An Introduction to Essential Oils for Dogs

Essential Oil Wellness for Pets

I know there is quite a buzz around essential oils these days but what are they and why have the become so popular? 

Many people are curious about oils but wonder about their safety around their animal family members and others are just downright skeptical. I've had the pleasure of learning from some incredible holistic veterinarians who use essential oils around their own pets and their patients as well, and now I get to share what I've learned with you. 

Why would an animal behaviour therapist be interested in natural wellness practices? Well, I think it’s possible to love applied behaviour analysis, psychology and neuroscience and still use alternative healing methods. So Let's learn a bit about what essential oils are and why I love to use them. 

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are volatile aromatic compounds that are extracted from different plant parts. They are the "things" that give plants their distinctive scents, but more than that, they actually serve a pivotal ecological role in the plant prior to extraction. 

They provide the plant with protection from threats, provide inter-plant signalling (similar to hormones in our body), also there’s evidence that they provide intra-plant signalling to send defence to a damaged part of the plant, and they also play a role in pollination. 

The Benefits of Using Essential Oils

Essential oils should not be confused with perfume, fragrance or other synthetic scents because these products usually contain unsafe, chemical ingredients that can actually be quite harmful to humans and animals. 

Synthetic fragrances can be found in soaps, air-fresheners, cleaning products and other common household products and to minimize toxicity, it is recommended that these be replaced with safe, non-toxic items. 

In addition to their intrinsic benefits to plants, humans and animals can experience the health benefits from the use of essential oils. Being that essential oils have an extraordinarily small molecular size and are lipid soluble, they are easily absorbed through the skin and nasal cavity and easily carried throughout our entire body potentiating incredible health benefits.

Essential oils can be supportive for mood and emotions, the nervous system and brain, the immune system, respiratory & cardiovascular health and even reduce pain and inflammation. I have also replaced all of my home cleaners and personal products with essential oil products and non-toxic soaps. 

Pure essential oils that are are grown in an ideal environment, without chemical pesticides, are carefully extracted through steam distillation or cold pressing and are extensively tested to ensure this purity100% are safe to use for your family and that includes your pets! I only use doTERRA Essential Oils in my home. 

CLICK HERE to watch a video and discover why I chose this brand and how I use them everyday to support my whole family. 

Scent Therapy & Zoophytotherapy

It’s no secret that dogs have an incredible sense of smell that is hundreds of millions times more powerful than humans. Their sense of smell was designed to sniff out many different things to gather information about their environment and the things that are in it.

As you are already familiar, many dogs have jobs sniffing out narcotics, tracking missing people or animals and even detecting illnesses, among many other incredible tasks that use their nose. There are no such thing as curiosity sniffs with dogs; this is their language and it is very important to their well-being. 

In her book, Help Your Dog Heal Itself, Caroline Ingraham indicates that, dogs have between 200-300 million scent receptors and 872 genes that code specific olfactory receptors to help them identify the different scents. She compares this to humans who only have around 5 million scent receptors and about 339 coding genes many of which don’t even work anymore. 

Science is now starting to understand how deeply interconnected the olfactory system is with an individual’s emotional state. Research has established the strong effects that scents can have on emotions, moods, motivation, focus and even physiology even for dogs in a shelter environment. Since dogs have such a complex and powerful sense of smell, when provided with the opportunity to inhale scents, they can and will make a conscious decision to inhale the aromatic compounds. They don't sniff out of curiosity, but because it’s something that they need or could benefit from. 

With an interest in holistic therapies that support animals in the body, mind and spirit, I developed Zoophytotherapy to encapsulate the power of plant healing in a practice that was specifically developed for animals. Zoophytotherapy is a holistic healing practice that uses plants & plant extracts, in a variety of different practices, to promote emotional and physical health and well-being of animals. This natural practice, allows for inhalation of aroma compounds, topical use of beneficial plant extracts as well as the safe ingestion of plants and extracts to support the health and wellness of animals. 

Scent therapy in particular is a powerful strategic tool of Zoophytotherapy for changing the behaviour and emotions in animals without forcing them to change who they are and instead, completing honouring the individual and their very specific needs. This isn’t voodoo medicine or snake oils. There is a considerable amount of research on the benefits of essential oils, scent therapy and scent association for behaviour support programs. Emotional states will influence behaviour response so the goal of behaviour programs really needs to be more about how the dog FEELING and less about what the dog is DOING. 

I love that neuroscience is actually catching on to the science behind the intrinsic functioning of the limbic system and leveraging this as a way to influence emotions and behaviours. At the heart of Zoophytoherapy is this imperative NEED to help balance out the emotions and nervous systems of animals so that they can enjoy life, feel safe and have connection and happiness. The scent therapy practices of Zoophytotherapy are more widely understood as aromatherapy, but the practices are delivered in a way that was designed for animals. 

Your Dog's Nose Knows

A dog’s nose actually splits the airflow into two streams, one is for smelling and the other is for inhalation. Smelling is a great way to influence behaviour and emotions because the scents interact with the receptors in the nose that will transform messages into nerve impulses within the Limbic System of the brain. 

This happens within seconds because these electrical nerve impulses travel faster than the circulatory system so it’s a really fast way to support emotions and behaviour which makes inhalation a faster delivery system than ingesting something such as CBD or herbs, for a calming effect.  

Inhalation differs from smelling and is recognized by deep breathing and nostril flaring. Have you ever heard your dog make a helicopter noise with their nose? These deep breaths will bring the aroma compounds into the lungs and then the bloodstream via the lungs. When inhaled the scent molecules are immediately transported from the lungs to the heart and then pumped out to the entire body via the bloodstream. Through this passage, essential oils can quickly reach lipid rich tissues like the brain and nervous system to stimulate, sedate or even repair by binding with cell membranes. 

Scent Association Practices 

Ok so now that you know what Scent Therapy Practices are, let’s talk about scent association. 

Scent association refers to using the same aroma repeatedly while doing specific tasks or activities as a way to train the brain to associate a certain scent to a certain behaviour or mental state. For example, if an aroma with calming notes is used during a calming practice or green zone activity regularly, and then the scent is isolated away from any other use, the brain will be able to reach the same mental state of relaxation as it has been trained through this association. 

It's import to understand that you likely won’t achieve this powerful association with lavender if you diffuse it every single day, away from the calming practices. Another important thing to understand is that you won’t create the desired emotional state this if you only diffuse certain oils during a thunderstorm or similar stressful event because that is not a positive experience. To create the pleasant emotional association to a particular scent, you must pair it with an activity that creates the emotional state you'd like to influence. 

In other words, you would only use it during your calming practice to create the pairing of that calming practice and the scent. It's also very important to discover which scents your dog actually enjoys. Allowing your dog to choose the scents they like is a key to scent association. You might love lavender but maybe your dog doesn't. Self-selection is done carefully with diluted oils or oils presented far away from the dog. Watch for signals such as liking or chewing, deep inhalations or other signs that they want more of it. Do not present an oil right under your dog's nose but instead allow them to investigate it on their own. 

Once you know which oils your dog loves, repeat the pairing practice daily with the scent present each time your dog is doing a calming activity, to create the strong association between the scent and that activity. Once the association has been created you can then start to use that scent when your dog is dysregulated to bring them back into a regulated state. How useful would this be for an anxious, reactive, fearful or excitable dog?

My favourite ways to deliver the scents to provide calming, soothing, focus or motivational support is through diffusion, misting, spritzing or even wearing the oils on myself so I can be the diffuser for my dog. Some of my favourite calming aromas for scent pairing are lavender, wild orange, copaiba, cedarwood, siberian fir, balance, peace or anchor. These oils have been shown to help reduce anxiety, promote a calm mental state and reduce tension. 

Here’s a few ways to incorporate scent therapy practices into your daily routine: 

  • Passive diffusion practices include Misting a bandana, collar or charm, beds or blankets or even wearing oils on yourself,
  • Hydro Diffusion is the use of a water-based diffuser to create a mist that is sent out into the air. 
  • Let your dog choose the oils. You only need 2-4 drops of 100% pure, unadulterated oils...don’t use cheap oils around your dogs. Ever. 

Always watch your dog to make sure they are enjoying the scent and if you observe any signs of sensitivity, the diffuser should be turned off or the practice should be ended. 

I'm often asked which essential oils to avoid using around animals because there are a lot of sites that say essential oils are harmful. The first thing to consider is that the majority of essential oils on the market are not pure, are often synthetic, or they come from a broker so the source and composition are unknown and they usually aren't fully tested to ensure purity. Not only are these oils harmful for animals, but I wouldn't use them around my human family members either. I'll cover some safety and usage tips in a future post. 

I only use doTERRA essential oils in my home because they have industry leading safety and purity testing and are one of the few truly pure essential oil brands on the market. Also, most of the doTERRA oils and blends are safe around your animals. If you would like to get some scents into your home to learn about Zoophytotherapy, I recommend a collection that includes some of my favourites. Shop Oil Kits Now! 

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