Aromatherapy in pets, revisited
Surprisingly, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal dedicated a slice of its weekly Health section to the use of aromatherapy in pets. Though it could have elected a less cheeky tone, the author of "A Scent to De-Stress Pets" actually did the topic some justice, citing literature instead of pointing to the potential silliness of a subject that, on the surface, sounds as if it would treat doggie spa issues more directly than it would pet health itself.
As most of us here already know, olfaction is a far more significant sensory experience for cats and dogs than for any human. Their expanded range and heightened acuity is considered an evolutionary adaptation that somehow skirted humanity’s DNA.
As a result, olfactory medicine, well-known more for the softball-lobbing non-science of “aromatherapy” in humans, is deemed a perfectly reasonable area of hardcore study when it comes to cats and dogs.
Every year we amass more information on the subject, learning what triggers pets’ excitement, relaxation, appetite, etc. Some of this data emerges (or is held privately) via the pet food industry and some from the ivory-towered landscape of academia. But lately, it’s mostly been coming from across the pond through the work of a French company (Ceva) dedicated to the use of pheromones to calm pets and/or aid in their training.
This is what the WSJ article mostly treats. Savvily, it interviews veterinary behaviorists and harps on some products’ lack of science to support their claims. Ceva’s D.A.P. (dog appeasing pheromone) and Feliway, however, received high marks for the well-run, peer reviewed science that underlies their efficacy.
For my part, I’ll echo the behaviorists’ sentiments. D.A.P. and Feliway work. Sourced from the sebaceous glands surrounding the mammary glands and the chin, respectively, these pheromones can effectively relax dogs during training (making training sessions more effective) and chill cats out during travel, after a move, etc. But it doesn’t work for all pets. Not all the time.
Still, I didn’t appreciate the put-down of products like lavender and other unproven therapies that fall into the do-no-harm category. If your dog wears an herbal-pillowed collar or you diffuse lavender oil in your household in an attempt to calm your pets, no harm done. Safety here is presupposed.
Sure, we shouldn’t expect every aroma on the market to have the same effect on pets. And marketers shouldn’t mislabel products as proven effective if they’ve not been. Moreover, as veterinarians, we have a duty to point out what the research indicates.
But just because no one’s gone out of their way to prove the efficacy of X random aroma as a calming agent that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful, either. Try it, I say, offering standard warnings about the direct, topical use of essential oils (verbotten).
Pheromones are always best as a first try to aid in behavior modification and/or as an adjunct to drug therapy. But when they fail, why not keep searching for additional calming approaches via unproven aromatherapies? After all, petting hasn’t been proven to work as an effective relaxation method. But we all know it’s safe and effective anyway.