Health & Nutrition
The use of essential oils (often called aromatherapy) is a popular but unproven "alternative" health remedy for humans. And when humans find a fad remedy that they like for themselves, it usually isn't long before they start using it on their pets too. There are some "holistic" veterinarians who have jumped on the essential oils bandwagon even though it is considered to be pseudoscience. Books and articles have been written about aromatherapy for pets, and the idea is promoted by many people with no medical qualifications. But in spite of the assurances from these sources, it's not a good idea to use essential oils with birds, because birds are more sensitive than humans. If you are careful or lucky you might be able to get away with using essential oils (EOs) around birds, but if you make a mistake it could kill your feathered friends.
What EOs are and how they're used
An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid from a plant containing volatile aroma compounds. An oil is "essential" in the sense that it contains the "essence" of the plant's fragrance (the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived); the term does not mean that the oil is indispensable (Wikipedia).
There are several different ways to use essential oils, including diffusion (dispersing them into the air), direct inhalation (sniffing them from the bottle or from a surface they've been applied to), or topical application (putting them on the skin). Topical application techniques include simply rubbing diluted oil on the skin, using it in massage, or using it as a bath oil. In spite of the name "aromatherapy", topical application seems to be the most common therapeutic use. Hydrosols (basically the water left over from using steam distillation to extract the essential oil from a plant) are considered to be a diluted version of the oil, containing the same essence but in a much milder form. There are some sources who even recommend oral ingestion of EOs, but this is dangerous; the oils are very concentrated and it doesn't take much to reach a toxic level (Empowered Sustenance, Barefoot Dragonfly).
There are risks associated with all forms of application (NAHA). Essential oils are highly concentrated and many are downright toxic, so they must be used with caution. Inhalation seems to be generally safe for humans, but birds have very sensitive respiratory systems so it's a lot riskier for them. Most sources recommend that humans should never put undiluted essential oils directly on the skin; instead they should be diluted with a neutral "carrier" oil, typically at a rate where the essential oil it 1% to 5% of the mix.
The Tennessee Poison Control Center has reported an increasing number of toxic exposures in humans, mostly involving children. Most of the poisoning cases involved ingestions, but inappropriate application to the skin was the cause in some cases.
Proponents insist that only the purest natural oils are effective. Apparently it's possible to synthesize a preparation that's identical to the natural oil at the molecular level. But purists reject synthetic oils, the same way that purists reject synthetic vitamins as inferior to natural ones. It has even been claimed that natural oils work better than synthetic because the molecules have a memory (CSI). Unfortunately there are no quality standards or certification for essential oils (in spite of much advertising talk about certified pure therapeutic grade essential oils), so just as it is with many other alt med products, you can't be sure of what's really in the bottle (Aromaweb, Cropwatch). It might be the purest natural oil from the same plant that's listed on the label, or it might be something else.
Amazing health benefits are claimed from the use of essential oils; they're said to cure just about everything except amputation and death. For each different oil there's usually a long list of unrelated diseases that it cures or prevents, not just one. This is a red flag of quackery of course; proven medicines have a much more limited effect, often useful for only a single condition or a small number at best. It's probably safe to assume that the claims are 90-100% pure hype. It's likely that the anecdotal reports of marvelous results are due to the placebo effect or confused causation (CSI). Pleasant-smelling oils can help humans relax and there are certainly health benefits to relaxation and stress reduction, but it doesn't mean that the oils themselves have healing properties.
Contrary to proponents' claims about scientific evidence, there has been very little actual research on essential oils and the results were unconvincing (Skeptoid, Science Based Pharmacy, NeurologicaBlog, Skeptics, CSI). However it's difficult to do double blind studies on EOs because it's so easy to smell them. Also, it's claimed that undetectable "vibrational energies" are part of the reason for EOs effectiveness (BAS) and there's no way to run a scientific test on unobservable mystical properties. Vibrational energies are frequently used as an explanation when there isn't an observable real-world principle that could explain how an alt med remedy works. Like all other 'alternative' remedies, most of the evidence for EOs is anecdotal (Skeptoid, Skepdic). If there was serious evidence of effectiveness it would be a mainstream remedy not an alternative one.
An appeal to antiquity is part of the marketing hype for EOs. It's claimed that EOs have been used medicinally for 4,000 years, citing Egypt, India and other ancient civilizations. EOs really have been around for that long, but their primary use was in perfume and religious rituals. Medical use was a lot more limited, and the results weren't impressive enough for it to carry over into modern times. The ancient Egyptians were more into the use of animal dung as medicine (Skeptoid, BAS), and Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India) uses cow urine, cow dung and toxic heavy metals as medicine to this day (Cowurine.com, Gurukul Nature Cure, RationalWiki). Not exactly a good argument for accepting ancient practices without question, is it? Just because something was used a long time ago doesn't mean that it's safe or effective.
In spite of the lack of hard evidence, there are some uses of essential oils that are generally accepted as home remedies, but they are modest and much more limited than the current hype. Oil of wintergreen is a constituent of many heating rubs like Bengay. Oil of cloves is used in dentistry to numb toothaches. Products like Vick's Vaporub and Halls Mentho-lyptus use essential oils. (KevinMD, ChildrensMD) This is all that can reasonably be accepted as a demonstrated benefit.
Many EOs are sold through a multilevel marketing (MLM) program, aka a pyramid scheme. There are many complaints about these companies regarding their shady marketing practices and false claims, and the FDA has issued warnings to some major EO companies (Washington Post, Granola Living, KevinMD, Skeptoid, Digital Bits).
Essential oils and birds
Essential oils have no demonstrated benefits for birds and some very obvious risks.
The weakness of the pro-aromatherapy side. If you google for aromatherapy birds, you'll find a variety of sites singing the praises of using EOs with birds. But the people using these oils are performing a nonscientific form of experimentation on their own birds or their patients' birds, operating on the principle of "it doesn't seem to be killing them and I think it helps, so it must be effective". Due to the large role that faith and expectations tend to play in alt-med therapies, you have to consider the possibility that the placebo effect (on the human not the pet) has a significant influence on the perceived results.
An infamous woo woo website has a report on the veterinary use of EOs for birds which talks glowingly about miracle cures and the ability of essential oils to cure pretty much anything (Mercola). It makes a statement implying that essential oils are as fundamental to health as a good diet, and says nothing about cautions or carefully diagnosing and selecting cases where essential oil treatment is appropriate. If you look closely you'll notice that multiple therapies are being implemented simultaneously (for example diet changes and EOs). This makes it impossible to determine whether a specific effect was caused by the EOs or something else that was started at the same time. Indicators like bloodwork are being taken as a sign that the EOs aren't harming the animal, when it's very questionable whether this would tell you anything or not.
Other sources indicate that the approach used in veterinary aromatherapy is better described as "deep into the woo" than as "a cautious approach that tries to strike a balance between science and subjective experience and observation" (Essential Oils for Animals). Veterinarians recommending EOs may sell them as well, and at least one leading proponent sells EOs from Young Living, one of the companies targeted by the FDA for making inappropriate claims. And there are certainly quite a few claims being made; for example, tangerine oil is "indicated for use with spasm, tumors and cancer, digestive problems, liver problems, parasites, fluid retention, edema, anxiety, obesity, circulation disorders, and depression". You may recall that a long list like this is a red flag of quackery.
It's possible that there might be some oils that do cause some kind of chemical reaction in the body after being applied (besides causing skin irritation, which is a potential side effect of many EOs). Every conventional medicine that we have is ultimately derived from natural sources, and it's certainly possible that the essential oils in some plants might have some real pharmacological value. But this is unproven, and it's equally possible that they could have no value or be downright dangerous. I would expect that the number of oils being hyped and sold is much greater than the number of oils that have any real benefit, and that any actual benefits are much more modest than what's being claimed.
There's general agreement that pleasant aromas can affect the mood of humans, especially if we have previous associations with these smells. But we can't assume that animals will respond the same way. It's more likely that they will react to the smells differently than we do, and the physical benefits of inhaling oils or absorbing them through the skin are unproven.
The argument is sometimes made that birds encounter essential oils in the wild. But many plants don't contain essential oils or only have them in one specific part that a bird might not have much exposure to, like the roots, stems, leaves or flowers. Any contact with EOs in the wild would be at the low natural concentration. The essential oils used in aromatherapy have been artificially extracted from the plant and are sold in a concentrated, purified form that is unlike anything found in the wild. When you start messing around with concentrated extracts, you've left nature behind and are venturing into unknown territory.
The dangers of using EOs with birds. There are a variety of sites (including aromatherapy practitioners and essential oil companies) opposing the use of EOs with birds because it is very risky. Birds have the most efficient respiratory system in the animal kingdom because flying requires a lot of oxygen (Youtube). They are often killed by airborne fumes and toxins at an exposure level that doesn't bother humans.
Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals says "A high level of caution should be observed when it comes to the use of any aromatic materials around birds. Numerous instances of birds falling dead off their perches after exposure to fragranced candles, Teflon pans on the stovetop, room-freshening sprays and even essential oils exist... The fragrance intensity and varied chemical makeup of essential oils puts them in a high-risk category for use on or around birds. In fact, given the extreme sensitivity that birds exhibit, I feel that even hydrosols should be used with the greatest amount of care with birds - perhaps only being administered in highly dilute amounts in the bird's water, thus basically being used in a homeopathic manner for their vibrational, energetic qualities. Birds have shown extreme sensitivity to essential oils." (Click here for info on the extreme dilutions used in homeopathy).
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy says "Do not use essential oils with birds (due to their respiratory and metabolic systems)". I edited this quote from being part of a list into a sentence to make it more readable. Cats are also very sensitive to EOs, and comments about cats preceded the one about birds. Comments about the sensitivity of several other animal types followed the comment on birds. The list more or less boils down to "don't use EOs on anything but dogs and larger mammals".
Aromaceuticals says "Nor should you attempt to treat a sick bird, especially with essential oils. I can't tell you how many posts I've read on aromatherapy list serves about people killing canaries, cockatiels, etc., by diffusing essential oils in an enclosed room where the birds were kept. It never occurs to people that the amount of essential oil that might be appropriate for a 150 pound human is easily lethal to a 2 ounce bird. Don't run an aromatherapy diffuser in the same room as the birdcage, and keep the bird's area well ventilated if you are operating a diffuser in another part of the house. Bird owners should not leave a diffuser running when they are not at home unless someone else is present to monitor the bird for adverse reactions."
Nature's Gift Aromatherapy says aromatherapy is not for the birds, and "I cannot think of any essential oil I would feel safe about using on or around my parakeets. The threat of respiratory distress due to the potency of the oils is just too great."
The Scentsy company says "Scentsy cannot guarantee that our products are safe for use around all birds. Indoor birds can be very delicate. According to bird veterinarians, breeders, and resellers, any scented product can cause illness or fatalities in birds." There are several other quotes from the company in the same vein which can be viewed on Facebook and the Scentsy website.
BC Exotic Bird Society says "Gillian Willis, a toxicologist and pharmacist in Vancouver, reported that all volatile (essential) oils have the potential for causing toxicity in birds. The majority of these oils can cause either stimulation or depression of the central nervous system as well as possible irritation to the eyes, nose and upper respiratory tract depending on the oil and concentration used. Birds are very susceptible to the effects of inhaled volatile toxins, including essential oils."
Natural News says "Birds are well known for being sensitive to scents and particles in the air, and essential oils are no different. Gillian Willis, a toxicologist in Vancouver, has seen many cases of avian poisoning, including a well-meaning cockatiel owner who, upon seeing an abrasion on her bird's foot, applied a drop of Tea Tree oil. The bird became depressed and even with veterinary intervention, died within 24 hours of respiratory failure. Even diffusing oils around a bird can produce dire consequences."
WBAL TV has a story on a Baltimore veterinarian who has seen a big increase in essential oil toxicity problems in dogs and cats, particularly aspiration pneumonia. Birds are more sensitive to inhaled fumes than these animals are.
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