In today’s world of cutting-edge medicine, we consider herbs for pets and herbal medicine to be old-fashioned. But holistic veterinarians continue to use herbs for pets because many of these plants are the foundation of modern drugs and medications, but don’t cause the same side effects.
Chinese herbal medicine has regained popularity for both human and pet care treatments. I learned a lot about them while researching my book NEW CHOICES IN NATURAL HEALING FOR DOGS AND CATS. And when the vet diagnosed Bravo-Dawg with hemangiosarcoma, I learned about I’m-Yunity, a Chinese herbal medicine treatment shown helpful in veterinary studies of the herb.
Chemicals derived from herbs get isolated to a single ingredient that works quickly but can sometimes be too harsh. The original plant, though, has other components that buffer these effects. For instance, willow bark contains a chemical that works similarly to aspirin. But while aspirin can predispose to gastric ulcers, willow bark protects against them.
Most herbs contain active ingredients within their bark, seeds, roots, and leaves so a single plant could be effective in multiple conditions. For example, slippery elm not only can ease diarrhea, it also will soothe a sore throat. Because they have many active ingredients, but are relatively safe, herbs may be effective even when the veterinarian hasn’t been able to pinpoint what’s causing the problems.
Herbal Medicine and Drugs
Herbs are rarely used by themselves. They work well alongside conventional treatments. However, the chemical components of the herb may interact with the medications your cat or dog already takes. It’s always best to check with your vet about any herbal products before giving them to your pets. Sometimes, using herbal medicine allows the veterinarian to reduce the dose of conventional drugs (chemo, for example), because the herb increases the effectiveness of the medicine.
Be cautious with OTC products, as they’re not as well regulated as FDA-approved drugs. The strength of a given herb may vary and be much weaker—or even triple the strength—of the exact same herbal medicine from another company.
Here’s another dangerous scenario. A common drug given for heart problems is digitalis. The herbal remedy for heart problems is hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). If you give them together they can amplify the effects of both the drug and the herb and create an overdose that could potentially kill the pet.
How to Choose the Best Herbs for Pets
Herbs also come in many forms—fresh, dried, concentrated, or packed into capsules—and the form may be chosen based on the best way to administer to your pet. Even when the active ingredients are the same, herbs have different effects depending on how they’re prepared and packaged.
Apothecaries sell bulk herbs as fresh green plants, as dried or as powdered. Fresh and dried herbs don’t last forever. Look for expiration or harvest dates on the label and give them the sniff test. If they smell dry or musty, they’ve probably given up their essential oils and won’t be as effective.
Store herbs in a cool dark place or they lose strength when they’re exposed to light and heat. Some herbs will react with chemicals in plastic containers, so it’s better to store them in glass, instead.
Liquid Herbal Medicine
Extracts and tinctures are concentrated liquid forms of herbs absorbed quickly by the body. You make teas and tonics by steeping bulk herbs in boiling water or sometimes in alcohol. Once prepared, the liquid herbal medicine easily mixes in a glass of water to pour on your pet’s food or administered directly into the mouth.
Tinctures made using alcohol taste bad, though. Alcohol preparations can be potentially dangerous (especially for cats!). For that reason, only a vet should prescribe herbal tinctures made using alcohol.
Herbal capsules and tablets are just as effective as fresh herbs but are absorbed less quickly by the body. When speedy action isn’t an issue, these are convenient to give to pets easy to pill.
What Else to Know About Herbal Remedies for Pets?
The strength of herbs varies from batch to batch due to differences in climate, soil conditions, and which fertilizers were used. The only way to be sure you’re getting the best quality every time is to rely on a reputable supplier.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cataloged over 80,000 herbs. Choosing the right ones for your dog or cat challenges even the smartest among us. Think of herbs as medicines, so you MUST have a veterinary diagnosis to choose the best herbal medicine for your pet. Then you can ask your vet for a recommendation or seek a reputable source.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!