Aromatherapy for Pet Grooming and Flea Control
“I have 2 cats and 1 dog and would like to incorporate the use of essential oils into their grooming. What is the best way to do that? What oils would you recommend? Also, what would be the best oils to use on them during the flea/tick season? Thank You, Melanie”
There is much to know about the safe and effective use of essential oils for pet grooming and flea and tick control. Being an aromatherapist with pets of my own, I have acquired some knowledge; however, your question presents an opportunity to find out more. Let’s learn together!
We are reminded that essential oils are concentrated, volatile, aromatic plant essences extracted from flowers, seeds, leaves, needles, twigs, berries, bark, wood, resins, roots or rhizomes and fruit or fruit rind. Whether inhaled or applied to the skin, each essential oil has a unique combination of constituents that relate to and interact with the body’s systems. The impact is pharmacological, psychological and/or physiological. [The School of Complementary Therapies does not endorse the ingestion of essential oils nor the undiluted application of essential oils on the skin.]
When the aromatic molecules of an essential oil are inhaled, they enter the body’s system through the nose or nasal cavity and travel to the brain’s limbic system, a region of the brain that influences basic survival functions. This triggers key hormone-secreting glands that affect the entire body. Trace essential oil molecules may enter the bloodstream through the nasal mucosa and via the respiratory system where the molecules make their way to organs and tissues for processing. After metabolization the secondary metabolites are excreted through the kidneys, lungs and skin.
If applied to the surface of the skin an essential oil is absorbed and processed and, in some cases, fully metabolized by way of the body’s complex dermal system. Molecules that pass through the skin’s surface are carried into the blood stream via the dermis’ large network of capillaries. Once in the bloodstream, the molecules travel to the liver and other organs and tissues for further processing. The secondary metabolites are excreted through the kidneys, lungs and skin. It is important to note here that essential oils are more readily absorbed through hair follicles and sweat glands than that of the stratum corneum or surface of the skin. This is a key factor when considering the use of essential oils on our furry pets.
While complementary therapies for the health and well-being of animals is quickly gaining interest and popularity, the field of aromatherapy for animals is relatively young in North America. A simple Google search yields limited and sometimes questionable or contrary advice. The trick is to review as much credible information as possible to identify common threads and trends, determine what information resonates with you and applies to your pet’s situation, and then proceed with and caution. In addition to the web-based sources identified at the end of this article you will find valuable information in a resource book authored by master aromatherapist Kristen Leigh Bell, Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals – A Comprehensive Guide to Using Essential Oils and Hydrosols with Dogs, Cats, Horses and Other Animals (2002).
Always use quality essential oils with your pets and similar to using essential oils with children, the seriously ill and the elderly – less is best. When in doubt do not use it at all! In fact, Caroline Ingraham from Ingraham Academy of Zoopharmacognosy in Bristol, United Kingdom, believes that we can turn to our pets for guidance as they will use their own innate responses to determine what they need, how much to take and when to stop. [i] More on this later!
Generally speaking, the essential oils and blends we use for ourselves are not always safe for our pets. Animals metabolize aromatic substances differently than humans. In particular, there are strong precautions with regard to our feline pets and essential oils. Cat’s do not have the physiology required to adequately metabolize most essential oils. They lack specific enzymes necessary for their liver to break-down most essential oil components. Whether using essential oils on yourself, around the house or in a diffusor, a cat’s exposure over a period of time can result in liver disease. [ii]
According to Green Paws’ guide Health Hazards from Flea and Tick Products, the following essential oils are very toxic to cats; all citrus oils, Bay (Laurel), Cinnamon, Citronella, Clove, Eucalyptus (species not indicated), Geranium, Lavender, Pennyroyal, Rue and Tea Tree. Essential oils that are considered safer for use include; Cedarwood, Lemongrass and Peppermint. [iii] Do not use undiluted essential oils on or around cats!
Sources suggest that some hydrosols or hydrolates are fine. I would err on the side of caution as it is difficult to know all the constituents present in a hydrosol. [iv] That being said, I have used Lavender, Rose and Sweetgrass hydrosols to clean and freshen my pets’ grooming tools. (Please note that the botanical names for all listed essential oils and hydrosols are found at the end of this article.)
Applying Caroline Ingraham’s principle, I tested my cats with the three ‘safe’ essential oils. Each essential oil bottle, with its top still on, was presented approximately 8 inches (20 cm) away from their discerning noses. Following a brief display of kitten-like curiousity, I observed an immediate distaste toward the peppermint essential oil and expressed interest in both the Cedarwood and Lemongrass. Happily, Lemongrass is one of my favourite essential oils for cleaning and creating a general lift to the air.
Never offer undiluted essential oils to your dog! Essential Animals reports that dogs have 200 million scent receptors in their nasal folds, whereas we have 5 million. [v] Ms. Ingraham stresses the importance of assessing a pet’s response to an essential oil (or hydrosol) before using it and cautions to never force an essential oil if it shows no interest! A slight flare of the nostrils signals interest whereas no flare or turning away is a definite rejection. When working with your dog to determine which essential oil or oils it wants (no more than 3), hold the tightly capped essential oil bottle firmly in your hand and present the cap approximately 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) away from its nose. Hold on firmly as dogs have been known to lick the bottle or try to eat it!
I recently met a woman who loves the aroma of Lavender, so much so that she spritzes her dog with Lavender hydrosol once or twice a day. She confided that her dog doesn’t really like it so she chases it in order to spritz it! Hmmm…
Green Paws suggests that the following essential oils are ‘safe’ for use on and around dogs; Bergamot, Carrot seed, Cedarwood, Chamomile (German and Roman), Clary sage, Eucalyptus (radiata and smithii), Geranium, Ginger, Helichrysum, Lavender, Lemongrass, Sweet Marjoram, Niaouli, Peppermint, Sweet Orange and Valerian. [iii] No matter which essential oil is being used it must be diluted! A general rule of thumb for the topical application of essential oils on dogs is a 1% solution or 1 drop of essential oil per teaspoon or 5 ml of carrier oil. It is not recommended that essential oils be topically applied to cats.
So where does this leave us with regard to using essential oils for your pets’ grooming and pest control? It would appear that grooming and pest control options for your cats are limited, at least from an essential oil use point of view. If your dog plays with or spends time in the same living environment as your cats this will influence the selection of essential oils. Providing a naturally clean environment, ensuring good nutrition, regular exercise and daily combing or brushing are the basic tenets for keeping your dog an cats healthy and flea and tick free.
Killing the adult fleas alone does not rid nor protect your pets or their living environment from further infestation. Did you know that an adult female flea will lay 20 to 30 eggs at a time? The larva feeds on hair, debris and vegetation, then spins a cocoon. Their life cycle can last between one week to a full year AND fleas spend 80% of their lives off of their host. You can understand why it is important to treat a pet’s living environment. I discovered that borax is a naturally occurring mineral effectively kills fleas. [vi] See my March 2010 article Aromatherapy and the Naturally Clean, Healthy Home for pet friendly ideas and incorporate this new knowledge when selecting the essential oils.
Bathing your dog with a mild shampoo that lathers will drown adult fleas. Leave the lather in place for 5 minutes and rinse those nasty beasts down the drain! If your pooch is open to Eucalyptus radiata, Eucalyptus smithii, Lemongrass or Lavender, consider using a mild unscented pet shampoo or even unscented baby shampoo and add 3-5 drops of essential oil per cup or 240 ml of shampoo. Alternatively you could add a few drops of Lavender essential oil to the rinse water. Be careful to not overdue it!
The following basic flea control shampoo for dogs is adapted from Joys of Lavender. [vii] Combine in a jar or spray bottle; 12 ounces (360 ml) water, 1 tablespoon (20 ml) of castile soap, 2 drops Peppermint, 2 drops Eucalyptus radiata, 2 drops Lavender and 2 drops of Sweet Marjoram. Shake well before each use. Dampen your pooch, add enough shampoo to make a lather, work through coat avoiding eyes, genitals, anus and insides of ears. Be sure to distribute shampoo between paw pads and toes! Leave shampoo on for 5 minutes. Rinse well.
I find the safest and most effective way to deal with ticks is to manually remove them. During tick season thoroughly inspect your dog and cats when grooming them or by way of play petting. If ticks are found you will need fine-tipped tweezers or a tick scoop (available at most pet stores), a small jar filled with rubbing alcohol, tissues, cotton balls or pads, mild soapy water and Lavender hydrosol (optional). With the tweezers gently grab the tick at the head where its mouth-parts enter the skin. Do not pluck it out, rather pull gently without letting go. It will eventually release its hold. Dispose of the tick by placing it in a tissue and flushing it down the toilet, or place it in the alcohol filled jar and discard after a couple of days. Cleanse wound with mild soapy water, dry well. Apply Lavender hydrosol to a cotton ball or pad and gently wipe wound. As you would with any wound, continue to observe for signs of infection or rash.
What are our key learnings? One must use care and caution when using aromatherapy for pet grooming and flea and tick control. Animals metabolize essential oils differently than humans, and there are differences between how cats and dogs metabolize the oils. Cats have a significantly reduced ability to metabolize the majority of essential oils’ chemical constituents whether inhaled or applied topically. Encouraging one’s pet to ‘pick’ the essential oil helps to ensure a safe, effective and pleasant experience. In a nutshell, we can say with confidence that providing a naturally clean environment, ensuring good nutrition and regular exercise, and daily grooming mixed with the benefits of safe, quality essential oils are the best practices for healthy, pest-free cats and dogs.
Thank you for venturing with me on this learning journey! I leave you with a question, Melanie. Of the identified safe essential oils which ones did your two cats and dog pick?
[ii] GreenPaws.org; Ingraham.co.uk; thelavendercat.com
[iv] thelavendercat.com; holisticat.com; wellpet.org; yourcatcareguide.com
[vi] what-about-lavender.com; akc.org, fleacontrol.com
[vii] joysoflavender.comEssential Oils with Botanical Names Please note that in most cases sources did not clearly indicate which plant species or subspecies to which they were referring. I am therefore choosing the most common essential oils. Knowing the botanical name of an essential oil is critical to practicing safe aromatherapy!
Bay laurel – Laurus nobilis, Bergamot – Citrus bergamia, Carrot seed – Daucus carota, Cedarwood – Cedrus atlantica, Cinnamon – Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Citronella – Cymbopogon winterianus, Clary sage – Salvia sclarea, Clove – Eugenia caryophyllus, Eucalyptus – Eucalyptus radiata and Eucalyptus smithii, Geranium – Pelargonium graveolens, German chamomile – Matricaria chamomilla, Ginger – Zingiber officinale, Helichrysum – Helichrysum angustifolium, Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia, Lavender hydrosol – Lavandula angustifolia, Lemongrass – Cymbopogon flexuosus, Sweet Marjoram – Marjorana hortensis, Niaouli – Melaleuca viridiflora, Peppermint – Mentha piperita, Pennyroyal – Mentha pulegium, Roman chamomile – Anthemis nobilis, Rose hydrosol – Rosa damascena, Rue – Ruta graveolens, Sweetgrass hydrosol – Hierochloe odorata, Sweet orange – Citrus sinensis, Tea tree – Melaleuca alternifolia and Valerian – Valeriana officinalis.
Barbara Power, Certified Aromatherapist