Providing your dog or cat with an herbal remedy formulated from the whole herb, or the most commonly used portion of the medicinal plant, is almost always preferable to standardized extracts. When using herbs in this manner your pet not only gets the active constituent, or the phytochemical thought to have the most therapeutic value, e.g., silymarin in milk thistle, but they also receive the benefits of supporting constituents in the herb that can act as adjuncts, moderate potential side-effects and contain nutritious vitamins and minerals.
Along with the popularity of herbal remedies for dogs and cats comes the rise in the number of unscrupulous manufacturers. The potency and effectiveness of a specific herbal remedy is in direct correlation to its freshness and standards of manufacture. There are many remedies out there that are formulated with herbs that are past their useful life, along with remedies that contain little of what is indicated on the ingredient panel.
The only thing a consumer can do is place trust in the retailer or manufacturer from which they purchase the herbs for their pets. A pet parent can help develop trust by asking questions about why a business carries a particular line of herbal remedies, or, if a manufacturer, what attention do they put into their ingredients and the manufacturing process, and make sure they receive a knowledgeable answer; if not, move on because you most likely will waste time and money.
Herbal remedies can be very powerful and provide help with many acute and chronic illnesses. However, they are not miracle workers. Using herbs for your pets must be viewed in a holistic fashion. This means that herbal remedies should be used as part of a wellness protocol that takes your entire animal into account. Your pet’s diet should be biologically appropriate, preferably raw, but at the very least containing foods as close to their natural, whole food form as possible.
If you feed a kibble or canned diet you should feed an enzyme formula to help your dog or cat digest the gluten, starches and other processed ingredients found in dry and canned foods. A probiotic formula is highly recommended because if your pet is like many others, he has had his fair share of antibiotics and his beneficial intestinal flora has suffered as a result. Your dog or cat should also get daily exercise to help with lymphatic flow and the maintenance of lean muscle tissue and also to prevent boredom and lethargy.
The use of herbs can have very potent beneficial effects on your dogs and cats, and while not being drugs, they do form the basis of many of our pharmaceuticals and can have similar undesirable side-effects. For instance, many of us have heard of milk thistle and its useful effect on the liver; it can be detoxifying and hepatoprotective. However, there is also the belief that its over-use on a healthy liver can actually reduce liver function.
What about licorice? It can be a very effective anti-inflammatory due to the constituent glycyrrhizin. However, this very beneficial phytochemical found in licorice, if abused, can also produce side effects similar to hydrocortisone and lead to hypertension and fluid retention. What to do? Find a retailer with an herbalist on staff, because that will be a clue that this is a company more dedicated than others to natural healing. In addition, purchase a book from a well-respected author and get on your way to becoming a knowledgeable user of herbal remedies for your dog or cat.
There are three principle philosophies of herbal medicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic Medicine and Western Herbalism. Traditional Chinese Medicine focuses on the use of herbal combinations or formulas to strengthen and support organ system function. Ayurvedic Medicine originated in India and the Middle East and involves a very holistic approach of using herbs, eating certain types of food and modalities like massage and yoga that nurture the mind, body and spirit. Both of these approaches are very holistic in nature and can be quite complicated for the average person.
Western Herbalism is the youngest of the three and draws from herbal traditions of Europe and the Americas. It relies on the synergistic and curative properties of plants to maintain health and rebalance and tonify the body. Even though it is best to use Western Herbalism in a holistic fashion, which involves diet, supplementation and exercise, it is much easier to grasp and most of the herbs are available in organic form right here in the USA. So, out of the three philosophies, Western Herbalism is better suited for the average do-it-yourself pet parent.
Herbs are available for internal use in a variety of forms such as powders, capsules, tablets and tinctures. In addition, herbs can be brewed into teas or infusions for administration both orally and topically. Herbs in powdered form are easy to add to food and provide all the nutrients the herbs have to offer in their natural form. While easy to administer, some animals can be sensitive to their taste or smell, so if this is the case with your dog or cat, using capsules or tablets can be a good alternative. Just be aware that there are typically synthetic ingredients added to capsules and tablets that assist with the manufacturing process.
A tincture is an herbal remedy derived by placing herbs in an alcohol or glycerin (called a glycerite) solvent to break down the plant material and release the active constituents into the liquid. An advantage here is that the body quickly and easily utilizes the concentrated active constituents of the herb, making them useful for both acute and chronic illness. Alcohol is generally considered to be the best solvent, meaning that more of the beneficial properties of the herb are removed, but glycerin is a good alternative and tastes better so it is easier to get into an animal and is preferred for dogs, cats and birds as well as those animals sensitive to alcohol or who suffer with liver or kidney disease.
It is generally recommended to begin with only one herbal remedy at a time when possible. This is because you want to be able to witness any positive effects or signs of intolerance due to its use. It is much more effective to dose your companion with herbs two or three times per day, rather that in one large dose, to allow the herbs to remain and build up in the system. If your companion is currently on any conventional medications you should be aware of any possible contraindications. To do this check with a person educated in herbal medicine, like a Master Herbalist or a knowledgeable holistic veterinarian familiar with herbs.
Depending on an individual animal’s response, suggested dosages may need to be adjusted. If signs of intolerance are seen, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea the remedy should be discontinued for a couple of days. After this pause, you may try again with 1/2 the original dosage to see if a lower dose may be tolerated. The opposite may also be true, where an animal is not responding to the recommended dosage, and in this case a VERY gradual increase in 10% increments up to 50% above the suggested dosage may be tried to see if any improvements are seen. The guidance of a good person/company with knowledge of the herbs being used may be helpful at this time.
The duration of an herbal therapy varies by animal and in relation to the imbalance or symptoms you are confronting. Seasonal herbal cleanses generally last two weeks, the use of herbs to relieve allergy symptoms can run from two weeks before, and then throughout, the allergy season and an herbal therapy used to support a thyroid condition may have to be used over the course of an animal’s lifetime.
When you are using herbs medicinally for an extended period of time, it is recommended that you take breaks in the schedule of herbal treatment. This is done to make sure an animal’s body does not develop a tolerance to the herbal remedy and to give the body a chance to eliminate any excesses that could produce undesirable symptoms over time. One recommended course of action is to take two days off from the herbal therapy every week - five days on, two days off. Another is to take one day off per week, one week off every six weeks and one month off every six months. After a couple of weeks or so on the maximum dosage, if no results are seen, it may be time to try another herb or holistic remedy or consult with a herbal specialist.
We are all eager to see immediate results, but that is not how herbal remedies work. It takes time for herbs to build up in the system, and it may take several days or longer to see the effectiveness of a particular remedy. The difference between a successful herbal therapy and, for example, resorting to a steroid treatment, often amounts to a day or two of patient waiting. The severity of the condition and overall health of the animal will also play a role. However, the use of the correct herbal remedy can be very rewarding for your pet, allowing your dog or cat to avoid many of the potential drawbacks of pharmaceutical drugs. After all, you can always resort to medication as a last resort after more holistic and natural options have been failed to produce the desired results.