Learn how this veterinarian has successfully used essential oils as natural and effective treatment options for many health issues.
Almost every aspect of animal care can benefit from the addition of essential oils. In veterinary practice, I have been able to use these oils to provide natural and effective options for many health issues. I have utilized them for flea and tick prevention, immune system support, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-tumor and anti-viral properties, replacing NSAID and steroid use, providing anti-inflammatory effects that are also gastro-protective,1 enhancing the healing of wounds and surgical sites, increasing circulation, treating resistant infections, supporting organ systems, and improving clotting function and resolution.2 All essential oils also have energetic and emotional benefits. Supporting all aspects of the animal’s well-being, essential oils are a powerful modality to add to your arsenal.
Essential oils are volatile aromatic chemical compounds derived from selected plant materials. The oils help protect the plant against bacteria, fungi and pests. These characteristics are transposed to the effects desired from the use of an essential oil.3 Essential oils are lipophilic, and non-soluble in water. They do appear to have the ability to penetrate tissues quite effectively, and physical medical responses can be witnessed even through inhalation.4
Steam distillation of essential oils is generally considered the best for veterinary and medical purposes. It is my belief that essential oils should be used in their most natural and complete ratios – and that practices such as fractionation should not be used to enhance or separate different chemical components of the oil.
Quality is highly important when selecting essential oils for medical and veterinary use, especially with smaller and exotic animals. The use of a lower quality essential oil is analogous to spraying perfume, so negative effects would not be surprising. Since many essential oils are distilled or marketed for the perfume industry, some companies may not know or care to know the difference.
Trusting your supply source is key to obtaining true essential oil quality. Even “certified” quality statements may not be accurate. Ask an experienced medical practitioner you trust.
- High quality oils can be expensive; do not seek the lowest cost.
- Bottles should be tamper-evident, without rubber dropper tops.
- Each bottle should have lot numbers or tracking information.
The best way to learn about variations in quality is to invest in oils from many sources, comparing them side by side. Use the oils on yourself and your own pets to form a relationship with them. I relate my experience with essential oils to learning about wine. Until I went on wine tasting tour, I really hadn’t a clue. Many people have never done an “essential oil” tour. To me, it should be mandatory.
Developing the skill of evaluating essential oils can take several years – all good skills can take a bit of time to master. Do not become discouraged, but do practice the skills daily. Although it may take years to hone advanced skills, you will often have notable results with even beginning approaches. More will be covered in Part 2 of this article, in the Spring 2016 issue of IVC Journal.
It is important to recognize that even poor quality, synthetically created or altered essential oils will be effective for physical conditions. In this way, synthetic oils are similar to traditional medications like aspirin or steroids. But they often have many side effects and do not work at the deep natural level we desire. The fact that an essential oil “worked” for an animal does not indicate its quality level; it merely indicates the presence of active and effective chemical compounds.
Cats have gained notoriety as the most controversial species when it comes to essential oil use,5 but in practice we have witnessed the aggressive use of oils in felines without harm. The cat’s apparent deficiency in the Cytochrome P450 pathway, and other liver metabolism quirks and concerns, seem more of an issue with the processing of synthetics and man-altered chemical compounds than with true and balanced essential oils.6
The application of essential oils in veterinary medicine provides amazing flexibility in treatment options. I usually recommend starting with the most basic, light, and easy methods of application and use, and advancing to more aggressive or layered approaches if it proves necessary.
Oils can be used “neat” (undiluted, often directly from the bottle) or in diluted form. Essential oils can be diluted in a fatty carrier oil or water. Common carrier oils include coconut oil, olive oil, almond oil, sunflower oil, etc. I prefer the use of edible and organic carrier oils as much as possible. Fractionated (so it does not turn solid at cool temperatures) coconut oil (FCO) is my current favorite for use in diluting essential oils for animals. A high quality cooking grade oil can be selected, and FCO appears to be the most “fur friendly” oil in my opinion, leaving much less of an oily residue and not damaging furniture and fabrics.
- Water-based diffusion of essential oils remains one of the easiest and most benign methods of exposure – and it’s surprisingly effective. Hair and fur do not appear to inhibit the absorption of oils trans-dermally, and hair follicles coated with natural sebum may even enhance lipophilic absorption into the body. Animals with more hair follicles per square inch of dermis appear to be more “sensitive” to smaller amounts of essential oils – possibly due to this enhanced absorption. Diffusion requires little handling of the animal – the cool mist carrying essential oil particles can permeate fur, feathers or skin and allow for systemic absorption. “Tented” diffusion into a carrier with an animal in it can ensure deep inhalation, and even topical contact with surfaces such as a cornea or conjunctiva.
- “Petting” consists of placing an essential oil in the hands, diluted or neat, and rubbing them together until a light fi lm of the desired concentration is on the hands. The animal is then “petted” with those hands. Even if the oil seems to be completely absorbed into the skin, there is an effective transfer and amazing amount of scent and action.
- Direct topical applications.
- Oral administration, rectal instillation, injection, and IV administration, which should be reserved for research or in extensively monitored veterinary cases.
Use in your practice
- Procure quality oils.
- Test each method and oil on yourself first. If I plan to spray an animal with essential oils in a water mist, I mist my face with the recipe first. If I plan to add essential oils to drinking water or food, I too add them to my own food and water to see how the effects feel.
- Initially, use tried and true recipes and recommendations. Over time, I was able to modify these methods even further, with veterinary knowledge and experience, into what I felt was even more appropriate for the animal species in question.
- Use the easiest, most dilute methods first. Water-based diffusion is one of the easiest methods to use, and can be layered with other methods to provide even more effects.
- For topical treatments, use diluted oils. A 1% to 5% concentration of essential oil(s) to carrier oil is a nice starting point. If not effective, a higher concentration can be tried. Drops can vary in volume depending on the dropper used and the viscosity of the essential oil – however, this is still the most widely reported method of measurement for essential oils. For example, 1 drop of oil in 5mL of carrier oil would be a 1% concentration, 2 drops in 5mL would be a 2% concentration, and so on. Although carrier oils can often be measured with a syringe, essential oils are quick to degrade the plunger; it is advisable that essential oils be measured in a glass graduated cylinder when exact measurements are desired.
- Essential oils can be used alongside medications, although the use of the oil could reduce the need for the “traditional drug, leading to side effects from overuse of the medication. Multiple patients of mine have required far less of their prescription medications or herbal remedies once essential oil use has been initiated, so it is important to monitor closely to see if patient dosing needs to be adjusted, especially in cases where the animal is on insulin.
Witnessing liver or kidney values improve with the use of essential oils is encouraging, and will continue to add to our knowledge of safety and efficacy. The amazing flexibility essential oils provide is to be duly noted. There are not many medications, where if an animal will not consume it, that we can just “throw” into the air, pet onto the fur, or add to a shampoo, and still see effects from it. We all know how difficult it can be to pill a cat; wouldn’t it be great if we could just rub that pill on our hands, pet the cat and see similar effects? Well, with essential oils this often seems to be the case.7
I clearly see benefits in using essential oils with my patients and consults. The results speak for themselves, and frustrating cases that appear to have no other options have definitely shown amazing responses to essential oil use. Although all the “scientific proof” may not be directly available, it is clear from a quick search on pubmed.gov8 that essential oils have a dominant presence and a lot of promise.
Whenever medical grade essential oils have raised concern, I usually ﬁnd it’s due to overuse or inappropriate use. Signs that an animal may be overwhelmed could include increased respiratory rate, reddened or irritated skin, avoiding the diffuser, lethargy, inappetence, soft stools, or anything else considered out of the ordinary. In these cases, stopping further use of essential oils, even through diffusion, and diluting a site of irritation (especially directly on the skin) with a fatty carrier oil is the most effective route of relief. Washing off essential oils with water can increase irritation in some situations, as the essential oil is not soluble in water, and can be spread over the dermal surface, potentially increasing the area of exposure.
With cases of questionable essential oil response, I will check a blood panel and run other indicated lab tests, but often ﬁnd them to be normal or similar to pre-oil laboratory data. I do feel it is important that we as veterinarians begin to collect pre-, during, and post-essential oil use data in the form of laboratory tests for our patients. As I routinely do this, it has increased thousands-fold my understanding and comfort levels in the use of essential oils with medical cases.
1Paiva LA, et al. “Gastroprotective eff ect of Copaifera langsdorffi i oleo-resin on experimental gastric ulcer models in rats”. J Ethnopharmacol, 1998 Aug; 62 (1): 73-8.
2Tognolini M, et al. “Protective eff ect of Foeniculum vulgare essential oil and anethole in an experimental model of thrombosis”. Pharmacol Res. 2007 Sep; 56 (3): 254-60, Epub 2007 Jul 14.
3Bowles, E. Joy. The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils. Third Edition. NSW Australia. Allen & Unwin, 2003.
4Satou T, et al. “Daily inhalation of α-pinene in mice: eff ects on behavior and organ accumulation”. Phytother Res. 2014 Sep; 28 (9): 1284-7.
5Bischoff K and Guale F. “Australian Tea Tree (Melaleuca Alternifolia) Oil Poisoning in Three Purebred Cats”. J VET Diagn Invest, 1998 10: 208-210.
6Williams, David G. “The Chemistry of Essential Oils; An Introduction for Aromatherapists”, Beauticians, Retailers and Students, Second Edition, New York, Micelle Press, 2008.
7Herman A, Herman AP. “Essential oils and their constituents as skin penetration enhancer for transdermal drug delivery: a review”. J Pharm Pharmacol, 2015 Apr; 67 (4): 473-485.
8Zomorodian, et al. “Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oil of Nepeta Cataria L. Against Common Causes of Oral Infections”. Journal of Dentistry, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, July 2013; Vol. 10, No. 4: 329-337.
Dr. Melissa Shelton earned her veterinary degree from the University of Minnesota in 1999, and has owned Crow River Animal Hospital in Minnesota since 2001. Essential oils became a passion for her in 2008, and she began using medical aromatherapy with patients. Through continued use, research, and documentation, Dr. Shelton is dedicated to providing accurate information regarding oil use in the animal kingdom. In March 2011, she dedicated her practice solely to the advancement of veterinary aromatherapy, and in February 2014 she introduced animalEO, a line of veterinary essential oil products for animals. She has taught internationally, and has written multiple books on the use of essential oils in animals. animalEO.info or oilyvet.com