Herbal Medicine for Pets and Animals
There are many herbs used by holistic veterinarians to successfully treat a variety of conditions that work gently and without harsh side effects. Also, as many pet owners can attest, herbal medicines can be much easier to give to dogs and cats than a pill. That’s because many herbal medicines are dispensed as a tincture or tea that can be mixed with food or water.
Main Benefits of Herbal Medicine for Pets and Animals
Surgery and synthetic drugs may be necessary in acute or emergency situations, but can do little to relieve chronic conditions, such as asthma, allergies or recurring skin conditions. One reason for this is that conventional medicine is usually limited to addressing symptoms and not the underlying cause. However, the use of herbal therapies can often improve or even reverse a condition by doing exactly what conventional treatments cannot—identify and treat the root cause.
Herbal medicines for pets offer more advantages over conventional therapies, including:
- Fewer harmful side effects
- Cost effectiveness
- Easier to dispense
- Less adverse reactions
- Greater efficacy over time
Will Herbal Medicine Help my Pet or Animal?
There is no sure bet that herbal medicine will help every animal but, for the most part, herbs are generally well tolerated by most pets and effective for many different conditions and pose less risk than many pharmaceutical drugs. However, consistency is the name of the game when it comes to herbal medicine. Over time, herbal medicine can be much more efficient at treating the root cause of an ailment than a synthetic drug designed to merely block the symptoms.
Herbal medicine has been used to successfully treat many common irritations and conditions that conventional medicine considers incurable, such as:
- Flea dermatitis
- Chronic urinary infections
Most Popular Herbs and Remedies for Pets or Animals
There are dozens of plants that lend their healing properties to assist holistic veterinarians to treat pets and animals, but some of the most common include:
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is valued in medicine for its content of the flavonoid silymarin, as well as silybin, the refined product of the former compound. Silymarin and silybin act to detoxify and protect the liver, as numerous studies have shown.
Milk thistle seed extracts have shown a demonstrated ability to stimulate the production of new liver cells. Further, these agents also show anti-angiogenic, antioxidative and radical-scavenging activity on several organs other than the liver, including the kidneys, lungs and pancreas.
In veterinary medicine, these qualities make milk thistle useful in the treatment of certain cancers, as well as treating toxicity due to accidental poisoning from household chemicals or pesticides. (1) In addition, milk thistle has no known toxicity, seemingly even in pregnant or nursing animals. (2)
Ginseng (including Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius and Ginseng radix rubra, or Korean Red Ginseng) is also used in holistic veterinary medicine to regenerate liver cells after toxicity or injury, even in cases of chronic disease.
- Ginseng is often used to treat feline leukemia, as well as secondary conditions in other animals arising from cancer, such as cachexia (rapid weight loss) and systemic infections of the blood.
- In geriatric dogs, ginseng has been shown to improve endocrine and liver function. (3)
- In horses, ginseng appears to increase antibody response if given for a few weeks prior to being vaccinated against Equid herpesvirus 1. (4)
Echinacea (E. purpurea), also known as purple coneflower, is a member of the daisy family and well known among humans as a first line of defense against the common cold and flu. This herb has earned a place in holistic veterinary health care as well for many of the same reasons. While it’s not yet known what specific constituent of this botanical triggers its antiviral properties, the mechanism by which it is thought to work is easily understood.
More than 60 years of studies have shown that extracts of echinacea enhance phagocytosis, the process which stimulates leukocytes to surround invading bacteria and secrete enzymes to destroy them before they can penetrate healthy cells and proliferate throughout the body. There is also some evidence to suggest that the herb may inhibit the growth of some tumors.
Echinacea has shown to be very effective in treating canine seasonal and chronic upper respiratory infections, including kennel cough. (5) However, echinacea is not recommended for pets (or people) with autoimmune disorders and, particularly, should not be given to cats with FeLV (Feline Leukemia).
Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), an herb native to the desert regions of Southern and Southeastern Africa, is sometimes prescribed short-term to reduce inflammation and pain associated with osteoarthritis, rheumatism and other sources of musculoskeletal pain in geriatric pets. While there are virtually no clinical studies available to support this claim for pets, there have been several trials that demonstrate this benefit to people based on a standardized aqueous extract of harpagoside. (6) (7) (8) In fact, it is widely prescribed mainstream in Europe for humans with equally satisfying results.
Topical Herbal Applications for Specific Conditions
There are times when an herb or a combination of herbs may be implemented in a formula intended for external use rather than internal. When prepared and applied as a solution, poultice of salve, herbs can help to relieve a variety of common ailments.
Ear infections are a common problem for many pets, sometimes occurring with regular frequency. While ear infections can stem from a variety of causes, including allergies, bacteria and yeast, the most common culprit is the presence of parasitic ear mites. Conventional treatments may include antibiotics and the topical application of insecticide-containing products. However, there are several botanicals often used in holistic pet care that can help alleviate the problem without producing unwanted side effects or additional risk to the animal. Most commonly, these herbs are rosemary (Rosmarinus officinale), tea tree, marigold (Calendula officinalis) and mullein (Verbascum thapsusis). In combination, these herbs provide anti-inflammatory, antibactieral and antifungal benefits.
For simple wounds, cuts and scrapes, there are many herbs that can be applied topically in tincture or cream formulation. As previously mentioned, tea tree and rosemary offer antibacterial and antiviral properties. Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is a common back yard ‘weed’ that has been used for centuries for its mild astringent properties and its ability to soothe minor irritations. Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) provides anti-inflammatory properties to help speed healing, while witchhazel (Hamamelis virginianum) reduces bleeding, bruising and inflammation.
For burns, a topical solution of stinging nettle (Urtica urens) is usually the botanical of choice. Sometimes, this herb is given in a homeopathic remedy as well for the same purpose.
The antifungal and antiseptic properties of the Australian native tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) have been well established. At least 48 different compounds have been identified in the essential oil of tea tree, but the two of most interest are terpinene-4-ol and cineole, which have been shown to be effective against 54 varieties of yeasts, 32 of which were various strains of Candida. (9) In holistic pet care, a topical cream containing 10% tea tree oil has proved effective in treating acute and chronic dermatitis and even cases of alopecia (hair loss). (10) (11)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is very effective for treating insect bites, itchy skin and outbreaks of herpes (yes, pets can get herpes). In terms of the latter ailment, the caffeic, rosmarinic, and ferulic acids found in lemon balm have especially proven to be effective against various strains of the herpes virus, even within just a few hours of its topical application. (12)
Warnings about Herbal Medicine for Pets and Animals
You may have heard the saying that herbs are nature’s medicine. This is quite accurate, since approximately 70 percent of all pharmaceutical drugs are derived from natural plant sources. Yet, ironically, there is still a tendency to view herbal medicines as safe supplements that can be taken without restraint or fear of consequences. It is this misconception that has led to incidents of overdoses and prescription-drug interactions, in dogs and cats as well as in people.
That’s the first myth to be busted: herbal medicines are not harmless simply because they are natural; they are indeed real medicines. Therefore, they should only be prescribed and administered by a qualified practitioner knowledgeable in their application. They should also be stored out of the reach of pets and children. Further, if you are currently giving an herbal supplement to your pet, you should make your veterinarian aware of it. Some herbs can interfere with the efficacy of certain medications, delay other conventional treatments (such as surgery), or negatively impact the results of certain laboratory tests.
The second myth-buster regarding herbal medicines is the belief they do not possess the potential for negative side effects, again due to being natural. For instance, many people believe that giving raw garlic to a pet will reduce the appearance of fleas. While it is true that fleas cannot survive on blood that is tainted with allicin, the primary constituent of garlic that lends the herb its strong odor, garlic can cause gastrointestinal distress in animals. In cats, in particular, garlic can promote anemia, or a reduction in the production of red blood cells.
It is also a false belief that herbal supplements and topical formulas are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). The truth is, manufacturers of herbal supplements are not mandated to provide documentation as to the safety or effectiveness of any formula or specific ingredient to any regulatory agency. However, most manufacturers voluntarily follow industry-driven protocols to ensure best practices in manufacturing and standardized formulas for quality control. Your holistic veterinarian will be familiar with trustworthy manufacturers and brands of herbal medications.
- Gazak R, Walterova D, Kren V. Silybin and silymarin--new and emerging applications in medicine. Curr Med Chem. 2007;14(3):315-38. Review.
- Tedesco D, Domeneghini C, Sciannimanico D, et al. Silymarin, a possible hepatoprotector in dairy cows: biochemical and histological observations. J Vet Med A Physiol Pathol Clin Med. 2004 Mar;51(2):85-9.
- Kwon YS, Jang KH, Jang IH. The effects of Korean red ginseng (ginseng radix rubra) on liver regeneration after partial hepatectomy in dogs. J Vet Sci. 2003 Apr;4(1):83-92.
- Pearson W, Omar S, Clarke AF. Low-dose ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) modulates the course and magnitude of the antibody response to vaccination against equid herpesvirus I in horses. Can J Vet Res. 2007 Jul;71(3):213-7.
- Reichling J, Fitzi J, Furst-Jucker J, et al. Echinacea powder: treatment for canine chronic and seasonal upper respiratory tract infections. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. 2003 May;145(5):223-31.
- Grant L, McBean DE, Fyfe L, et al. A review of the biological and potential therapeutic actions of Harpagophytum procumbens. Phytother Res. 2007 Mar;21(3):199-209. Review.
- Brien S, Lewith GT, McGregor G. Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) as a treatment for osteoarthritis: a review of efficacy and safety. J Altern Complement Med. 2006 Dec;12(10):981-93. Review.
- Wegener T, Lupke NP. Treatment of patients with arthrosis of hip or knee with an aqueous extract of devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens DC.). Phytother Res 2003;17(10):1165-1172.
- Hammer, K.A., et al. "In vitro activity of essential oils, in particular Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil and tea tree oil products against Candida spp.," Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 42(5):591-595, 1998.
- Reichling J, Fitzi J, Hellmann K, et al. Topical tea tree oil effective in canine localised pruritic dermatitis--a multi-centre randomised double-blind controlled clinical trial in the veterinary practice. Dtsch Tierarztl Wochenschr. 2004 Oct;111(10):408-14.
- Fitzi J, Furst-Jucker J, Wegener T, et al. Phytotherapy of chronic dermatitis and pruritus of dogs with a topical preparation containing tea tree oil (Bogaskin). Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. 2002 May;144(5):223-31.
- Dimitrova Z, Dimov B, Manolova N, et al. Antiherpes effect of Melissa officinalis L. extracts, Acta Microbiologica Bulgarica 29:65-72, 1993.