When treating young animals, essential oils can be a safe and effective alternative to medications used in everyday practice for older animals.
Many medications used in everyday practice are often designed for older animals, making dosing difficult in younger animals, and increasing the risk of stronger side effects. This is why alternative treatment options, such as essential oils, are so important. When used properly, essential oils can be safe and effective for young animals.
As veterinarians, we see our fair share of difficult cases, from disgruntled clients to hard-to-handle pets. It can make diagnosis and treatment challenging, to say the least. It is no secret that puppies and kittens also sometimes fall into this “difficult to treat” category.
What are essential oils?
In scientific terms, essential oils are concentrated lipophilic extracts of aromatic terpenoid constituents.1 In more general terms, essential oils are highly concentrated liquids distilled from certain parts of plants. The distillation process can include the leaves, bark, roots, and flowers of particular plants, and in some cases, the rinds of fruit for production of citrus oils.2
Not all plants, or parts of a plant, will produce essential oils. Scientists have estimated that there are about 400,000 plant species on the planet. Of these, there are 3,000 known essential oils, and only 300 that are commercially available.3 Even then it is important to remember that not all these oils can be used safely with animals, especially in the developing systems of our youngest patients. The keys to safe and successful outcomes include knowledge, oil purity, and proper dilution techniques.
Essential oil safety in young animals
With essential oils, a little can go a long way. They are so concentrated that one to two drops are often all that is needed to achieve a therapeutic response in some animals. That is why using proper dilution techniques are so important. This is especially true when using oils with our younger animals.
Dilution is such an important aspect of safe essential oil use that entire book chapters are devoted to understanding the proper technique.4 Numerous ratios and calculations can go into properly diluting an essential oil. However, one of the most important aspects is to always be aware of the species of animal to be treated. Certain animals may be more sensitive to particular oils, while others may need a higher or lower concentration to achieve therapeutic effects.4
One technique often utilized in human aromatherapy for treating pediatric patients is to begin with diffusing the essential oil.5,6 This allows for more precise control to prevent overexposure. This same technique could also be used in veterinary medicine with our younger animals. It is important to remember, however, that a dog’s sense of smell can be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than a human’s.7 Another safety tip when using diffusers is to always allow for an escape route for the animal so they may come and go as needed to prevent overexposure. Given that our patients have such a heightened sense of smell, always use the smallest amount of oil needed in the diffuser to achieve the desired effect.
Young animals, like children, are often curious about the world around them. They are often into everything as they are growing and learning. Storing essential oils properly can prevent accidental overdosing which could lead to devastating outcomes. Make sure essential oils are securely stored out of reach of both pets and children.8 For more info on safe essential oil use, see sidebar below.
How essential oils can be used in young animals
1. Desensitizing phobias and reducing stress in situations that produce anxiety
Anxiety plagues both humans and animals, and if severe enough can predispose a young animal to a lifetime of phobias and behavior issues. While medications can be used for treating anxiety, these are not without potential side effects. This is why aromatherapy is gaining favor and is being studied for its ability to safely reduce anxiety.
When using aromatherapy for anxiety, imprinting is an important concept to consider. Imprinting is the process of using an aroma to “lock in” a memory. These can be pleasant experiences or negative ones. With our younger patients, we certainly want to create a calm and pleasant environment to help reduce stress and set up future positive visits.
While lavender is one of the most researched essential oils used to alleviate anxiety, others such as vetiver and cedarwood can also produce calming effects. Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides) contains upwards of 100 sesquiterpene-type compounds and their derivatives, which are thought to produce the calming effects noted from this oil. It is considered to be psychologically grounding, calming, and stabilizing and is a great choice for calming and balancing a pet.9 Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) has been shown to stimulate the limbic region of the brain along with the pineal gland, which in turn releases melatonin, an antioxidant hormone associated with easing restlessness and producing deep sleep.10
Essential oils are showing positive effects in human neonatal units as well. In one hospital, they are being used as a non-pharmaceutical therapy to treat babies experiencing stress and medical complications related to withdrawal from drug exposure in the womb, or neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).11 The results are very promising. While more scientific studies must be conducted, veterinarians can extrapolate these results for the positive benefits of using essential oils in young animals.
2. Alleviating stress-related digestive issues
When a pet enters a new household, no matter how loving and wonderful that environment may be, the change can produce a form of stress leading to dietary upsets that can manifest as inappetence, vomiting, or loose stools. In young animals whose digestive systems and immune systems are still developing, it is advisable to avoid medications when possible. This is where essential oils can help. Fennel, tarragon, ginger, anise, and peppermint essential oils are excellent choices that can help create anti-inflammatory responses as well as increase circulation, reduce nausea, and strengthen the digestive system.
Most digestive blends have been reported to be administered orally in all species of animal with no reported ill effects when using pure oils and proper oral administration techniques.12 However, topical administration with pure quality, properly diluted oils can also achieve the desired results.
In farm animals, studies are being conducted to evaluate the use of essential oils in neonatal animals to help reduce diarrhea, improve oxidation of the tissues, and improve growth rates.13,14 One such study focused on reducing neonatal diarrhea in calves. The calves in the study were given oregano essential oil for the first ten days of their lives. The results demonstrated that the oregano oil effectively diminished the severity of naturally-acquired diarrhea under field conditions and, under certain hygiene practices, possessed a preventive effect against neonatal diarrhea syndrome.14
3. Enhancing wound healing
Young animals are often curious about their environment. Sometimes this exuberant curiosity can get them into trouble. From abscesses to punctures, and everything in between, essential oils alone or in combination with other treatment modalities may help mend some of these wounds.
Lavender, frankincense, copaiba, and helichrysum are excellent choices for wounds. They are known to be anti-inflammatory, help slow or stop bleeding, prevent bruising, and improve wound healing. In one study, topically-applied lavender (Lavendula angustufolia) promoted collagen synthesis and differentiation of fibroblasts, accompanied by up-regulation of TGF-β. The researchers concluded that lavender oil has the potential to promote wound healing in the early phase by accelerating the formation of granulation tissue, tissue remodeling by collagen replacement, and wound contraction through up-regulation of TGF-β(15).
Versatility for younger animals
In this article, we have touched on a few of the areas where essential oils can be used with our younger animal patients. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. Essential oils are very versatile and can fit into many treatment protocols. Veterinarians and pet owners should work together to find areas in which to safely and effectively incorporate essential oils to benefit their patients, including the young ones.
1 Malcolm BJ, Tallian KT. Essential oil of lavender in anxiety disorders: ready for prime time? Ment Health Clin [Internet] 2017;7(4):147-55. doi: 10.9740/ mhc.2017.07.147e.
2 Young, DG. Essential oils: the missing link in modern medicine. In Essential oils: integrative medical guide. Lehi: Life Science Publishing; 2003:1-16.
3 Dasgupta, S. How Many plant species are there in the world? Scientists now have an answer. May 12, 2016. Mongabay. Available at: www.news.mongabay.com/2016/05/many-plants-world-scientists-may-now-answer/. Accessed July 15, 2021.
4 Shelton M. Essential oil dilution rates. In The animal desk reference: essential oils for animals. 2nd ed. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2018:117-126.
5 Conlon PM, Haack KM, Rodgers NJ, et al. Introducing essential oils into pediatric and other practices at an academic medical center. J Holist Nurs. 2017 Dec;35(4):389-396. doi: 10.1177/0898010116677400. Epub 2016 Nov 11. PMID: 27837082.
6 Worwood VA. Chapter 9: The gentle touch for babies and children. In The complete book of essential oils and aromatherapy. Novato, California:New World Library; 1991:167-197.
7 Tyson P. Dogs’ dazzling sense of smell. Oct 3 2012. NOVA. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/dogs-sense-of-smell/. Accessed July 24, 2021.
8 Tisserand R, Young R. Toxicity. In Essential oil safety: a guide for health care professionals. 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2014: 23-28.
9 Kaufmann C. Vetiver. In Roots and rhizomes. In Nature’s essential oils: aromatic alchemy for well-being. New York: The Countryman Press; 2018:210.
10 Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica). In Essential oils animal desk reference. Lehi: Life Science Publishing; 2017:43.
11 Adams E. Pediatric experts find aromatherapy effective for promoting infant healing, NAS recovery. May 15, 2017. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-05-pediatric-experts-aromatherapy-effective-infant.html. Accessed July 27, 2021.
12 Shelton M. Essential oil blends. In The animal desk reference: essential oils for animals. 2nd ed. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2018: 339.
13 Forte C, Ranucci D, Beghelli D, Branciari R, Acuti G, Todini L, Cavallucci C, Trabalza-Marinucci M. Dietary integration with oregano (Origanum vulgare L.) essential oil improves growth rate and oxidative status in outdoor-reared, but not indoor-reared, pigs. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2017 Oct;101(5):e352-e361. doi: 10.1111/jpn.12612. Epub 2017 Jan 9. PMID: 28067421.
14 Panagiotis D. Katsoulosa Maria A. Karatziaa. Chrysostomos I. Dovis, Et al. Evaluation of the in-field efficacy of oregano essential oil administration on the control of neonatal diarrhea syndrome in calves. Research in Veterinary Science. Volume 115, December 2017, Pages 478-483.
15 Mori HM, Kawanami H, Kawahata H, Aoki M. Wound healing potential of lavender oil by acceleration of granulation and wound contraction through induction of TGF-β in a rat model. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016 May 26;16:144. doi: 10.1186/s12906-016-1128-7. PMID: 27229681; PMCID: PMC4880962.