Pure essential oils, the fragrant plant extracts used in aromatherapy, are powerful natural remedies for what ails human or beast, including chickens, and it’s easy to learn to use them with your flock.
The use of aromatic oils as medications stretches back through antiquity. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians in India used them widely. Hippocrates, the Roman “father of modern medicine,” wrote 2,500 years ago that the key to good health rests on having a daily aromatic bath and scented massage. The Persians began distilling essential oils in the 10th century, and in 1597, a German physician, Hieronymus Brunschwig, wrote several books referencing the therapeutic use of 25 essential oils including lavender, cinnamon and myrrh.
Aromatherapy as we know it originated in 1910, when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé was working in the laboratory of his family’s cosmetics firm and badly burned his hand. In great pain, he plunged it into the nearest tub of liquid, which happened to be lavender essential oil. His hand healed quickly and with very little scarring, prompting him to experiment with additional oils. In 1937, he coined the word aromatherapy and wrote Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy, which details the healing power of essential oils.
Fast forward to today, and many farmers are starting to find success using these oils instead of antibiotics with their animals as part of a holistic approach to keeping chickens. In her article, “Essential Oils Might Be the New Antibiotics,” for The Atlantic, journalist Tori Rodriguez cited numerous studies that are showing great promise in using essential oils in livestock.
“One of their studies, published in October 2014 in the journal Poultry Science, found that chickens that consumed feed with added oregano oil had a 59 percent lower mortality rate due to ascites, a common infection in poultry, than untreated chickens,” she writes. “Other research, from a 2011 issue of BMC Proceedings, showed that adding a combination of plant extracts — from oregano, cinnamon and chili peppers — actually changed the gene expression of treated chickens, resulting in weight gain as well as protection against an injected intestinal infection. A 2010 study from Poultry Science produced similar findings with the use of extracts from turmeric, chili pepper and shiitake mushrooms.”
What Makes Essential Oils So Essential?
Essential oils are fat-soluble, hydrophobic phytochemicals—biologically active compounds found in plants. The tiny molecules in essential oils easily pass through the lining of your nose, your lungs, your chickens’ air sacs or even skin.
In The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, aromatherapist and author Julia Lawless writes that essential oils, in general, consist of chemical compounds that have hydrogen, carbon and oxygen as their building blocks. She says they can be subdivided into two groups: “the hydrocarbons made up almost exclusively of terpenes … and the oxygenated compounds, mainly esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols and oxides; acids, lactones, sulphur and nitrogen compounds are sometimes also present.”
According to doTERRA, a leading distiller of essential oils, it takes roughly 60 pounds of lavender flowers to produce 16 ounces of essential oil, 6,000 pounds of Melissa (lemon balm) to distill 16 ounces of Melissa oil and a whopping 10,000 pounds of rose petals to distill a single pound of rose oil. Essential oils are very highly concentrated, which is why it takes just a miniscule amount to do the trick.
Using Essential Oils
Essential oils can be applied to the skin or inhaled. Some even suggest they can be ingested, but this is disputed. For safely purposes, never ingest an essential oil unless it is labeled for safe consumption. Valerie Ann Worwood, a consultant clinical aromatherapist and author with a doctorate in complementary medicine, writes in The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy that home practitioners should avoid the oral use of essential oils unless under the direction of a professional health care provider.
Because essential oils are so potent, potentially irritating ones, including cassia, cinnamon, clove, hyssop, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint and thyme, are usually diluted with pure, cold-pressed carrier oils before use. Popular carriers include almond, apricot kernel, borage, evening primrose, macadamia, peach kernel and jojoba oils.
Because the oil percentage in a correct dilution depends on the oils used and the way they’re applied, it’s important that you consult a trusted guide book or ask an experienced aromatherapist to help you learn how to safely dilute your first therapeutic oils. The ratio usually varies from 0.5 percent (three drops of oil per ounce of carrier) to 10 percent (60 drops per ounce of carrier).
Before using essential oils on your flock, follow a few basic rules.
- Research the topic. Know the properties of and correct dilutions for the oils you choose.
- Use pure essential oils, especially if dosing internally.
- Proceed carefully, allowing for individual sensitivities and allergies. If you’re uncertain about an oil, dab a well-diluted amount in the crook of your arm or a small spot directly on your chicken’s skin. Twelve hours is enough time for a reaction to occur. If redness or itchiness develops, try a greater dilution or different oil.
- Don’t use undiluted oils directly on skin or near the eyes—yours or those of your chickens.
- Store essential oils in a cool place out of direct sunlight and safely out of the hands of young children.
An Essential Devotee
Autumn Long-McGie keeps an array of large fowl and bantam chickens at her home just south of Minneapolis. She became interested in essential oils for her chickens after she started using essential oils and aromatherapy for her own medical reasons.
“Once I understood the chemical makeup of each oil and how they helped my body to recover, I researched how they could help animals,” McGie says. “I’ve used oils in my chicken coops for three years, ever since I got my first chickens.
“I use thyme, lemon and melaleuca diluted in water to clean them each spring, and I’ve also used diluted oregano and frankincense on skin irritations and injuries to clear them up.”
She has also found peppermint to be useful to keep rodents out of her feed sheds.
McGie advises researching an oil before using it, looking at the quality, purity and potency.
“Some (animals) favor one over another, (so) I let all of my animals smell the oil and see if they are drawn to it before I ever offer one,” she says. “A little goes a long way, so using just a drop of oil or highly diluting the oil in a carrier oil is necessary when using them with animals. Safe oils to begin with would be lemon and frankincense. Oregano is a powerful oil, but it’s also a ‘hot’ oil and needs to be used cautiously.”
The use of essential oils is an alternative approach that is gaining momentum in the mainstream. If you’ve had success with essential oils in your life, perhaps it’s time to get your flock involved.
Easy Coop Cleaner
When you clean your coop, deep clean while spicing things up with a homemade cleaning solution featuring lemon, grapefruit, lime, peppermint, lavender, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, eucalyptus or tea tree essential oils.
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon dish soap
- 30 drops essential oil from the above list (If you like the scent, combining oils is OK.)
Mix the ingredients in a quart-size sprayer, and shake to combine. Store leftovers in a glass container.
Remove all bedding, spray the coop and perches with cleaning solution, then allow it to dry before adding fresh bedding. Use the same solution to sanitize feeders, water containers and cages; rinse well before reusing the items.
Your Best Vet
The information in the Holistic Henhouse column is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis or treatment. Natural and holistic care has its place in the coop, but remember your vet. There might be times when the care you are administering is not adequate and you should consult a professional.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Chickens.