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Frequently Asked Questions About Herbs for Animals

By: Gregory L. Tilford, Herbalist

Q: Do herbs work in pets the same way they work in humans?

A: Many of the most common herbs used by humans can be used in many types of animals for a similar effect. However, because the bodies and metabolisms of dogs, cats, birds, and other animals are very different from ours, certain herbs may be inappropriate, or even dangerous for them.

Q: How can I be certain that the herbs I'm using are safe for my companion?

A: Unless you are experienced in the use of herbs in animals, it is best to limit your herb use to products that are specifically formulated and labeled for the type of animal you are caring for. Before using an herbal pet product, learn something about the knowledge and credibility of the company and/or persons behind it. Herb products for animals should only be formulated by experienced herbalists who have expertise in veterinary applications. Avoid herbal remedies that are produced by companies or individuals who are unwilling to identify the expertise behind their products--- there's a good chance that their primary motivation is money, rather than providing safe herbal formulas that actually work. The "Herbs for Pets" industry is one of the fastest growing niches in the pet and natural products industries. Therefore, we can expect to encounter product ideas that mirror sensationalized product of the human natural products market. For example, the herbal stimulant ephedra, marketed as a weight loss aid for people, is potentially dangerous to obese animals. The only real motivation for marketing ephedra for weight loss in animals is greed.

The bottom line of this is use common sense, and invest some time learning about herbs can be used safely in animals before using them. With some education and consumer savvy, herbs can be used very safely in a broad variety of applications, in most types of animals.

Q: Are there certain herbs that are especially safe and useful for pet owners who just beginning to learn about herbs?

A: Yes. Many of the herbs that are generally regarded as totally safe in humans can be safely used by the inexperienced pet owner. In fact, many of the "safest beginner herbs" are also some of the most useful. A few of our favorites are dandelion, burdock, alfalfa, garlic, fennel and chamomile.

However, this isn't to say that every herb that is completely safe for us is completely safe for companion animals. For example, nutmeg can be damaging to the nervous systems of cats. It's also important to know that more is not always better. For instance, a little bit too much garlic may lead to gas and indigestion , but way too much garlic, if fed continuously for a prolonged period, may eventually lead to Heinz-body anemia; a life-threatening blood disorder. Although it would take gross amounts of garlic and continuous overuse to cause this disorder (eg., several ounces of raw garlic cloves per day would have to be fed to a fifty pound dog, despite obvious digestive upset), common sense is still warranted.

Q: Can herbs be used to replace conventional drugs?

A: Sometimes herbs can be used as replacements for conventional drugs, but generally they are not as effective, and they may interfere with preexisting drug therapies. Such use should not be attempted without the help of a trained veterinarian.

Q: How do herbs compare to the medicines that my conventional veterinarian prescribes?

A: When used correctly, herbs are gentler and safer, but they require a different therapeutic approach if they are to be used effectively. Most conventional drugs are used to combat the symptoms of disease, but not the underlying causes of disease. Herbs on the other hand, are best used from a holistic healing perspective--- one that looks beyond the symptoms of disease to identify and address the underlying causes of illness, and the overall needs of the body as a whole.

Q: Can herbs be used as a food source or as nutritional supplements for my pet?

A: You bet. Not only is it true that many herbs are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are beneficial to your pet's general health, they deliver these values in a free, food-like form that is easy for the canine or feline body to utilize. Some of our favorite nutritive herbs are nettle, dandelion, flax seed, burdock, alfalfa, red clover, and spirulina.

Q: What is the best form of herbal preparation for my pet?

A: This depends on the situation at hand and the therapeutic approach you wish to take. For example, if your goal is only to find quick, symptomatic relief for your dog's itchy skin, a simple rinse of cooled chamomile tea poured over the skin and coat may bring temporary results. However, if your goal is to treat the same problem internally for more holistic and curative results, you are better off feeding your pet a liquid tincture or tea preparation. In this case, liquid tinctures of one or more liver and digestion-supporting herbs, such as dandelion root and burdock root, would be indicated. Dogs, cats, and other carnivores have shorter intestinal tracts and faster rates of metabolism than humans, so it is important that the herbs you use are delivered in a form that can be absorbed quickly and completely, before leaving the digestive tract.

Q: Should I give herbs with food, water, or on an empty stomach?

A: The method by which an animal is fed an herbal preparation is determined by the situation at hand, your pet's willingness to ingest the herb, and the approach you are taking. If your goal is to use herbs as a nutritional supplement, a sprinkling of dried herbs on your companion's food is usually an effective method of administration. However, if the goal is put the active components of an herb into an animal's body quickly and completely for the purpose of initiating a healing response, then feeding a liquid preparation (a tea or tincture) on an empty stomach will likely be more effective. When feeding herbal liquids on an empty stomach absorption of active herb constituents is maximized. If feeding on an empty stomach proves to impossible possible, you secondary best bet is to dilute the herbal liquid into water, or even a sodium-free meat broth (too much salt can be unhealthy for animals). As a last resort, herb tinctures can be fed with food.

Q: Can alcohol-based herb tinctures be safely used in animals?

A: In many cases, yes, they can-- but they should be diluted in water first. Dogs, cats, and most other animals dislike the taste and sensation of alcohol, and will strongly resist administration of these extracts. Also, alcohol extracts that contain large percentages of alcohol (40-95% by volume) can cause damage to delicate membranes in the mouth and throat. Therefore, alcohol tincture doses should be diluted with equal amounts of water before feeding. This presents a problem, as now you will have to get twice as much foul-tasting liquid into the mouth of your companion. You cat people know what I'm saying! For these reasons, we are strong proponents of herbal tinctures that are made with vegetable glycerin, rather than alcohol. Vegetable glycerin is very sweet tasting, and very safe to feed--- even when applied directly into the mouth in undiluted form.

Q: Are any of the culinary I keep in the kitchen useful in the care of my pet?

A: Yes, in fact many of the herbs that we commonly use to season our food can be used as powerful medicines in humans and animals alike. For example, sage and thyme both possess powerful antibacterial qualities that are especially useful for infections of the mouth. Dill, fennel, or peppermint can be effective for relieving digestive gas and the uncomfortable symptoms of colic.

Q: Why does my pet sometimes eat grass or other plants around the house?

A: Animals have been using herbs for millions of years, and much of their instinctive ability to seek out plant foods and medicines remains intact. Dogs and cats eat grass to cleanse their digestive tracts and to supplement their bodies with antioxidant chlorophyll; the green pigment in plants. The question is, what else do our companions need from the plant world that isn't immediately available to them? It is our duty as loving animal guardians to find the answer to this question, and to provide them with herbs they need for health, healing, and happiness.

After all, herbs have been the animals' choice of medicine for millions of years. It's up to caring people like you to do some homework and honor their system of healing.

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