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Using Herbs for Pet Health

by Dr. Larry Siegler

As the prevalence of chronic disease and immune deficiency continue to rise in our companion animals, more and more guardians are looking for more effective and safer methods of treating disease than are offered by conventional medicine.  Herbal remedies are a valuable tool in both preventing and treating the issues that plague many of today’s pets. 

The ancestors of our companion animals had inherent instincts that guided them in foraging for plants and herbs to aid with healing of wounds or illness or for discomfort such as digestive troubles, as well as sources of important vitamins, minerals and trace elements needed in their diet.  Native peoples around the world learned about the use of plants and herbs from watching wild animals.  Though our companions are rarely able to forage for the herbs they may be in need of any longer, with education and the guidance of a holistically trained veterinarian, we can still help them obtain optimal health and heal from discomfort and disease through the proper use of herbs.

There are three main philosophies of herbal medicine; Ayurvedic Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Western Herbalism.  Ayurvedic Medicine originated in India and the Middle East.  Herbal remedies are chosen based on an individual’s metabolic type or “dosha”, as well as the symptoms or disease present.  Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses the body and healing in terms of the flow of energy or “qi” – which is the life force of the individual.  You may see references to dampness or dryness or heat or cold involved in different conditions, as well as yin and yang when studying Chinese herbal formulas.  Western Herbalism is the youngest of the three and has origins in the use of medicinal plants in Eruope.  Like both Ayurvedic Medicine and TCM, the body is viewed as a whole and the herbs are used to stimulate healing from within, rather than simply suppressing symptoms (although herbs can be used in this way). 

Herbs come in a variety of forms including tinctures, capsules and tablets administered orally, as well as tinctures and salves for topical use.  Herbs are also brewed into teas for administration both orally and topically.  Tinctures may be alcohol or glycerin based.  Alcohol is generally the best extractive, meaning that more of the beneficial properties of the herb are removed, but glycerin tastes better so is easier to get down an animal.  Some small dogs and cats can be sensitive to alcohol, so a glycerin base is sometimes preferred.  Most herbal tinctures made for pets will have a very small amount of alcohol, if any, and it can be evaporated out before administration by either putting the dose into a small shot glass and leaving it in the open air for 15-30 minutes or adding the dose to a small amount of very hot water and then administering this dilution after it cools.  Tinctures are often preferred for cats and dogs as they tend to be better absorbed.  Some herbal formulas, however, cannot be practically formulated in this way and are more easily dosed as capsules or tablets.

Herbs can be used to treat specific illnesses or dysfunctions, somewhat similar to conventional medication; matching the diagnosis or symptoms to the herbal treatment.  An example of this would be the use of milk thistle for detoxification of the liver – a specific herb used for a specific purpose.  Some herbs are more valuable as adaptogens – having a tonic effect that helps stimulate the individual’s intrinsic health and vitality.  Siberian ginseng is a frequently utilized adaptogen for older or weakened animals.  In many cases I will utilize both types of herbs in treating a patient with chronic or acute illness.  Adaptogens are also frequently administered to help prevent degenerative conditions, illness or immune deficiencies. 

Many herbal formulas are available that clearly state the intended use, taking some of the guess work out of choosing herbal remedies for your companion.  The variety of choices however, can be confusing, so when in doubt seek assistance.  Many holistic veterinarians offer phone consultations which can save you a lot of trial and error, lost time in the healing process and money in the long run by helping you choose the right remedies initially and administering proper dosages.  Also keep in mind that the source of the herbs is important.  Use herbs and formulas from reputable companies only since the potency of herbal remedies can vary greatly.

A few things to keep in mind when using herbal remedies:

  • Herbs take time to build in the system, so do not expect immediate results.  It can take from several days up to a week or more to know if the herbal remedy is effective depending upon the severity of the issue being treated and the overall vitality of the animal.
    More frequent dosage – say 3 times per day, is typically more effective than a large dose once per day.  The herbs need to remain and build in the animal’s system.
  • Suggested dosages may need to be adjusted depending on the individual’s response.  If vomiting, diarrhea or other signs of intolerance occur; a remedy should be stopped for two days, and then ½ the original dose can be administered to see if the lower dose can be tolerated. 
  • Begin only one remedy or medication of any kind at a time.  Do not add another remedy until you have well established if there is a response or are signs of intolerance from any other remedy being used.  (Unless you are working with a holistic veterinarian familiar with the remedies prescribed).
  • Herbs and natural remedies work best on an individual whose system is given the best possible conditions for health and healing including the healthiest and freshest diet possible along with proper nutritional and digestive supplements such as digestive enzymes, essential fatty acids and adequate levels of essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Check with a knowledgeable veterinarian if your companion is on any conventional medications that herbal remedies could interact with.

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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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