Herbal Options in Veterinary Medicine

Herbs have been used for healing for thousands of years and by almost every culture on earth. Plants have co-evolved with humans and animals, and historically people have watched which plants the local animals consume safely and then copied them. Pregnant elephants, for example, will walk miles to eat a certain plant at the very end of pregnancy, and now certain tribes in Africa use this same compound to induce labor. It is similar to Pitocin, which is used in hospitals today.

It is difficult to watch our beloved pets age and develop aches and pains. Many dog owners have gone to their veterinarians at some point and come home with NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) such as Metacam, Rimadyl, Deramaxx, or Previcox for their pets. These drugs can work well to address joint pain and limping, but they are often prescribed for the rest of an older dog’s life and may have many side effects. After giving your dog a particular pharmaceutical for  months on end, you may find yourself “googling” the problem to see if there are other options. Often herbs are a healthy and effective alternative.

The onset of symptoms is the body’s indication that it is trying to heal itself, therefore traditional Western medications that inhibit or control symptoms can actually interfere with healing. In addition, side effects are common with many Western veterinary medications, while natural herbs tend to be very well-tolerated.

Western and Chinese herbs can be used to address a wide variety of conditions, including allergies, infections, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, cancer, and recovery from surgical procedures. Often they complement or can substitute for the use of Western pharmaceuticals, and it’s a wise idea to take this route whenever possible.

Here are some of our favorite herbs for dogs.

Boswellia (Boswellia Serrata) – This plant is also known as Indian frankincense. The resin is the primary part used, and it is extracted by cutting the bark and allowing the sap to ooze out and harden before collection. It is most commonly used for inflammation and arthritic pain and has also shown benefits for asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and other chronic inflammatory conditions. A reported side effect is that it can be difficult to digest. It is frequently prescribed for canine arthritis, in conjunction with other herbs.

Yucca (Yucca Schidigera) – Yucca contains steroidal saponins, which are powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Steroids, which can cause serious side effects, are commonly used in veterinary medicine, and yucca may help alleviate the need for them or at least decrease the required dose. It can also be used in poultices for sores or traumatic injuries, such as tendon sprains. Yucca is used most commonly in veterinary medicine for arthritis. We like to use yucca topically for injuries and some skin conditions, as well as internally for joint pain, especially when other anti-inflammatory medications are not well-tolerated by the gut.

Aloe (Aloe Barbadensis) – In dogs and cats, aloe juice can rapidly correct constipation because it increases motility and mucus secretion. Aloe vera is also widely used as a topical treatment for wounds and burns, in animals as well as humans. Acemannan, a component of aloe gel, has anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects, accelerates wound healing, and increases immune protection against malignant tumor cells. It can help regulate hyperthyroid conditions but should not be used for a prolonged period One of our favorite bits of aloe advise is to have an owner scoop some fresh goop from the inside of a leaf and apply it directly to a dog’s wound or lick granuloma. This helps create a protective layer over the wound, promotes healing, and tastes awful so the dog stops licking.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – This powerful herb is frequently included in Chinese herbal therapy. It is primarily used to enhance the immune system, but it is also cardio-tonic, diuretic, and hypotensive (lowers blood pressure). Studies have shown that it also has anti-cancer effects and improves kidney circulation. It is commonly used as an immune tonic and might be prescribed in conjunction with other herbs for a pet with a chronic infection, early renal failure, or cancer. Astragalus is a very safe herb, but it would be contraindicated for a pet with an abnormally increased immune response or, in Chinese medicine, an “excess heat” or “yin deficient” pattern.

What these herbs all have in common is that they are safe and well-tolerated, can be used to address many common pet conditions, and may help alleviate the need for other medications. Most herbs can be used alone or to complement other herbs or pharmaceuticals that have been prescribed. However, herbs should not be taken without knowledge and understanding, as they can have powerful and potentially negative side effects.

Many pet owners make the mistake of giving their pets too many herbs or inappropriate combinations or selections of herbs. When this happens, their animals may get sicker, start to refuse their food and supplements, or simply not get better. Herbal medicines therefore should be prescribed or recommended by a veterinarian or by an herbal professional working with a veterinarian.

It is also important that a clear diagnosis be made before herbs are started. This ensures that the herbs are used appropriately and with a particular goal in mind, which helps in monitoring their effectiveness.

Plants are our healing allies and can be beneficial in many canine medical conditions. Next time you consult your veterinarian regarding drugs and other therapies for your dog, ask if there are herbs that can be used instead of or in combination with standard medications.

Dr. Molly Rice and Dr. Kari DeLeeuw work together at Coastal Holistic Veterinary Services in Pacifica. There they provide acupuncture, chiropractic care, and herbal medicine as well as traditional western medical care.