Health Matters: Helpful Herbs On the Go

Many herbs and plants provide healthy ways to help care for our dogs.

By Debra M. Eldredge, DVM | Posted: September 29, 2014 12 p.m. PST

Chamomile Flower Herb Tea
Chamomile flowers, which can be made into a tea, is good for relaxation and can help settle a nervous or restless dog.

Many dog show fanciers are looking for natural ways to treat and care for their dogs. Herbs are one area people turn to. Many herbs and plants provide healthy ways to help care for our dogs. Herbalists believe that herbs can be better for a dog than the purified ingredient that is known to be helpful. They believe that other parts of the plant contribute too and the interaction of all the ingredients is what makes herbs so beneficial.

While herbs are natural, it is important to realize that "natural” does not necessarily equal "safe.” Some plants (and some parts of plants) can be dangerous or even deadly. If you plan to use herbs or grow them, you should consult with an experienced herbalist and your local cooperative extension. They can help you learn about which plants are poisonous and which can be safely used.

Cornell University maintains a poisonous plants garden and has a free searchable database. The Animal Poison Control Center also has an extensive poisonous plants section online. [Download the free Dogs in Review Poisonous Plants Guide here. — Eds.]

German chamomile is an easy herb to start with. It is safe and has many uses on the road. This flower looks like a small, natural type of daisy. It is an annual flower but reseeds itself, so it doesn’t need to be planted each year.

A variety of methods can be used to treat with chamomile. Using dried chamomile or chopped fresh flowers, you can make a tea by pouring hot water over the herb. Chamomile tea bags are also readily available. Chamomile tea is good for relaxation, and many people drink it before bedtime. One to three teaspoons may help a restless or nervous dog settle down for the night. You can also put this tea in a spray bottle and spray lightly on inflamed skin. It helps with pain and is somewhat antibacterial. Strained liquid may assist in mild eye irritations.

It is important to note that chamomile could trigger ragweed allergies or asthma, as it is plant material. It is not recommended that this herb be used with pregnant dogs at this time. I would also not advise using this herb as a dewormer.

Milk thistle is another good herb to use with your dog. It is best known for its help in healing damaged livers. Milk thistle should be found in both your travel first-aid kit and your at-home dog medicine cabinet. Its active ingredient is a flavonoid called silymarin. You will see purified options for silymarin offered as well as the complete herb version. Proponents for both versions have some valid points. Herbalists believe that the complete herb has additional, perhaps unknown factors that make the herb more effective than just the isolated compound. Those who favor the purified component believe that the exact dosing is more accurate, as you do get some variation in the amounts of silymarin present in the actual herb. I tend to have the actual herb on hand — dried and in capsules.

Milk thistle is an antioxidant, so it prevents some damage to the liver proactively and also can act as a treatment for toxic situations. It stimulates the growth of new liver cells as well, so it can stop damage to the liver and do some repair work.

This is a very safe herb. No toxic reactions have been noted. Some dogs will have loose stools when dosed with silymarin or milk thistle. In those cases, simply reduce the dosage. Generally 75 to 100 mg per 10 pounds of body weight will help a dog with liver problems. This herb is currently not recommended for use in pregnant dogs, as studies during pregnancy have not been done.

So when would you use milk thistle? Veterinarians argue as to whether or not it should be given as a part of your dog’s regular medical care. In general, the answer is no — this is not a daily supplement. An exception is for dogs on epilepsy medications, such as phenobarbital, that can cause liver reactions. Those dogs may benefit from daily doses of milk thistle to minimize or prevent liver damage.

So why would others want to have some on hand? Remember that silymarin also works to detoxify agents that could cause liver damage. If your dog gets into a human medication that might cause liver damage, this could be a good short-term supplement along with veterinary treatment for the toxin.

When one of our Corgis developed acute liver failure of unknown cause, milk thistle was a medication I immediately jumped for. I credit it with helping to save her life.

Another health risk is toxic mushrooms. Silymarin was used in a study where rats were poisoned by Amanita phalloides, a well-known poisonous mushroom. Pre-treating with silymarin totally prevented liver damage and death. Without any treatment, about 40 percent of those who ingest this will die, and the others will have severe liver damage. Of course pre-treating is not an option with our dogs, but including silymarin as an antidote within 24 to 36 hours after mushroom ingestion minimizes damage to the liver and can prevent deaths.

It is believed that silymarin can help dogs with liver cancer, chronic hepatitis and pancreatitis. It may also be a helpful adjunct therapy for dogs with leptospirosis.

So how should you go about using herbs? Remember that there are very few regulations on herbal supplements for dogs, so consistency from one batch to the next is not always guaranteed. Look for suppliers that belong to the National Animal Supplement Council. Also consult with a veterinary herbalist if you have one in your area. The Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association can provide a list of veterinarians qualified to advise you.

Always list any herbal supplements your dog is taking when discussing care and medical treatment for your dog. Not all herbs are safe, and sometimes an herb could interact badly with another medication your dog is taking.


From the October 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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