Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils derived from plants to promote a state of physical and psychological well-being. Aropawtherapy is our term for the application of this practice specifically to dogs.
It’s not something new, in fact this practice has existed for thousands of years, with historical references in Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and European cultures. Modern aromatherapy is based on the work of a French chemist who in 1937 completed clinical studies and wrote about the usefulness of essential oils in addressing a range of physiological applications. Fast forward forty years when Robert Tisserand brought the concept to mainstream audiences and more widespread recognition to the field. Aromatherapy is now believed to affect the mind, body and spirit in various ways. Essential oils are making appearances in a variety of applications, from at-home diffusing to natural beauty products and household cleaners.
No, it’s not all about chakras and incense. Let’s talk about the science behind scent.
The sense of smell is directly connected to the brain in a unique way. When we inhale through our nose, olfactory receptors are stimulated. They carry signals to the brain to be identified. During that process, the message goes to a few parts of the brain. The thalamus interprets incoming sensory signals, then sorts and directs information to other parts of the brain to respond. The amygdala plays an essential role in learning, memory and detection of fear.
Have you ever smelled something and had an emotional response? Whenever I smell plumeria, I am suddenly a 5 year old standing in the Hawaii airport. This is because during the process of identifying the scent, the brain engages the part associated with memory which makes the connection to another time in history. It’s why the smell of fresh linen, apple pie or pine needles can illicit emotional responses from us. Scentsy and Yankee have a handle on that!
Ultimately, the science of smell works the same for dogs. The key difference is that humans have 5 million cells devoted to smelling, compared to dogs who have 220 million cells devoted to the same process. They also have four times the brain power devoted to processing those scents! This is why dogs are incredible at identifying scent to parts per trillion and why they can complete work in bomb, drug or cancer detection.
The physiological difference between dogs and humans, as well as the emotional response trigger are key to understanding why aromatherapy techniques must be applied carefully for our dogs.
Essential concepts to applying aromatherapy to dogs:
Never use an essential oil directly out of the bottle on your dog. Dilute, dilute, dilute.
Do not allow an essential oil to come in direct contact with the skin, eyes, mouth, nose or genitals.
Do not use essential oils on pregnant dogs or puppies. Stimulating scents can induce muscle contractions or overwhelm the system.
Aropawtherapy is not a substitute for veterinary care or proper training.
Aropawtherapy must be introduced to your dog slowly. While the smell of lavender may be calming and have a relaxing effect, you do not want your dog to associate it with a stressful situation, such as a visit to the vet, car ride, fireworks or thunder storms. Remember, the sense of smell is connected to the memory and a negative experience can bring back negative associations. For this reason, it is recommended that you introduce the Aropawtherapy charms outside of any stressful situations you intend to use them for. Think during cuddles on the couch, going to the park, taking a fun car ride or relaxing around the house. This helps to slowly build the association of the scent to happiness and calm. For example, if the scent of lavender is present during good, calm times, the brain begins to associate the scent with that feeling. In the future, if the scent of lavender is present during stressful times, the brain will associate the scent with the positive memory and try to return to good, calm times.
Think of it like a cup of hot chocolate for your dog. If during winter you enjoy a hot chocolate snuggled on the couch with a book, blanket and your dog, the smell conjures up that contented feeling. You have a positive association to the smell of hot chocolate because your experience with it has been positive. If during winter you enjoy a hot chocolate prior to careening down a mountain on skis and colliding with a tree, the smell likely conjures up fear and anxiety. You build an association to the smell of hot chocolate based on your positive or negative experiences with it. The person who hit the tree likely avoids the smell, or has developed a dislike for hot chocolate. So let’s make your dog feel cuddled on the couch with a blanket versus colliding with a tree.
Make scents? (No, we could not resist that pun. And despite being Canadian, we’re not sorry for it.)
Let’s get to the “How To” for Aropawtherapy.
To introduce Aropawtherapy to your dog, start by doubling the amount of carrier oil you use in the essential oil blends below to create a more dilute blend. This will ensure your dog is exposed to the scent gently. Attach the Aropawtherapy charm to the collar during a non-stressful time and leave it there. The convenient aspect for us Canadians is that fireworks season often coincides with mosquito season and thunderstorm season, so you might get everything in one shot! Refresh the charm every 1 – 2 weeks. With time, you can slowly reduce the ratio of carrier oil to essential oil, to a minimum 1:1 ratio. This means you never have more essential oils compared to carrier oil.
If your dog ever displays signs of anxiety or discomfort, remove the Aropawtherapy charm immediately. If you used a full strength blend, try diluting with more carrier oil. If you made a blend of essential oils, try a different combination. Always remember that the health and safety of your dog is essential; this may simply not be for them. Just like with humans, something that may work for one may not work for another. Have you ever met someone who hates the smell of lavender? Well, your dog might be ‘that person’. If they could, they would probably talk about it with the person who hates the taste of cilantro… If that is the case, do not force it. Let the charm dry for at least two weeks before you reattach to the collar, and enjoy the Aropawtherapy charm for its style and beauty alone!
How do you choose an essential oil?
Essential oils are produced by distilling the source plant. This results in an ultra concentrated and pure oil that carries the essence of the plant itself. Not all oils are produced with the same care and integrity, so be careful when you choose yours.
Read the label. Words like ‘pure’, ‘distilled’, ‘expiry’ and Latin words like “Lavandula angustifolia” are all good signs. You want to find something that is ‘pure’ and does not include any additives like alcohol, preservatives or another plant. Read the ingredients, as some may state that they are pure on the front, but in fact contain other plants. The process of making essential oils involves distillation, so seeing the word ‘distilled’ is an indicator that this product was made the right way! An expiry date stamped on the bottle is another sign that the company producing this oil has processes in place to know when, where and how the product was made, as well as how long it will last. A sale might indicate old product, resulting in decreased potency. The Latin words are your last key to identifying a reputable brand. They are the scientific term used to describe the plant the oils come from.
Check the bottle. Make sure it has a tight fitting cap and some sort of method to dispense by the drop. This will make careful measurements of the volume of oils you use a snap. You also want a dark colored glass bottle, as they are impermeable to the essential oils and protects them from UV rays, which can damage the integrity of the oil itself.
Smell it. You will likely know what the root plant itself smells like. If you smell the oil and it smells rancid, weak or untrue to the origin plant, it probably has been diluted or blended with another oil. You may also have a negative response to certain smells, likely because it’s triggering an unpleasant memory. So put it back, and try another.
What is a carrier oil?
Carrier oils are pure oils used to dilute the essential oils to a point that they can be safely used. They ensure the integrity of the oil itself is maintained. From a cost benefit, they help prolong the life of your essential oils by giving you more bang for your buck.
Carrier oils include:
Almond Oil, Canola Oil, Grape Seed Oil, Jojoba Oil, Olive Oil, Rose Hip Seed Oil, Safflower Oil, Soy Oil
You can often find these oils in your local health food store (we love Community Natural Foods), or your grocery store’s natural food section (our favorite is Superstore). Be mindful of any allergies your dog may have and read the ingredients of each bottle carefully to ensure they are pure. The ones listed above are non-toxic for dogs and safe for use in Aropawtherapy. Keep in mind if you are applying these blends to any other material, the oils may cause stains or discoloration. Some discoloration of your Aropawtherapy charm is normal.
Aropawtherapy Oil Blends
Choose 3 to 6 of your favorite essential oils from those listed in the categories below. Mix equal parts of each together. Next, blend in an equal amount of carrier oil. Remember, if you are just introducing your dog to Aropawtherapy, you will want to at least double the carrier oil for the first few applications. Place a drop of the blend onto the porous bead. Allow to dry before attaching to the collar. Store remaining blends in a dark colored glass bottle in a cool place. Refresh the porous bead every 1- 2 weeks, or as needed.
Insect Repelling Essential Oils:
Bergamot, Cedarleaf, Cedarwood, Cinnamon, Citronella, Clove, Eucalyptus, French Basil, Geranium, Lavender, Lemon, Lemongrass, Patchouli, Peppermint, Rosemary, Spearmint, Thyme.
Calming and Antispasmodic Essential Oils:
Cedarwood, Lavender, Lemongrass, Lemon, Peppermint, Rosemary, Spearmint, Thyme