongside the animal.
In most situations, I will attempt to use essential oils approximately ten to 20 minutes prior to the known stressor. I may repeat applications, typically every 20 minutes – but will titrate the frequency and amount of the applications based on the individual response and duration of response presented by the individual animal. With properly diluted, high quality essential oils, we are able to apply or administer “as needed” – but often strive to achieve the “lowest effective dose”.
Essential oils are never the only therapy I focus on for cases in which we want behavioral improvements. All aspects of diet, health, nutritional supplements, training and behavioral modification should be addressed; however, even when we “only” use essential oils, we can see results.
In clinical practice, we have seen a wide variety of behavioral improvements through implementing essential oil use: reduction of excessive grooming in cats, greater acceptance of new animals in a household, more relaxed and calmer car rides, less reaction to fi reworks or thunderstorms, easier crate training of puppies, less screaming from birds, low-stress veterinary visits and nail trims, greater focus and attention during training, and so much more. As integrative veterinarians, I believe we have an even greater opportunity to help animal guardians with behavioral concerns when we offer multiple modalities and solutions. Essential oils can be a powerful addition to your behavioral arsenal.
Sample essential oil blends
Blend for diffusion: Equal parts Lavender, Orange, and Lemon essential oils.
Lavender-based calming blend: Three parts Lavender, two parts Lemon, one part Roman Chamomile, one part Geranium.
German Chamomile calming blend: One part German Chamomile, three parts Clary Sage, six parts Bergamot.
Both calming blends may be diffused or diluted to a 1% to 5% concentration in fractionated coconut oil for topical “petting”.
- SPIKE, a 15-year-old male Sulfur Crested Cockatoo, was exhibiting excessive screaming in the household. The owners had already been using a single Lavender essential oil in a diffuser, as they had heard of the calming effects Lavender could provide. They experienced only minimal effects. A blend of equal parts Lavender, Orange, Lemon and Clary Sage was substituted for diffusion, and the owners reported a much improved and more consistent reduction in the amount of screaming. They also felt that Spike’s hormonally-charged behaviors towards the owners (biting and chasing feet) were also reduced.
- THOLLIE, a five-year-old intact female American Staffordshire Terrier, was abandoned at a veterinary clinic. While attempting to examine, sedate, draw blood or restrain her, the dog would thrash and violently twist her body in an attempt to escape. A blend of equal parts Roman Chamomile, German Chamomile and Blue Cypress (an essential oil known for grounding properties) was “petted” onto the handlers and Thollie’s chest and back area 20 minutes prior and immediately before attempted handling. Significant differences were noted, and the dog could be restrained, allowing injections to be given for her spay surgery. With continued use of the oils, combined with positive bridging, Thollie was able to have her nails trimmed with minimal restraint or struggle, after several weeks.
- ABBIE is a 13-year-old Arabian/Quarter Horse mare. She is known to be very cranky, especially during heat cycles, is afraid of loading into a horse trailer, and gets “stress diarrhea” after a transport event. The owners used a blend of three parts Lavender, one part Roman Chamomile, and one part Clary Sage in a petting method, 20 minutes prior to attempting to load her. They noticed a significant difference in her stress level, she loaded into the trailer easier than they had ever seen, and she did not exhibit her normal stomping and kicking while inside the trailer. The owners also sprinkled several drops of this blend into her manger, so she would smell the essential oils during the trailer ride. The owners also noted that she did not get her normal episode of post-transport diarrhea.
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