Did you know that dogs have 40 times more scent receptors than humans? This allows them to identify smells up to 100,000 times better than us. With their remarkable olfactory memory, and because their world revolves around scent, aromatherapy is ideal for use with dogs.
The use of aromatherapy with dogs is time-tested. Scientific studies in Germany and France regarding the medical effects of essential oils on animals and humans were quite advanced by the mid-1800s. Due to positive clinical results, the practice of veterinary aromatherapy was not uncommon in these countries by the mid-1900s. In the 21st century, the practice has continued with products like Earth Hearts Canine Calm and Travel Calm aromatherapy becoming household favorites.
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy, as its name suggests, is a form of therapy that involves using scents for healing purposes. Aromatherapy, also known as essential oil therapy, is the skilled and controlled use of essential oils to restore or maintain health and well-being.
Aromatherapy is a holistic approach that treats the entire body instead of just specific symptoms. Imbalances affecting physical, mental, emotional, and energy levels can result if the body is not in harmony. Aromatherapy makes use of essential oils that interact with a being's sense of smell and nervous system to help restore balance.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are volatile, aromatic liquids derived from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, or roots of certain plants. These oils are obtained by distillation, expression, and CO2 or solvent extraction. When diffused into the air or applied to the skin in a massage blend, these beneficial substances interact with olfactory senses and body systems to have positive effects.
Essential Oils vs. Fragrance Oils
Fragrance oils are artificially created and do not possess any therapeutic properties. Unlike essential oils, fragrance oils only stimulate the senses and do not contain therapeutic molecules. Additionally, some of these synthetic components can be toxic when inhaled or applied to the skin.
Therefore, it is important to use therapeutic-grade essential oils with animals and never substitute them with fragrance oils. Essential oil therapy has a history of producing positive results in dogs, so be sure to use only certified aromatherapy products when working with your furry friend.
How does aromatherapy work?
Scent has been called “memoristic” because the olfactory bulb links to the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion, memory and learning. Scent molecules enter the bloodstream through the lungs (inhalation) or skin (topical application). In addition to the memoristic connection, there is a physiological response - lavender is chemically sedating and has an effect on the central nervous system.
Is aromatherapy safe for dogs?
Safety starts with diluting. Pure essential oils are highly concentrated; it takes 200 pounds of lavender flowers to yield 1 pound of lavender essential oil. Some companies advocate using undiluted essential oils on the skin, and this just isn’t safe. It’s also not necessary when 1% (or less) of an essential oil single or blend is generally effective for dogs.
To avoid overwhelming your dog's sense of smell, irritating their skin or mucous membranes, or causing sensitization, it is recommended to dilute essential oil remedies. Dilution also helps prevent overharvesting of precious plant resources.
When aromatherapy is used responsibly, it can be a simple natural solution to help create a calm environment, provide stress relief, soothe itchy or irritated skin, quiet digestive upsets, repel insects and heal infections.
While these products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, but can alleviate a wide range of symptoms, support the human-animal bond, facilitate behavior modification and improve overall health.
Are essential oils safe for my cats?
Short answer: NO. Cats are more sensitive to essential oils than dogs and can suffer more serious adverse effects if exposed. Cats lack an enzyme in their liver that helps break down aromatic compounds, making them susceptible to toxicity.
Cats also groom themselves frequently, and even essential oils that have been used in the air can get on their fur and be ingested during grooming. It is important to vigilantly keep cats away from aromatherapy products while they’re being used around dogs or humans.
That being said, when used responsibly, aromatherapy is truly a great tool for pet parents. You can still use it in a multi-species household if you are very conscientious about it. It’s important to remember that cats may be adversely affected by the oils, so take extra caution when using these products in homes where cats are present.
Even though most essential oils are safe for dogs, there are still some important practices to follow when using them:
- Keep lids closed tightly on all essential oil spray bottles and containers
- Keep them safe and out of reach (away from curious kitties and exploring toddlers), either locked away or in an adult-human-only accessible area
- If using a spray on your dog's bed, make sure it is not a "community" bed where the cats might curl up
- Best not to use any heat-producing tools to dispense the oils
- Only use oil diffusers in a well-ventilated (cat-free!) area
- Do not use essential oils with birds, fish, reptiles, or small mammal and rodent habitats
- NEVER spray, roll, or diffuse directly into the dog’s face, yes, ears, nose, or mouth
- Thoroughly clean surfaces (and your hands) after using essential oils for your dog
How to Use Essential Oils Products with Dogs
Most essential oils aromatherapy products come in topical sprays, roll-ons, diffuser oil, or as part of a gel that gradually releases the scent over time. As mentioned in the safety section, essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin or fur, and should not be ingested or added to food or water.
Effective ways to use essential oils topical sprays and roll-ons:
- Apply spray or roll-on to your fingertips and gently massage the dog’s ear flaps or chest
- Lightly mist bedding and your clothing or apply the roll-on to your wrist
- Use with other comforts like calming music, treats, anxiety wraps, and crating
- Do NOT simply pour a diffuser-strength essential oil blend into a spray bottle or roll-on tube -- use only blends made specifically for a direct application
Best Practice for Diffusing Essential Oils for Dogs
- Follow the diffuser manufacturer's directions
- Keep the diffuser well out of reach of pets to avoid burns
- Use in well-ventilated areas for up to 2 hours
- Take at least a 1-hour to 2-hour break after diffusing for longer periods.
- Use ONLY pure essential oils formulated specifically for pets (and do not use oils that contain fragrance oils)
- NEVER apply the oils directly to a pet's fur or skin
Sprays and roll-on options are the safest, and easiest to control. If you're gonna whip out your handy diffuser, make sure you follow the "safe practices" we've outlined below.
Which essential oils can calm dogs?
While there are many calming essential oils, these are a few of my favorites:
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) can help balance emotions by soothing panic, snappiness, depression, frustration and irritability.
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is probably the most well-known essential oil for stress, fear, agitation, shyness and shock.
- Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is relaxing and grounding. It helps soothe muscle and digestive cramps, palpitations, excess sexual energy and grief.
- Rose Damask (Rosa damascena) is calming and stabilizing. It can help heal past abuse, nervousness, anger, fear and panic.
- Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) has a sedative action. It can soothe nervousness and insecurity, and it has been studied to help with nervous bladder issues.
- Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) promotes a calm state of mind and slows breathing during times of stress and fear.
- Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) is grounding and calming. It can heal deep wounds, whether physical or emotional in nature, and is very helpful with PTSD.
- Geranium Rose (Pelargonium graveolens) is calming and balancing with moodiness and fear or insecurity.
What can I use aromatherapy for with my dog?
Aromatherapy is a helpful solution for various health concerns in dogs, such as separation anxiety, fear, insomnia, hyperactivity, digestive problems, itchy skin, reproductive issues, and aging problems. It is a gentle, drug-free approach that can alleviate stress, anxiety, pain, and other issues while promoting your dog's health and well-being.
Aromatherapy for Dog Anxiety
The blend is responsibly formulated with 100% pure essential oils that have been clinically tested to help promote relaxation and reduce agitation, improve mood and calm fears. The topical sprays and roll-ons are diluted according to safety standards mentioned above for use with dogs over 10 weeks old. Because you control the amount and frequency of use, this allows the least amount for the desired result.
There are several other aromatherapy products out there to help alleviate anxiety (see our note below about why we recommend one company more often than others). Another product the PetHub team also loves and recommends is Calm Paws.
Calm Paws products are specially designed to help alleviate anxiety for dogs during post-surgery or injury recovery. These truly innovative products cleverly incorporate essential oils into traditional cone "e-collars," comfy inflatable collars, and recovery vests. Like Earth Heart, Calm Paws adheres to the highest quality standards for sourcing and processing their natural essential oils blends.
Essential Oils for Canine First Aid
Aromatherapy is also great for first-aid situations and has many general health benefits. Many essential oils are known to have antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help support the healing of wounds, burns, cuts, and bruises. Essential oils can also help ease congestion and breathing issues.
Earth Heart's Guard Well spray, for example, is a must-have in your first-aid kit to help soothe minor skin & respiratory issues and support well-being. Mist directly onto irritated or itchy areas, and reapply as needed. For systemic use (to support wellness), mist your fingertips and gently massage into the dog’s outer ears twice daily as needed.
Aromatherapy for Travel
While many dogs absolutely LUV car trips, for others, it is a nightmare of stress and an upset stomach. Aromatherapy can be very helpful in alleviating car travel stress and nausea.
Earth Heart also offers the Travel Calm spray which helps reduce canine motion sickness symptoms. This blend of essential oils is formulated to help ease an upset stomach and nervousness caused by travel. Just use it before travel to help alleviate restlessness, drooling, panting, whimpering, nausea, or vomiting during your journey.
Another option for treating car sickness is NoMo Nausea Band which combines aromatherapy (with soothing peppermint essential oil) and acupressure. The fast-acting, drug-free band is natural, safe, and easy to use to put a stop to your doggo's upset tummy, nausea, and vomiting while on the road.
What we love about the NoMO Bands are how darned easy they are to simply put on your pup's front leg and be ready to hit the road. That said, some dogs may not tolerate having the band in place, so we strongly suggest doing a short test drive to make sure your pupper doesn't start chewing at the band when it's in place.
Essential Oils for Pest Protection
Do you know who hates essential oils? Biting insects! Several great products on the market help protect your fur kid from mosquitos and other biting bugs by using aromatherapy.
We recommend trying Buzz Guard which repels insects and soothes itchy skin. The formula is made of cedarwood and geranium oils, and it's a water-based spray. To use it, apply it to your dog's outer ears, abdomen, legs, tail, and the back of its head by rolling it onto your hands and massaging it. It's tough on pests but safe to use as often as needed.
A Word (or Two) About Quality Essential Oils for Dogs
It is crucial to understand that not all essential oil blends for dogs are of the same quality. Earth Heart uses only pure essential oils that are obtained from reputable distributors who work directly with ethical plant growers and distillers. Claims such as "therapeutic-grade", "pharmaceutical-grade", or "medical-grade" are marketing strategies because no official regulatory agency grades essential oils. Furthermore, it should be noted that Earth Heart does not use any fragrance oils.
Why PetHub Recommends Earth Heart Essential Oils Products
Our essential oil product recommendations for dogs have been primarily focused on a company called Earth Heart Inc. This is due to our CEO, Lorien, meeting the founder, Vicki Rae Thorne, years ago through the Women in the Pet Industry Network. Lorien was impressed by Vicki's products, which she has used with her own dogs. Additionally, Lorien was impressed by Vicki's integrity, commitment to research and science, responsible sourcing, and passion for helping animals and their owners.
Vicki Rae Thorne is certified in Herbalism, Aromatherapy, Reiki, and Holistic Cannabis. She is also a member of various organizations such as the Alliance of International Aromatherapists, American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, Airmid Institute, and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. Earth Heart advocates for restoring exploited plant habitats and indigenous economies.
Original article content by Vicki Rae Thorne, certified aromatherapist herbalist, and founder of Earth Heart® Inc.. Updated and expanded by the PetHub Team June 2023.