[Updated August 9, 2017]
Gertrude Stein might have thought that a rose is a rose is a rose, but with over a hundred species and more than a thousand named cultivars, the genus Rosa has been among the world’s most appreciated plants for millennia. And they can be appreciated by dogs, too, with numerous applications for medical, emotional, and behavioral afflictions.
Roses grow, with and without thorns, as compact or miniature varieties, trailing vines, climbing plants over 20 feet tall, and impenetrable shrubs. Their flowers range from large to small in white, pink, yellow, orange, and every shade of red. Most roses are native to Asia, while some originated in Europe, Africa, or North America. Heirloom or traditional, hybrid tea, modern, and continuously blooming roses are just a few of the choices available to gardeners today. For medicinal purposes, traditional plants are the roses of choice, for many modern hybrids lack fragrance.
Since 1985, the International Herb Association has announced its Herb of the Year during National Herb Week in May. The Herb of the Year is chosen for its aesthetic, medicinal, and/or culinary attributes. Although best known for its beauty, the rose – Herb of the Year for 2012 – has culinary and medicinal properties from which dogs as well as people benefit. There is even a dog rose! This large shrub, which grows to eight feet, is valued as rootstock for grafting hybrids and is frequently naturalized (grows wild) in North America. According to the famous herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy, Rosa canina received its common name because its root was a traditional treatment for rabies.
The simplest herbal preparations are teas brewed from fresh or dried plant parts. Rose tea can be brewed as an infusion (steeped tea) from rose buds or petals. Simply pour 1 cup of almost-boiling water over 1 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh organically grown rose buds or petals. Cover the container and let the tea steep for several minutes. Be sure your blossoms have a strong, pleasant rose fragrance. Skip lovely hybrids that have no scent along with pesticide-treated roses from florists.
To brew a quart of rose tea, place 11/2 teaspoons dried or 4 tablespoons fresh rose petals or buds in a 1-quart (4-cup) jar, fill with almost-boiling water, cover, and let stand. The longer it brews, the stronger the tea. To make a medicinal-strength tea, slightly increase the roses and let the tea steep until it has cooled to room temperature.
In their book All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets, Gregory Tilford and Mary Wulff explain that each part of the rose has a different level of astringency. “The flower petals are mildly to moderately astringent and can be made into a sweet-smelling rinse for animals with dry, itchy skin,” they say. “Petal tea is also useful for mild to moderate cases of colic and diarrhea or for minor irritations of the mouth and stomach.” The recommended dose is 1 tablespoon tea per 20 pounds of body weight as needed. Cool tea strained through a coffee filter can also be used as an anti-inflammatory eyewash, especially when dust or other environmental irritants cause redness or itching. To make the eyewash more comfortable, add a pinch of salt to give the tea a slightly saline taste, similar to human tears.
Cool or room-temperature rose tea is an effective treatment for minor wounds, such as cuts and abrasions. It can be poured directly onto skin to clean the affected area or applied as a spray.
Tilford and Wulff recommend brewing a decoction (simmered tea) from rose leaves, which are more astringent than flower petals, for use on inflamed flea or fly bites, contact dermatitis, or irritated skin. To brew a decoction, bring 2 tablespoons chopped leaves to a boil in a pint (2 cups) of water in a covered pan, simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, still covered, until cool.
The leaf decoction can be used internally for acute digestive tract inflammations that may be secondary to bacterial or parasitic infections. “Internal use should be limited to acute disorders and short-term therapies (two days or less),” they caution. “Call your veterinarian immediately if internal bleeding is evident, diarrhea is persistent, or urination is labored.”
Either of these rose teas will keep for up to a week if refrigerated in a closed glass container.
As described in the article “Sour Greats” (WDJ January 2012), herb-infused vinegar can be applied topically as an after-shampoo rinse, skin and coat treatment, ear cleaner, insect repellent, or pet deodorizer. To make a rose-infused vinegar, you will need:
-A clean glass jar or bottle with non-metallic lid.
-Enough fresh, organically grown rose petals to fill the container. (Freshly picked petals should be dry, not damp; let rose petals wilt in a dry, shady location for a day or two, which reduces moisture and increases their fragrance.)
-A sprig of flowering thyme and/or rosemary (optional).
-Apple cider vinegar.
Pack in as many rose petals as will fit into the jar or bottle, pressing them down with a wooden spoon or chopstick. Fill the container with vinegar, close the lid tightly, and turn the container upside down, which will release trapped air from the submerged rose petals. Top the container with more vinegar so that all of the plant material is completely covered. Leaving air in the jar invites mold growth, so check it every few days and add more vinegar as needed for four to six weeks.
Alternatively, purchase dried organic rose petals and add vinegar. Because dried herbs expand when rehydrated, fill the container only half full with loosely packed petals and let it stand overnight. The next day, top the container with vinegar and proceed as above.
After the vinegar has absorbed the fragrance and medicinal properties of the rose petals, it is ready to use and will keep for more than a year without refrigeration if stored away from heat and light.
If desired, strain the vinegar for storage in small bottles. Attach a label showing date and contents.
Rose vinegar can be applied full-strength or diluted with water for topical application. Rose vinegar has disinfecting properties and is an effective treatment for small wounds and itchy skin. To use as a coat conditioner, fill a plastic container with 1 cup warm or cool water, add 2 tablespoons (1 fluid ounce) rose vinegar, shake to mix, and work well into freshly rinsed hair. A plastic squeeze bottle or recycled shampoo bottle works well for this. Let the coat air-dry, blot with a towel, or rinse with plain water as desired. Because cider vinegar and red roses can stain or darken light hair, distilled white vinegar and white rose petals can be substituted for dogs with white or light coats.
Rose Aromatherapy for Dogs
Essential oils are distilled from plant parts, usually leaves or blossoms. Despite the “aroma” in “aromatherapy,” not every essential oil has an attractive fragrance, but in this category, rose is in a class by itself. Nearly all of the world’s rose oil is used in perfumes, but a small amount is sold to aromatherapists for medicinal use.
Rose essential oil is also expensive, for it takes 30 to 60 roses to produce a single drop of essential oil, or 500 pounds of rose petals to distill 1 pound (about 2 cups) of rose oil. “The terms rose otto, rose oil, and rose essential oil mean exactly the same thing,” says Marge Clark at Nature’s Gift, an aromatherapy supply company. “All are a true essential oil hydro-distilled from the petals of Rosa damascena. The best quality rose otto is grown and distilled in Bulgaria and Turkey. The Rosa damascena oils produced in other countries simply do not measure up.”
Rose absolute, which is known for its true rose fragrance, is extracted with solvents such as hexane, and supercritical carbon dioxide extraction produces rose oil under pressure at low temperatures. Some aromatherapy supply companies sell rose absolute and CO2-extracted rose oil to consumers, but they are less common than distilled rose oil.
Rose has long been associated with spirituality, and some claim that rose exhibits the highest vibration of any essential oil, giving it a special affinity with the heart and the emotional spheres of mind, body, and spirit.
According to Clark, rose is the ultimate woman’s oil. “It is calming and supportive,” she says. “In my experience nothing strengthens a woman’s spirit as well as true rose oil. Rose has no parallel in treating grief, hysteria, or depression. It is believed by many to help balance female hormones, regulate the menstrual cycle, and ease the discomforts of PMS and menopause. In Europe it is used to treat genito-urinary infections.”
In her book Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals, Kristen Leigh Bell writes, “Rose is also stabilizing to the central nervous system, making it a suitable addition to blends for fearful animals. The oil has a gentle tonifying effect on the skin, and I like to add a small amount to blends for itchy, irritated, or dry skin.”
Another benefit that rose oil shares with other rose-fragranced plants, such as rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) and palmarosa (Cymbopogon martini) is that ticks dislike its scent, making rose a natural tick repellent.
But because of its expense (Bulgarian rose otto costs up to $100 or more for 2 milliliters, slightly less than 1/2 teaspoon), you’re not likely to find pure, therapeutic-quality rose oil in your pet supply store.
This doesn’t mean that rose oil does not belong in your pet’s life. In fact, most aromatherapists rate it as “essential,” and Bell considers it one of her “top 20 must-have essential oils” for pets.
Fortunately, the oil is so concentrated that even a tiny amount, such as a single drop of rose oil in a fluid ounce (2 tablespoons) of carrier oil, will still have an effect. Most carrier oils used in aromatherapy are cold-pressed organic vegetable oils such as almond, peach kernel, or jojoba.
The general rule for canine use is to mix 1 teaspoon carrier oil with 3 to 5 drops essential oil; or 1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) carrier oil with 10 to 15 drops essential oil. Use measuring spoons, not tableware, to measure carrier oils; use an eyedropper or an essential oil bottle’s built-in dispenser to measure drops.
Experiment to see what concentrations agree with your dog. Years ago while living in New York, I interviewed herbalist Barbara Hall about her experiments with ticks (which she removed from her cat!) and various herbs that were considered tick repellents. Of the herbs she tested, only rose geranium repelled the ticks, which turned somersaults to escape from it. At the time, Samantha, my Labrador Retriever, and her friend Hobbes, a Golden Retriever, were picking up deer and dog ticks almost every day on our walks in the woods.
Inspired, I tried rose geranium, palmarosa, and rose essential oils in separate experiments, placing a single drop on each dog’s scarf or collar and later diluting essential oils for spraying. All rose-scented applications reduced the tick attacks, but each required an adjustment period during which the dogs seemed to lose their sense of smell! For a day or two they would chase a tennis ball in tall grass and not be able to find it even when standing on top of it.
There was also no denying that Hobbes did not enjoy smelling like a rose, as he searched out green manure and deer droppings to roll in. (I switched to other methods for him.) It’s a good idea to start slowly with extremely diluted rose oil – or any rose-scented product – long before attending nose work, utility, or tracking sessions or trials.
Because essential oils are not water-soluble, diluting them in water requires an extra step. If you mix an essential oil with vodka or any other grain alcohol (do not use rubbing alcohol, which is distilled from wood), sulfated castor oil (available from some aromatherapy supply companies), or vegetable glycerin, you can add water and the oil will disperse.
Bell combines these ingredients in several formulas, including her aromatic cleansing spray, which begins with a base of 1 teaspoon vegetable glycerin, 1 tablespoon vodka, 1 teaspoon sulfated castor oil, and 2 tablespoons aloe vera. Up to 16 drops essential oil can be mixed with this base before adding 6 ounces (3/4 cup) distilled or spring water. Her floral blend contains 4 drops lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), 2 drops ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), 4 drops rose (Rosa damascena), and 6 drops petitgrain (Citrus auranthum) essential oils. Or use rose oil by itself, starting with 4 to 8 drops and adding more as needed. Shake well before using.
Another way to dilute rose oil is in shampoo or liquid soap. Try adding 5 to 10 drops of rose oil to 8 ounces (1 cup) unscented natural shampoo, or add a drop to shampoo as you bathe your dog. Rinse well and follow, if desired, with a rose tea or rose vinegar final rinse.
Rose Oil Diffusers
One of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to use rose essential oil is in a diffuser. As Bell explains, “A nebulizing diffuser is one tool that no aromatherapy-prone home should be without. Especially one that houses pets!”
It’s true that the fragrance of an essential oil can be released by heat, such as from a light bulb or candle, but the chemical components of essential oils have differing volatility, so that some evaporate faster than others. The best way to disperse essential oils for therapeutic use, says Bell, is without heat, and diffusing is the safest way to use any full-strength oil.
A nebulizing diffuser consists of a glass bulb attached to a small air pump like those used in aquariums. A small air current and the pump’s vibration ionize complete particles of essential oil, releasing this suspension in the air. Rose essential oil or blends containing rose create a calming, uplifting environment, and they deodorize at the same time. Rose is highly recommended for dogs recovering from emotional trauma, illness, or injury. Setting the nebulizer on a timer releases essential oil throughout the day, which is especially helpful to dogs with separation anxiety.
To treat the air without the aid of a diffuser, fill a spray bottle with 4 to 6 ounces (1/2 to 3/4 cup) water and add 4 drops rose oil. Shake the bottle vigorously before spraying the air. Aim the spray away from furniture, pets, and people. Add a few more drops for a stronger fragrance if desired.
Hydrosols or hydrolats, the flower waters produced during steam distillation, are far less expensive than essential oils. Organic rose hydrosol from Bulgaria costs less than $20 for 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces).
Hydrosols are 20 to 30 times stronger than herbal teas brewed from the same plants, and they provide most of the benefits found in essential oils with fewer risks. Safety is crucial with regard to pets, which is why hydrosols are highly recommended for pet use.
The downside of using hydrosols is that they have a limited shelf life (typically one year), are not widely sold (the freshest, highest-quality hydrosols are usually from online or mail-order suppliers), and require refrigeration.
Rose hydrosol, better known as rosewater, may be unfamiliar to Americans today, but a hundred years ago, rosewater was widely sold for culinary and cosmetic uses. The first popular hand lotion was rosewater and glycerin (it’s still available), and rosewater adds a lovely flavor to desserts, confections, and traditional Middle Eastern foods.
In her book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, Suzanne Catty describes rose hydrosol as a powerful substance. “It smells exactly like a fresh rose,” she says. “Undiluted, the flavor is dramatic and overwhelming – far too strong – but in dilution, its intense floral nature becomes delicate, ethereal, and quite delicious. Once you have smelled and tasted real rose hydrosol, you will instantly recognize artificial rosewater.”
Rosewater is more stable than most hydrosols, she reports, with a shelf life of two years or more, though this depends on its quality. “Rose hydrosol made from dried petals starts to lose its fragrance at around 10 to 12 months,” she says, “and the flavor is less intense from the outset.”
Rose hydrosol can be sprayed full-strength on a dog’s wet coat and then brushed or massaged in; diluted with an equal part of water, or more, before being sprayed or applied to the coat; or simply sprayed or applied as a tick repellent. “Its moisture-retaining nature makes it a good choice for the traveler,” says Catty, “and its mild antiseptic and cooling properties make it useful for many first-aid applications.”
For more about hydrosols, see “Canines in a Mist,” WDJ April 2005.
Rose hips, the reddish, round berries that develop after rose petals fall from their stems in late summer, are a significant source of vitamin C. They also contain vitamins A and B, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants such as lycopene. Many dogs love the taste of fresh rose hips and harvest them from rose bushes themselves.
Dried rose hips can be ground in a coffee grinder and added at the rate of 1/2 to 1 teaspoon powdered rose hips per cup of food. Too much can cause stomach upset or diarrhea, so start with a small amount and increase gradually, or simply cut back if your dog develops symptoms.
If you have access to rose hips from a safe (not pesticide-treated) source, you can cut them in half and spread them on a rack or paper-lined cookie sheet to dry, or thread a needle with white cotton thread and string the rose hips with spaces between them to hasten drying. When the hips are completely dry, unstring them, cut them in half, and toss any that have mold inside or out.
Thanks to Danish farmer Erik Hansen, who discovered 20 years ago that rose hips alleviated his joint pain, rose hip powder has become a popular supplement in Europe for the treatment of arthritis. So far seven scientific studies of over 300 participants have been published in the medical literature, four of which are randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Participants receiving rose hips reported improved joint comfort and flexibility, higher energy levels, and an improved sense of well being.
Hansen’s products (LitoZin® and i-flex®) are made from the hips of organically raised Rosa canina. Rose hip powder has not been clinically tested in dogs, but many users report giving it to their arthritic canine companions with excellent results. Rose hip seed powder is available from a growing number of supplement manufacturers.
Rose Hip Seed Oil
Pressed from the seeds of rose hips, usually Rosa moschata or Rosa rubiginosa from the Andes Mountains, rose hip seed oil contains vitamins and essential fatty acids whose skin-healing properties make it a popular cosmetic ingredient. Rose hip seed oil, which is sold in most natural food stores, speeds the healing of dermatitis, burns, and scars, and it is an effective treatment for dry, brittle, damaged hair and nails. Rose hip seed oil is light yellow to orange in color, and it can stain clothing or light-colored hair, though it is so quickly absorbed by the skin that precise application to scars or wounds is unlikely to damage white or light-colored coats. The oil is so delicate that it should be kept refrigerated in a closed container, protected from exposure to heat, light, and air.
Although used by Chile’s native people for centuries, rose hip seed oil has been available in the U.S. for just a few decades. In 1983, researchers at the University of Santiago in Chile tested rose hip seed oil on 180 people with extensive facial scarring, acne scarring, deep wrinkles, sun damage, radiation damage, burn scars, surgical scars, premature aging, dermatitis, and other skin-related problems.
In these tests, rose hip seed oil regenerated the skin, reduced scars and wrinkles, prevented the advancement of wrinkles and aging, and helped skin regain its natural color and tone. Subsequent research at other universities verified these results, and rose hip seed oil is now a popular ingredient in products that treat premature aging and sun damage.
How can it help your dog? Because rose hip seed oil speeds the healing of damaged tissue, it can be applied directly to new or old scars, wounds, abrasions, and nails that break or split. But its most widespread canine application is as a coat conditioner, for rose hip seed oil helps strengthen and repair damaged hair. To use it full-strength, simply apply rose hip seed oil to your hands, rub your palms together to create a light layer of oil, and stroke your dog’s coat in all directions. Try this while the coat is still damp after bathing or swimming to distribute the oil more evenly.
Another way to take advantage of rose hip seed oil’s coat-improving attributes is to add it to your favorite oil or conditioner. For example, argan oil, pressed from the seeds of the Middle Eastern plant Argania spinosa and better known as Moroccan oil, has become a popular human hair treatment. Rose hip seed oil can be blended with argan oil and applied to towel-dried hair for soft, shiny results. Rose hip seed oil can be added to most leave-on conditioners with excellent results. Start with a 5- to 10-percent addition and experiment. Diluted rose hip seed oil should be safe for use on even white or light-colored dogs.
Rose hip seed oil can be added to rose vinegar or rose hydrosol in a spray container, shaken immediately before use, and sprayed onto the dog’s coat. The oil and water will separate, but spraying delivers both ingredients, which can be worked or brushed into the coat.
Rose hip seed oil is well tolerated and safe for sensitive skin. It is considered a “dry” oil, meaning that it soaks into the skin easily, and does not leave a greasy residue. It penetrates dry or damaged skin immediately. Rose hip seed oil is sold in ball-point vials (for human skin application) in natural food markets.
Rose Flower Essence
Flower essences, also called flower remedies, are very different from herbal teas and extracts. Like homeopathic remedies, they contain little or none of the material used to produce them. Instead, they store a plant’s “vibration” or “imprint,” which in turn affects the user’s energy. These vibrations or imprints are said to act directly on the emotions. Flower essences have no floral fragrance.
Flower essences made from roses are said to support and protect the heart from emotional pain and trauma, to foster resilience and endurance, and to help ground the individual, calm the mind, and deepen one’s spiritual vision. Rose flower essences have helped dogs adapt to changes in residence, environment, or family structure; overcome separation anxiety; regain enthusiasm for life’s adventures; and relax in stressful situations, such as when being groomed, visiting the veterinarian, meeting new dogs, attending obedience class, or living in a shelter or foster home.
Like all flower remedies, rose flower essence can be applied directly from the stock bottle, a drop or two at a time, directly into the dog’s mouth, massaged into the gums, applied to the nose or paw pads, or applied to bare skin on the abdomen or ears. Alternatively, place 12 drops rose flower essence in a 4-ounce spray bottle filled with distilled or filtered water. Spray the solution into the air, on the dog’s bedding, and all over the dog, including on her gums, paw pads, nose, and abdomen, and inside the ears as well as on the coat before brushing or rubbing it in. Flower essences can also be placed on dog treats and added to food and water.
The key to success with flower essences is frequency of application, as often as once an hour if possible, or at least four or five times per day. For more about flower essences, see “More Good Energy,” WDJ November 2007.
Grow Your Own!
If you’d like to have your own source of pesticide-free roses and rose hips, try growing your own. Roses need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, minimal root competition from nearby trees, a soil pH of approximately 6.5, good air circulation, and deeply dug soil containing ample organic matter.
Garden centers, organizations devoted to roses, and books like the IHA’s Rose (Rosa): Herb of the Year 2012 offer tips on growing, fertilizing, pruning, and care.
CJ Puotinen lives in Montana. She is the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and other books and a frequent contributor to WDJ.