How to Use Herbal Tinctures & Remedies for Dogs & Cats
Written by: Dr. Larry Siegler, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM
As chronic disease and immune deficiency continue to rise in pets, guardians are looking for more effective and safer complimentary methods of treating disease along with those offered by conventional medicine. Herbal remedies are a valuable tool in both preventing and treating the issues that plague many of today’s pets.
Our pets' ancestors used instinct as a guide for foraging plants and herbs that supported healing of wounds, illness, discomfort, and digestive troubles, as well as sources of important vitamins, minerals and trace elements needed in their diet.
Though our companions are no longer able to forage for the herbs they may need, with education and the guidance of a holistically trained veterinarian, we can still help them obtain optimal health and maintain their wellness through the proper use of herbs.
Types of Herbal Remedies
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 (TCM)
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 Europe. 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.
Capsules, Powders & Tablets
Some herbal formulas, however, cannot be practically formulated in this way and are more easily dosed as capsules, powders, or tablets.
Cats often prefer powders or breakable capsules. This way, you can put it on food or a treat rather than trying to "pill" your cat with a tablet or tincture.
Dogs often do not have as much issue and sneaking a capsule or tablet in with some peanut butter or cream cheese can be pretty straightforward. However, if your dog is really finicky, there are often soft chews or flavored chewable tablets available that can make administering easier.
Herbs can be used to treat specific illnesses problems, somewhat similar to conventional medication, by 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 pet’s intrinsic health and vitality. Siberian ginseng is a frequently utilized adaptogen for older or weakened animals. Adaptogens are also frequently administered to help prevent degenerative conditions, illness or immune deficiencies.
In many cases I will utilize both types of herbs in treating a patient with chronic or acute illness.
Many herbal formulas available 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.
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, the 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).
Please not that herbal remedies can interfere with pharmaceuticals, so if your pet is on any medication, consult with your veterinarian before adding any herbal remedies to their diet.
Herbs and natural remedies work best on pets whose systems are 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.