Essential Oils and Pets
Essential oils, which are the aromatic compounds extracted from plants, are experiencing a wave of hype in not only human medicine but also, more recently, in veterinary medicine. While essential oils serve as great adjunct therapies for many acute and chronic diseases in pets, they are not a substitute for proper veterinary care and continue to be a controversial treatment option in veterinary medicine. Essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and some are toxic to pets, causing unnecessary harm.
What Are Essential Oils?
Different types of oils are extracted from different parts of the plant. Essential oils can be found in seeds, leaves, flowers, bark and resin, such as anise, basil, roses, cinnamon bark and frankincense. The majority of oils are extracted using a process called steam distillation. Modern-day essential oils that are extracted from steam distillation tend to be more concentrated than their ancient oil counterparts. There are a few oils that come from plants with a much higher essential oil content, requiring an additional process called cold pressing to extract the oils. Examples of cold-pressed plants include olives and citrus. Essential oils are commonly used in diffusors for aromatherapy, topically and sometimes orally.
Benefits of Essential Oils
When using essential oils, the goal is to effectively and safely help prevent disease. Benefits largely depend on the disease process being treated. If a pet has a cough due to an acute upper respiratory infection, an essential oil such as Perilla can help resolve the problem. However, if the cough is due to a chronic or terminal illness such as heart failure or cancer, Perilla will only treat the symptoms but not the underlying disease.
Harmful Side Effects of Essential Oils
While oils can have many benefits, they also have severe side effects and can cause harm. Compared to people, pets are more sensitive to the compounds found in essential oils, specifically phenols and terpenes. Pets have very sensitive noses and can smell the fragrance of an oil more acutely than humans, sometimes developing a preference for one oil over another. Applying undilute oils to pets’ skin or giving it orally without appropriate dilution and dose can lead to very harmful effects in pets. There are many websites that list essential oils that are harmful to pets.
Myths and/or Misconceptions
The biggest myth regarding essential oils is that they are non-toxic. Essential oils are obtained from plants as very concentrated oils, which makes them more toxic than the natural plants they came from. Just as there are natural plants that are toxic to pets, such as lilies, castor beans and hemlock, so also are there toxic oils. Another myth regarding oils is they are an appropriate and equal substitute for western veterinary medicine. There are many great western medications that are more effective than using essential oils, such as flea and heartworm preventatives. While essential oils cannot replace modern western medicine, they have provided some great adjunct therapies for many acute and chronic diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and heart disease.
Specific Conditions Improved by Essential Oils
There is a wide variety of natural therapies available, so essentially every disease has some form of essential oil, herbal or food therapy, acupuncture or homeopathic treatment. One of the biggest misuses of essential oils, herbal and food medicine is attempting to treat the symptoms of a disease without a proper diagnosis. Unfortunately, medicine, specifically veterinary medicine, is extremely complex, and clinical signs can be misleading. It is important to have a veterinarian evaluate each pet and their disease process in order to determine which type of therapy is beneficial. Once the disease is diagnosed, appropriate therapies, including essential oils, can be used in order to treat or manage the disease. These natural therapies will either resolve the problem or help manage the disease, allowing the pet to feel comfortable. That is the beauty of veterinary medicine—the ability to integrate our knowledge to help identify the root cause of the problem, where it originated and how to most effectively treat it.
Essential Oils Unique to Texas
While it would be nice to have unique oils that specifically prevent heartworm disease, flea and tick diseases, herbal medicine does not provide the best in preventative measures against these common parasites in Texas. Thankfully, western medicine has very good preventatives for these pests. When one examines the high numbers of pets who are infected with these diseases, it is in their best interest to use western medicine’s FDA-approved effective preventatives.
Are Essential Oils Regulated by the FDA?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate essential oils. However, the FDA can overrule any statement on essential oils that makes the claim the oil can cure a disease because only with FDA approval can an essential oil earn this claim. The FDA provides a reliable website for what owners should know about essential oils and other herbal remedies: https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx. Manufacturers of oils can put whatever they want on the label. Thus, there is no recall process for oils that are dangerously or poorly made. If one wants to know the reliability of the content in any herbal supplement, Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) works with the FDA to provide reliable information that meets the standard for supplements.
1. T. Grand, DVM, (personal) communication, October 17, 2018 through January 10, 2019.
2. Hess, Mary. (2011). Essential Oils and their Pets: Using Young Living Essential Oils to Enhance the Healthy and Wellness of the Animals You Love [Brochure]. Abundant Life Publishing, Kernersville, North Carolina.
3. M. Hess, DVM, (personal) communication, June 14 through July 9, 2018
Merry Kroeger, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in North Richland Hills, Texas. Dr. Kroeger practices at CityVet at the Preston Forest location in Dallas.