Aromatherapy (Proceedings)


Throughout recorded history, the ability of fragrance to induce responses and enhance moods has been a powerful theme in virtually every culture, and a variety of fragrances have been used to enhance emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.


Throughout recorded history, the ability of fragrance to induce responses and enhance moods has been a powerful theme in virtually every culture, and a variety of fragrances have been used to enhance emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

In today's world there is hardly any class of consumable product that has not, in some form or another, been enhanced by the addition of pleasing scents. Shampoos and grooming products, flea and tick repellants, sleeping pads, and food treats all come with human-friendly scents, and there are any number of aromatic products available to mask critter odors deemed unpleasant by the human consumer.

Furthermore, most plant-derived oils (the aromatic part of the plant), as well as synthetic oils that imitate the molecular structure of these oils), are powerful antiseptics, either applied to the skin as liquid or inhaled as a gas. This healing ability of the plant oils, along with their known impact on the mental and emotional considerations of human and animals, has led to the specialized practice of "aromatherapy".

How Aromas Affect the Body/Mind

Humans have 5 to 10 million scent-detecting olfactory cells lying atop their nasal cavity. Dogs, on the other hand and depending on the breed, have something like 125 to more than 500 million olfactory cells. Bloodhounds have a sense of smell 3 million times more sensitive than man's. It is said that even a person's barefoot step, leaving as little as four-billionths of a gram of odoriferous sweat substance, appears like a roadmap to a bloodhound.

Each and every one of those millions of olfactory cells connects, via the brain's olfactory bulb, directly to the inner workings of the brain – to be processed into "dog interpretative language". We know the thoughts various odors create in the human brain; we can only guess how Dog's brain reacts to individual scents.

What we do know is that there is a direct connection between the odors that pass through the nose and the brain. We know that certain classes of odors cause biochemical and bioelectrical reactions in the body that can further create mind/body responses.

Pheromones, for example, are sexually-related odors that go undetected at the conscious level, but when they are detected by the vomeronasal organ they instigate biochemical reactions that either inhibit or stimulate sexual attractiveness and activity. We know that immunology and odors are somehow interrelated. Rats, for example, select a mate with a different immunological type, presumably for creating a wider range of immunology to help insure the species' survival.

Each and every one of us has a genetically-programmed "odor-print", a trait that is as individually identifiable as is our finger print. While we may not be aware of our own or our friends' odor prints, it is obvious that the animals around us know it well.

Odors also make a powerful impression on our moods. Our appreciation for various odors is much like our tastes in music: some odors make us feel good inside; others can be repulsive. What's more, it is an individual choice as to whether a specific odor is deemed pleasant or objectionable. (Judging by the actions of many dogs, their favorite odor emanates from cow plop or horse nuggets, as they joyfully roll in its essence. I know no humans who are similarly affected.)

Studies have shown that oftentimes our response to a specific aroma is directly related to something that happened to us long ago – some event that was associated with the aroma, and we either enjoy or dislike the aroma depending on whether the event was a happy or sad one. While we can't ask our dogs how they feel about a particular odor, we can judge from their reactions to it, and there are some aromas that are apparently almost universal in how they affect the mind of man and animals. (See below)

Natural Aromas

Every family of the botanical world has plants that contain volatile oils which may be released with the slightest of disturbance, the gentlest of nudges from a passing dog. And, many of these aromatic oils are constantly being released into the air. (Volatile comes from the Latin word for "flying".) A plant's volatile oils are what are used to commercially produce essential oils.

Chemically, an essential oil is a complex mixture of 30 to 100 or more compounds, and they are found in various plant parts. The oils of peppermint, patchouli, basil, and geranium, for example, come from the leaves and stems; clove oil comes from flower buds, and oils of jasmine and rose come from the open flowers.

Oils are produced from the fruits of anise and coriander, the peels of citrus fruits, the seeds of cardamom, the wood of cedar, the needles of fir trees, and the exuded resin of myrrh – that is, from just about every anatomical structure. Some plants may produce more than one type of oil: cinnamon supplies different oils from its leaf, bark, and root. Bitter orange flowers yield neroli oil; its leaves, petitgrain oil; and the fruit peel, orange oil.

Like the fixed oils (vegetable oil, motor oil), these substances are generally liquids, they won't mix with water, and they are soluble in many organic solvents. Unlike fixed oils, however, essential oils are volatile: they evaporate rapidly at room temperature, whereas fixed oils will not.

Volatile oils are found in plants in miniscule amounts – it takes about a ton of rose petals to produce just a pound of rose oil. While the process of extracting an ounce of essential oils from many pounds of plant material produces highly concentrated healing substances; it also heightens the potential for harm from the concentrated toxic portions of the plant.

Using Good Scents for Pleasure, Health, and Healing

There are several ways aromas are utilized in today's mainstream marketplace: perfumery, as repellants, and for smudging or fumigation. Practitioners have also developed a specialized medicine known as aromatherapy.

Perfumery is an important part of marketing products for our animal companions – the idea most often being to mask critter odors we humans find disagreeable. Almost all perfume additives are synthetically produced – true aromas from plants are too expensive. While the human nose has become accustomed to the synthetic fragrances, animals have not always adapted as well. Dogs especially will often react negatively to many of the perfumes that, to our nose, are a perfect mimic of one of the floral fragrances.

Repellents: From the beginning of time, man has tried to find ways to repel fleas and ticks -- initially from our own bodies, but today's human hygiene has all but eliminated fleas from our personal beds. While some natural products may have a mild bug-repellant effect, most of them don't hold up to scientific scrutiny. What's worse, many of the repellents, natural or otherwise, are known to be toxic and may even be fatal.

Some of the herbs that have shown promise as repellents include: fleabane, Conyza Canadensis, California laurel, Umbellularia californica, lemon thyme, Thymus spp., vitex, Vitex negundo, bisabol myrrh, Commiphora erythraea, and lemon oil (limonene, the active ingredient of lemon oil has been toxic, used at high levels for cats). Interestingly, two of the more commonly used herbs in repellent preparations, lemongrass, Cymbopogon citrates and eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globules, have not lived up to their reputation under scientific scrutiny.

Smudging has been a long-used practice among various native peoples who believe that the smoke of certain plants "cleanses" the person and his/her surrounding environment ... making it easier to connect spiritually. Fumigation might be thought of as an extension of smudging whereby the smoke of plants is used to cleanse an area by killing the "bugs" that are living there. At one time smudging and fumigants were extremely popular. Early frontiersmen on this continent often used the smoke of mullein, Verbascum thapsus, to fumigate their barns in the fall, cleansing the area while at the same time preparing the lungs of the cattle for the winter. (Mullein is an herb used to treat lung ailments.)

Topical Uses

The term Aromatherapy dates to 1938, the year of publication of L'Aromatherapie, a book written by French perfumer Jean Gattefosse. While working in his laboratory, Gattefosse spilled a caustic chemical on his hand, and he splashed some lavender oil on the burned skin because it was what he had available at the time. Amazed at how quickly the burn healed, he began investigating the healing properties of other oils.

Research indicates that the oils of clove, thyme, mint, marjoram, pine, oregano, rosemary, rose, and cinnamon, among others, have germicidal (germ killing) power, and often the germicidal power of the oil is more potent than that of phenol (a disinfectant that is often used as a comparative substance.) Simply apply the oil to the affected skin area.

Mind Body

Much of the recent work centered around aromatherapy has to do with the volatile oils' effects on the mind/body. As aromas are registered and processed in the limbic system of the brain (the area known as the primal brain), they produce biochemical responses in humans that affect the endocrine system. This, in turn, causes responses related to heart rate and blood pressure, appetite and metabolism, immune-response, and emotional and behavioral responses.

A typical human response to some aromatics – lavender, pine, eucalyptus, rosemary, and marjoram, as examples, might be to feel uplifted or stimulated. These aromatics might thus be used to combat depression or anxiety. On the other hand, calming aromatics such as sandalwood or patchouli might be used for their ability to calm and quiet.

While many of the aromatics create typical human responses most of the time, each individual has his/her own "inner voice" that responds in an individualistic manner. Individual responses are oftentimes related to good or bad associations that have occurred in the presence of the scent, possibly from some forgotten event in the past.

For animals, since we can't ask them how an aroma makes them feel (nor can we ask them to remember their history for us), we need to be observant and adjust our selection of scents accordingly.

Aromatherapy Applications

Aromas can be dispensed in a variety of ways: You can simply open a vial of essential oil and let the aroma waft around the room. Or, a variety of dispensers are available that use either hand-operated spritzers, heat (from light bulbs or candles, for example), or a fan mechanism to distribute the fragrance. Direct application is perhaps the most popular way to use aromatics: a few drops of the essential oil can be added to bath water, or the essential oil can be diluted and applied as a massage oil.

For dogs, perhaps the most-used (and safest) way to use essential oils is to dilute them in an oil base (olive, sweet almond, sunflower, sesame, etc.) and apply a small amount to the back of the neck where it can't be licked off. Or, the aromatic oil (or the fresh herb itself) can be packaged in a chew-proof "pillow" that is placed near the sleeping area. Be especially cautious with cats.

Note that some experiences and qualified aromatherapists occasionally recommend the oral use of essential oils. This is OK for those who really know what they are doing and who know the essential oil they are using (its purity, exact species of plant and method of growing and extraction, and possible side effects from its oral use in the species). But, for most folks oral use of essential oils is simply too risky.

Some of the commonly used aromas used for dogs (and their people) include:

  • English Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia or L. vera, L. officinale: Lavender is the "first aid kit in a vial" of aromatherapy. Among the safest and most widely used oils in aromatherapy. It is good for the topical treatment of many types of skin conditions – burns, rashes, and wounds. It affects the emotions by balancing them, relaxing or stimulating where necessary. In one experiment it was found that kenneled dogs bark less often when lavender aroma is present in the air.

Note that much of the commercially available lavender is actually "Lavandin", lavender crossed with spike lavender (L. x intermedia or L. x hybrida) ... because these hybrids are easier to cultivate. These hybrids have similar but less pronounced healing properties, and their fragrance is more camphorous than English lavender. Another of the "lavenders" used commercially, L. stoechas is more toxic than other lavenders, so caution is advised when using this variety on dogs.

  • Basil, Ocimum basilicum: The scent is said to relieve head cold and sinus congestion. It has an uplifting effect that overcomes stress and lack of confidence and helps increase awareness of one's surroundings.

  • Bergamont, Citrus bergamia: Bergamont scents many colognes and flavors Earl Grey tea. As a medicinal, bergamont acts as anti-inflammatory and enhances immunity. Bergamont scent reduces anxiety or compulsive behaviors.

  • Cedarwood, Cedrus species: Cedarwood fragrance is often found in soaps and cologne. Its aroma is said to increase self respect and stabilizes the emotions by "grounding" the individual.

  • German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita or M. chamomilla: Chamomile aroma has potent anti-anxiety and anti-depressant activity.

  • Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum: The smell of cinnamon relieves tension, steadies the nerves, and invigorates the senses.

  • Clary Sage, Salvia sclarea: Its scent produces relaxation and acts to alleviate mental fatigue and stress-related conditions.

  • Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globules: Eucalyptus is a potent antiviral, antibacterial and decongestant. There are many varieties, but the scent of most of them seems to increase energy.

  • Frankincense, Boswellia carterii: Frankincense is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It has been used throughout the ages to enhance spirituality.

  • Jasmine, Jasminum officinale and J. grandiflorum: Jasmine is a nervous system sedative. Its scent soothes depression, anger, worry, and lack of confidence.

  • Juniper, Juniperus communis: The scent is good for those with anxiety and for those who are emotionally drained.

  • Myrrh, Comiphora myrrha: Myrrh is said to revitalize the spirit, and has been used since antiquity as an adjunct to prayer and meditation.

  • Peppermint, Mentha piperita: Peppermint is an excellent herb for digestive problems, and its scent acts as a mental stimulant.

  • Rose, Rosa spp.: Rose aroma helps overcome depression and lack of confidence.

  • Sandalwood, Santalum album: Has been used to help promote spiritual practices and for treating depression and anxiety.

  • Tea Tree, Melaleuca alternifolia: Used in the topical treatment of fungal and viral infections. The scent builds strength and has been recommended for use before an operation or during postoperative recovery.

  • Thyme, Thymus vulgaris: The many varieties of thyme seem to all be antibacterial, and its scent is said to be stimulating to the mind.

  • Ylang-Ylang, Cananga odorata: Ylang-ylang is a strong sedative and antispasmodic. The fragrance makes the senses more acute and tempers depression and anger.


Of all the alternative medicines, aromatherapy may be at the head of the class when it comes to the "feel-good" therapies. Not only are the essential oils good for emotional uses, they are excellent antiseptics when used on the skin. And in today's world practitioners and products are easy to find, and for anyone wanting to know more about the art and science of aromatherapy, there are literally dozens of books available.

As a medicine, aromatherapy is perhaps the one we must use the most caution with, but used correctly, it is a highly effective and safe medicine for pets and their people.

Selected Bibliography

Bell, Kristen Leigh; Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals; Findhorn Press; 2002

Cooksley, Valerie Gennari; Aromatherapy; Prentice Hall; 1996

Damian, Peter and Kate; Aromatherapy Scent and Psyche; Healing Arts Press; 1995

Keville, Kathi and Mindy Green; Aromatherapy; Crossing Press; 1995

Lawless, Julia; Aromatherapy and the Mind; Thorsons; 1994

Morris, Edwin T.; Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel; Chas. Scribner; 1984

Rose, Jeanne; The Aromatherapy Book; North Atlantic Books; 1992

Ryman, Daniele; Aromatherapy; Bantam Books; 1991

Wormwood, Valerie Ann; The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy; New World Library; 1991

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