Aromatherapy for animals

Article by Christopher Day MRCVS

The practice of aromatherapy is recorded from Egyptian times, so we can assume that it is probably older than that. References to aromatherapy appear in the famous Ebers Papyrus, which dates from the eighteenth dynasty. The Holy Bible contains many references to the use of oils, in Israel.

The nomenclature is fraught with misnomer. Aromatherapy is not necessarily administered via the smell (olfaction) receptors, although that can be a very rapid and effective route. The remedies can also be absorbed through the skin, hence the widespread use of aromatherapy with massage. The other name for aromatherapy is 'essential oils' but many of the substances are not oils at all. Aromatherapy uses the aromatic, volatile extracts of plants, which contain, for instance, alcohols, esters, terpenes, aldehydes and ketones, in addition to oils. They are generally derived from plants by distillation. These misnomers have so slipped into common usage, however, that it is unconstructive to change them.

Aromatherapy is a branch of herbal medicine, since it uses plant extracts. As in herbal medicine, the medicines are described according to their pharmacological action in the body, e.g. alterative, anodyne, anthelmintic, anti-catarrhal, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, antilithic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-spasmodic, aperient/laxative, aromatic, astringent, bitter, cardiac, carminative, cathartic/purgative, cholagogue and anticholagogue, demulcent, diaphoretic, diuretic, ecbolic, emetic, emollient, expectorant, febrifuge, galactagogue, hepatic, hypnotic, nervine, rubefacient, sedative, sialogogue, soporific, stimulant, styptic, tonic, vesicant and vulnerary.

The use of Aromatherapy in animals

There has been little recorded use of aromatherapy in animals, but it is a very effective and powerful medical option, using concentrated and powerful medicines. Some vets are now turning to it but, maybe because of the rather quaint-sounding name, aromatherapy can be written off wrongly as a sort of cottage hobby, rather than serious medicine. Make no mistake, though, aromatherapy used unwisely has a serious potential for harm, in addition to its therapeutic benefits. Some can cause abortion in pregnant animals and over-enthusiastic use of Lavender or Tea Tree has been suspected of causing hormone disruption in young boys. Furthermore, it will leave residues in tissues and milk, so cannot be used in a food animal and residues may show on a doping test, in competition animals.

Practical Application

Although the medicines are derived from plants, their use differs from herbal medicines of the same plant name. This is entirely logical, since they are only the volatile fraction of the plant. Since they are very concentrated and powerful medicines, they must be used with care and understanding. Do not be fooled by the gentle way in which they are applied; this is no quaint cottage remedy but serious medicine, which ought to be subject to proper controls.

At the Alternative Veterinary Medicine Centre, we have used aromatherapy in patients of many species, over the years. Oils in the waiting room and consulting rooms can be very calmative or invigorating, depending upon the effect required. Cats will happily submit to aromatherapy. We have even used it in seriously ill cats, suffering sinusitis and congestion from Calicivirus. It is easy to set up an inhaler for cats, by putting oils in a bowl of steaming water in front of a cat basket and draping a towel over both. Dogs respond rapidly to administration of oils, by smell or contact. An anxious or over-excitable dog, for instance, will usually respond almost instantly. Horses are very ‘natural’ and sensitive animals and respond wonderfully to the use of aromatherapy, even showing an ability and willingness to select their own remedy. It is not, however, possible to guarantee that a horse, so medicated, would pass a competition ‘dope test’. On the farm, residues can occur in meat, milk or eggs, so the use of this form of medicine has to be carefully considered.

A simplified list of some common aromatherapy remedies follows, each with one of its many properties:

Remedy Property Remedy Property



























Tea tree






Wherever it is used, there is the ability to clash with concurrent homeopathic treatment. It is possible, with care, to integrate the two but the vet needs to be skilled in both therapies for this to be successful. Furthermore, it can summate, sometimes dangerously, when used in conjunction with modern drugs given for a similar purpose. Casual use of aromatherapy is therefore to be discouraged and you should always tell your vet, if you have given any aromatherapy medicine to your animal.

The Law

The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (other than your own) with aromatherapy, by anyone other than a fully qualified vet. The powerful and potentially dangerous nature of this form of medicine makes regulation of its use in animals especially important. The above Act would appear to be a simple and available tool for that purpose. There is a movement to circumvent this law, claiming that animals ‘self-select’. If this were truly the case, no skill would be needed, so why do these same people see a need for training in animal aromatherapy? However cunningly the practice is presented, it is still medicine and a very serious medicine at that, with powers on a par with some of the trickiest modern prescription drugs.

© Christopher Day MRCVS

The Law!

A Veterinary Surgeon is the only person able to give Aromatherapy treatment to an animal.

It is totally against the Law for anyone else to do so.

Only a vet can diagnose an animals' condition, recommend the right course of treatment and administer that treatment... this includes aromatherapy remedies.

Aromatherapy is a powerful form of Medicine and, by their very nature, the very small size of the airborne particles of any "scent" get straight into the bloodstream from the nose, more quickly than in almost any other method of administering medicine (except, perhaps by injection)!

If anyone other than a vet gives aromatherapy treatment to an animal they are breaking the law!