Pet Health Article: Herbal Treatments for Cats and Dogs
Herbs are the oldest and most natural medicine and the dramatic increase in their use, especially in veterinary care, brings us full circle because animals were the first herbalists. This article describes how herbal treatments are used to treat common health conditions in cats and dogs.
Herbal Treatments for Cats and Dogs
Herbs are the oldest and most natural medicine and the dramatic increase in their use, especially in veterinary care, brings us full circle because animals were the first herbalists. It is only right that we return the gift of the healing power of herbs to our companions.
Herbs and Our Natural Resources
Even before people walked the earth animals were ingesting plants for reasons as diverse as relieving pain from a wound, or to help digest certain foods. It’s by observing which vegetation animals ate that our ancestors in native cultures discovered the medicinal properties of many plants. The field of zoopharmacognosy is the study of how animals use plants to heal themselves. It is a rapidly growing discipline attracting the attention of well-known experts in medicine and science.
There are over 500,000 known plant species in the world, yet it is estimated less than 5,000 have been investigated for their medicinal properties. There are approximately 120 important prescription drugs that have been derived from plants, and more than half came from investigating native folk remedies. In fact, 80% of the world’s population still relies on plant medicines. Prime examples of medicines derived from plants are the common and powerful heart medication digoxin, which comes from the purple foxglove, and aspirin that comes from willow bark.
What is a Herb?
An herb is any part of a plant–leaves, stem, flowers, bark, or roots that have medicinal properties. Herbs assist the body in healing, strengthening, and balancing itself–and this is the key, they assist the body in healing itself. They can be taken to strengthen specific organs, eliminate toxins, and stimulate physiologic processes like bile release from the gall bladder or intestinal motility.
Herbs and the Holistic Approach
Herbs are the epitome of the holistic approach, which at its core seeks to correct the imbalances–physical, emotional, or spiritual–that cause disease. Treating the pain of a headache does not treat what has caused the pain in the first place. The power of herbal treatments is their ability, when used correctly, to treat the underlying causes of disease–a perfect alignment with the holistic approach to healing. When used properly herbs assist the body in restoring balance. Because herbs lead to deep healing, they frequently take longer to work than allopathic medications. The most effective way to use herbs is as a part of a comprehensive wellness regime.
Herbs and Western Medicine
Herbs can be used as an alternative to Western medicines in fact–this is the way most of us have been introduced to herbs. Our Western way of thinking leads us to use herbs as we would use any allopathic medicine, to treat the symptoms of a disease. For example, we might use lavender or chamomile in the same way as we use aspirin to treat a headache. We have been taught to look at plants as containers with certain active ingredients. Our science searches to discover what chemicals in a plant can be used to treat certain conditions, and then either extracts the chemicals or synthesizes them in the laboratory.
While using herbs to treat symptoms is not wrong, and usually much safer than allopathic medicines, an herbalist knows that herbs are much more than symptom reducers and that the sum of the parts of the plant is much greater and more powerful than the individual components. They know that the components of herbs act synergistically to provide a type of healing that cannot occur if the parts are administered individually.
Herbs and Nutrition
Herbs are an incredible source of a diverse group of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, trace elements, enzymes, amino acids, proteins, sugars, carbohydrates, chlorophyll, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. In fact, other people use many of the plants we use to treat illness as part of their diet. For example, Nettles is a plant rich in vitamins and minerals and is used in soups and stews by many people in Europe. An herbalist may use nettles to treat allergies or conditions of the prostate. Despite the marketing information we are given by most pet food companies, commercial foods are not well rounded and can be lacking in many of the essential dietary components our companions need. Herbs are excellent sources of these missing nutrients.
How Herbs are Administered
Herbs come in many forms, and how we administer them to our companions depends on their condition. A poultice may be applied to the skin to assist in healing a wound, whereas a tincture might be given orally to treat anemia.
Fresh and dried herbs are probably the best and most active form, but our companions generally do not want to eat them. With dogs and cats, their use is primarily for making teas or poultices.
Herb capsules are dried, crushed plant material placed in a gelatin capsule. Because the digestive systems of our companions work much faster than ours these may not be the best choice because the time it takes for the capsule to dissolve can reduce the absorption of the herb.
Herb tablets contain the plant material compressed tightly, usually with some type of filler to hold everything together. They are absorbed faster than herbs given in the capsular form.
Alcohol extracts or tinctures are prepared by soaking a measured amount of herb in an alcohol and water mixture for a set amount of time. The alcohol serves as a solvent that breaks down the plant material and absorbs the active ingredients. The solution is strained to remove the plant material once soaking is complete. Tinctures are the strongest and most readily available herb preparation, but animals usually don’t like the way they taste. The good news is that a dose is usually only a few drops, and it can be placed on your companion’s tongue or gum, or even applied topically to an area of skin.
Glycerites are glycerin-based herb extracts. They are prepared the same way as tinctures except vegetable glycerin is used instead of alcohol. Animals generally like the sweet taste of glycerites, which makes administration a breeze. The downside of glycerites is they tend not to be as potent as tinctures; however, you can adjust for this by increasing the dose. The biggest problem is that many herbs, particularly those that are resinous–oily–do not extract well into glycerites.
Herbal teas are made by steeping a specific amount of plant material in hot water. Teas are generally weaker than tinctures and animals don’t usually want to drink enough to be therapeutic. They are very useful as tonic supplements mixed with food or when used topically.
Decoctions are made by gently simmering plant material in water. They are stronger than teas, have the same uses, but also the same drawbacks.
Oil infusions are made by soaking the plant material in oil. The plant is usually left soaking for a month or more, and then the oil is pressed out. Oil infusions are used topically or given orally. The oil used varies, but olive oil is a common choice–it has its own healing properties and resists soiling.
A poultice is a cluster of herbs mashed with water and/or oil to form a paste-like patty that is applied to the skin and held in place with a bandage.
Salves and ointments are made by adding a thickener like beeswax or a coconut butter to an oil infusion. The medicine is then applied topically.
Essential oils, though not strictly considered herbs, deserve mention. They are the concentrated, oil portion of many plants and have healing properties when applied topically, used as aromatherapy, or sometimes taken orally. They are usually prepared by pressing fresh plant material or extracting the oil with steam.
With the growing interest in herbs, efforts have been made to find ways to standardize doses. The old days of an herbalist mixing handfuls of various plants, wrapping them in brown paper, and then telling you to boil the mixture in a quart of water are rapidly diminishing. Two methods to assure a consistent dose have been developed.
Standardized extracts contain a concentrated amount of the primary active ingredient of the herb. While a consistent dose is assured, the whole herb is not present and some of the healing properties of the plant may be lost.
Marker extracts rely on the measurement of a constituent of the plant, though one that is not necessarily critical to the plant’s effectiveness. The idea is that if you know a set amount of a given marker is present in the preparation, you can assume that the same relative amounts of the other parts of the plant are also present. All of the plants are used so the holistic properties of the plant are maintained.
Side Effects of Herbal Supplements
Herbal does not mean harmless and though herbs are far safer than allopathic medicines, some do have side effects, especially if taken in large doses. Unwanted effects can also result if certain herbs are taken with certain drugs or other herbs. For instance, ginkgo has blood-thinning properties and if given with aspirin or other blood thinners bleeding may result. It is always wise to consult an herbalist or holistic veterinarian before beginning treatment with any herb, especially if your companion is on another medication or herb.
Dosing & On again, Off again
The proper dose for your companion is influenced by many factors including their weight, the condition being treated, its severity, and any other medications they are taking. A recommended dose is included with most herbal preparations, and herbalists usually suggest beginning with a lower dose and observing how your companion responds. Additionally, herbalists usually recommend treating for 5 or 6 days, then stopping the herb for a day or two to evaluate the response.
An Herbal Medicine Chest
There are over 1000 herbs used to treat conditions ranging from flea infestations to cancer. The definitive resource for using herbs to treat our companion animals is, All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets, by Mary Wulff Tilford and Gregory Tilford. An incredibly comprehensive review of the history and uses of herbs, it also has an eye-opening chapter discussing nutrition.
The herbs listed below are common ones used to treat many problems our companion dogs or cats may encounter and will give you an idea of the power of herbs. The use of herbs is staggering, and only a partial list is given for each herb presented. Remember that each herb has its own unique qualities and you should always consult your veterinarian or a trusted source before giving your companion any medications.
Alfalfa, medicago sativa, is a chocked full of nutrients, proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants. It is used to treat bleeding disorders, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases of the joints, and as a general nutrient.
Aloe is most well known for its use in treating irritations of the skin when applied topically. It is also used to treat injuries and irritations of the digestive tract when taken orally and has been shown useful for treating fibrosarcoma and feline leukemia virus.
Arnica is a member of the sunflower family and is most commonly used topically to treat closed tissue injuries such as fractures, sprains, and bruises. It increases circulation to injured areas and dramatically speeds healing. Cats are more sensitive than dogs and arnica should be used cautiously with them.
Burdock, arctium lappa, is a powerful liver tonic that helps clean and build up blood and removes toxins from the body. It is also useful for treating chronic skin conditions such as eczema.
Catnip, nepeta cataria, is not just for cats. Our feline companions experience a feeling of euphoria when they sniff the leaves, but ingestion of the plant has a mild sedative effect and promotes restful sleep in cats and dogs. In both species it also relieves gas and stomach upset.
Chamomile, matricaria recutita, is used to treat a wide range of conditions including indigestion and gas, inflammation of the skin from flea bites and allergies, worms, and as a general tonic to strengthen smooth muscle tissues like the heart.
Garlic, allium sativum, is an herb no medicine chest should be without. It is useful for treating internal and external infections including worms and is a powerful antioxidant that protects against cancer. It is an immune system enhancer, cardiovascular tonic, and blood-thinning agent.
Ginger, zingiber officinale, is useful for reducing fever, treating motion sickness, and as an analgesic.
Ginkgo, ginkgo biloba, is a cardiovascular tonic that promotes circulation and is believed to slow aging because of its antioxidant properties.
Goldenseal, hydrastis canadensis, is used to treat infections of the gastrointestinal tract and has anti-inflammatory properties useful for treating irritations of the mouth, upper respiratory tract, and eyes.
Licorice, glycyrrhiza glabra, is a powerful anti-inflammatory and immune system stimulant. It is used to treat a wide range of inflammatory diseases including arthritis, as well as for healing stomach ulcerations and many respiratory conditions.
Rosemary, rosmarinus officinalis, is a member of the mint family that has a long list of medicinal uses including antispasmodic effects on the heart, analgesic and antimicrobial properties. It is used as a general cardiovascular tonic and for relieving muscular pain.
Slippery Elm, ulmus fulva, protects internal mucus membranes and can be used to treat diarrhea and constipation.
Yucca, yucca schidigera, is a member of the lily family and aids in the assimilation of nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Using Groups of Herbs
Using herbs individually is only part of the story. Herbs can be used together to create even broader and more powerful healing medicines. For instance, a combination of fennel seed, marshmallow root, and chamomile is used to treat colic, and garlic power, fennel seed, and yucca root mixed with raw pumpkin seeds are a wonderful antiworm food supplement.
Herbs are Nature’s Medicine, and without doubt, we, and our animal companions are part of the natural world. It only makes sense that we use the plants Mother Nature has given us to ensure our companions shine in their golden years.
Check out one of our best articles: Arthritis – Don’t Let Arthritis Slow Down Your Pet’s Golden Years!