Sunday, September 30, 2018

Aromatherapy, essential oils and pets: a safe combination or a recipe for trouble?

When meeting a new family for the first time, it's always important that I gather as much information as I can about each pet. Understanding their habits, preferences, their willingness or lack thereof to be physically handled—that kind of thing—is super-crucial in my having favorable interactions with the pet and providing a superior client experience. 

My questions are not limited to that, though. I take far more into consideration. It's not lost on me that there are many companion animals who may struggle with feeling overloaded with touch, visual and auditory input, not to mention smell. This can exacerbate existing behavior issues or create new problems, which is something we don't want, especially when there's a new caregiver coming into the picture. The senses are powerful, there's no doubt and being mindful of how that can affect what a pet might experience what's happening when I am spending time with them, not to mention how being out of routine because their bonded humans are away can come into play.

For today, I'm going to focus on a pet's sense of smell. It's no secret that a pet's scenting abilities far surpass that of a human's; they can detect things that we can't. My charges frequently give me a thorough sniff test—even if it's been a few weeks since they've seen me—when there's a new pet on the roster. (Yes, they can always tell.) On dog walks, oh the pee mail. Cats can smell their medication a mile away. Do I need to go into detail about food or treats? I need to be extra careful when visiting some cats, as they can be quite sensitive to the scent of other pets, so at times, that means changing clothes before my arrival. 

Pets use their sense of smell very differently than we do, and it's no wonder: human noses have about 6 million olfactory receptors, while dogs, for example, have up to 300 million. Many species of our companion animals also possess a Jacobson's organ, an auxiliary olfactory organ—one that we are also reported to have, despite it's overall functionality in humans debated amongst researchers—also referred to as a vomeronasal organ. One of its purposes is to detect pheromones from other animals in their own species. 

So, knowing their complexity, it seems like we humans should be more mindful of taking care with our pet's super-powerful noses.

These days, most of us are more aware of our fellow human's sensitivities to smell. Perfume, cologne, air fresheners and laundry products are common off-putting culprits, setting off headaches, nausea and all kinds of other unhappiness. (After a bout of the stomach flu years ago, I'd become quite sensitive to smells of all kinds, even some foods, something that's never gone away.) 

This can be in opposition with something that has become quite popular in the mainstream: essential oils and aromatherapy. I've used them at home for years with great success—though admittedly I'm not fond of every one of them. In my professional end-of-life doula training, the power of using essential oils is a topic that we've talked extensively about and that some practitioners employ essential oils in their work. I recall in class, one of the instructors fired up an essential oil diffuser to demonstrate one way to use them. At least a couple of fellow classmates raised objections as the smell was just too much, even within the large space that we were inhabiting. It was a very telling moment of this can be a powerful tool, but not always in the way that we intend. It really made me think about how those that I'd be interacting with in that stage of life, whether they are human or animal, might be more sensitive to scents in general. And in terms of using essential oils and aromatherapy, that needed much more deliberation. 

As an animal care professional—especially one who specializes in the tending of pets who are medically-fragile or in end-of-life—I discovered pretty quickly how much smells can affect those I'm interacting with. Many of the pets in groups I mentioned earlier cope with nausea, sleep disturbances, cognitive dysfunction and anxiety. I also interact with a lot of pets with behavioral struggles. Given that our companion animal's sense of smell is so powerful, it's not surprising that any scent that they find disquieting exacerbates any of that. 

Recently, there have been studies released touting the benefits of employing aromatherapy to promote calm and a sense of well-being in pets, especially in a shelter setting. Articles on it were shared enthusiastically, and it's no wonder: we love quick fixes, especially if that means not involving a veterinarian or as many quietly exclaim, Big Pharma, or hiring the services of a reputable, certified canine training professional. 

While I found this research encouraging, as always I proceed with a generous helping of caution and sometimes with a grain of salt; my experience is that nothing is one-size-fits-all, essential oils and aromatherapy included. A pet's autonomy should always be the first consideration, along with my golden rules of whenever in doubt, don't and naturally-based doesn't always mean safe or appropriate. This is especially important in multiple pet or multiple species households, primarily those with birds, as their respiratory tracts are quite delicate. 

Interested in using essential oils and aromatherapy to address your pet's well-being? It very well might be a workable tool, so long as the oil that you're using is not inherently toxic to them (as some are, click here for more on that), and said pet finds the smell pleasing or at least tolerable. So how do we know if the latter is the case? That can be tricky for two reasons: our willingness to believe that the oil that we're using will produce the results we want overrides what they are presenting, not to mention that our pet's behavior can be tougher to read when they're not at their best. Consider using oils appropriately (there are proper and improper methods) when a pet is having a good day as a control to gauge any signs of displeasure. It seems important to point out that despite the findings on essential oils providing a physiological or psychological benefit, if the pet finds the smell objectionable, it seems to hardly make sense to force it on them. 

As for the safety of using essential oils, it's complicated, as it's all dependent on the species, age, overall health, organ function and existing health issues. My best advice would be to consult a veterinary doctor—a holistic veterinarian would likely have more experience in this area—to discuss which essential oils would be safe, appropriate and beneficial. They might even be able to guide you on where to procure them. Remember my mantra: naturally-based doesn't always mean safe or appropriate.

On a final note, remember that autonomy is crucial when considering the use of essential oils or aromatherapy for your pet since their sense of smell is so sensitive. So bear in mind that they need to have the option of moving to another area of the house if they are not able to tolerate being exposed to them. 

Lorrie Shaw, CPPS, CPLGC is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

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